Three highly respected figures from France’s teeming sales sector discuss the challenges and opportunities of the digital age.

French sales agents

Screen International canvassed three highly respected figures in the French film sales scene - industry veteran and Celluloid Dreams founder Hengameh Panahi (top, middle); Gaumont’s head of international co-production Cécile Gaget (top, left), who also still oversees international sales; and Daniela Elstner (top right) of independent stalwart Doc & Film International, who is also president of the local sales agent industry body ADEF — on their strategies for the present and future.

How do you adapt and build your business to survive?

Hengameh Panahi: More and more we’re channelling our market experience to producers to ensure their projects fit the requirements of market. We collaborate with them on script, cast, editing and marketing, and sometimes contribute to financing. Producers are more open than before to such exchanges. This helps us ensure our buyers have access to good films.

Daniela Elstner: Alongside features, we’ve opened up our slate to a very specific type of TV series, kicking off with Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin sequel [Coincoin And The Extra-humans]. We’ve become skilled at doing separate deals across the different TV, VoD, SVoD and theatrical windows. The one territory/one deal way of selling is increasingly a thing of the past.

Cécile Gaget: Gaumont has built in-house teams covering the whole cinema chain: development financing and production, sales and distribution. This savoir-faire across the whole chain attracts producers and buyers alike. The fact we distribute our French titles ourselves is also reassuring to buyers, not least because it means a marketing campaign is in place. For a couple of years now, we’ve had a person dedicated to acting as an interface between our distribution team and the buyers. The global release of Ballerina was a perfect example of this strategy in action. We created a marketing campaign and then she kept them informed of every aspect of the film’s release in France, from the artwork to how it was being scheduled in theatres, and even organised marketing meetings in Paris.

Do you have to produce and/or finance as well as sell in order to survive?

DE: In general, I think yes. When it comes to financing films at script stage, we have to take more and more risks upfront. But the earlier we are involved, the better we sell.

CG We’ve always worked closely with third-party producers but we’re increasingly producing ourselves. Beyond the reassurance this gives buyers when we’re involved in a project, the number of sales companies in France means there is fierce competition for the top projects. I think it’s difficult to only be a seller these days.

HP: I’ve always financed, produced and sold, but this has been driven by a desire to create a one-stop shop when it made sense with specific projects, rather than piling up activities to survive.

What do your buyers need to do to continue to add value?

HP: Theatrical distribution is the key to their survival as distributors; this is precisely where they create proper value and are indispensable. They need to have access to their local media and exhibition partners to ensure the best release possible, which in turn adds value to the other rights. Look at the Amazon model — they use local top-notch distributors for their theatrical releases and do the rest themselves.

DE: It’s not only up to our buyers to add value. It’s also our duty to work with our clients so that films work as well as possible in each territory. Selling the film is just half the job; we also need to keep buyers informed, exchange marketing ideas, tell stories around the film and secure the promotional tours of our talents to add value.

Do you see your future slate in five to 10 years’ time comprising features only, or will there be a greater mix of content formats?

HP: If and when it makes sense to me. For instance, I’ve not started a TV division while everyone is now into TV, but I’ve been following a great IP and once I sign it I’ll produce it as a series as it’s the only way to adapt it to screen.

CG: The buyers in the TV and film markets remain very different, so Gaumont has separate sales teams. But in terms of Gaumont’s overall slate, yes. Aside from high-end TV and film, the company is exploring the potential of a number of other new formats, such as short fictions for mobile.

Does a US deal still drive international sales?

DE: More than ever, especially in the age of Netflix and Amazon. If the US strategy is not set, it might even be complicated to start selling at all, depending on the type of film.

HP For an American film, it’s very important in terms of positioning and also holdbacks. It’s not necessary for non-American films, but it is a big plus.

CG: Not necessarily. On Ballerina, the US was the last territory to sell, while IFC bought into Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin on the back of the promo reel after a number of territories had been sold. It’s more important for the big independent films looking for a release on more than 2,000 screens — but they’re rare these days.

Can you still sell from a script alone, or do you need more elements before you talk to buyers?

CG: A script with director and cast attached is the minimum these days. You need to have as many elements in place as possible.

HP: I’ve always worked with the package of the script, director, cast and producers. The more value and guarantees you attach, the easier the pre-sales.

DE: For very established directors, the script is enough. We like to take directors to markets to talk directly to buyers. We did this with Bruno Dumont in Berlin to launch his Li’l Quinquin sequel and we’re planning a similar operation with Nicolas Philibert in Cannes. Listening to directors speak about their future films is quite a magical moment, even for us sales agents.

Now that Netflix and Amazon Studios are among your buyers, what do you say to your traditional buyers who fear streaming platforms might drive them out of business?

CG: We try to reconcile both types of distribution depending on the deal. We’ve recently combined a five-year SVoD deal with Netflix on a French romantic comedy called Wedding Unplanned with a handful of straight theatrical deals to buyers in Europe who wanted to try releasing it. We’re helping them out with the marketing material and getting it to them as rapidly as possible so they can bring it out before the Netflix window kicks in at the end of September.

HP: You have to embrace change and, if you don’t like the options on offer, react creatively and propose alternatives. Rather than putting our heads in the sand, we could try creating our own Netflix or Amazon, working directly with our film communities to better promote and monetise their work. But we need to stop complaining and start taking action.

DE: In Europe, buyers have to work more closely. Most of the distributors don’t agree but I’m convinced the more they release the same film within a short timeframe, the better it is for all of us — marketing-wise, work-wise, travel-wise for talents. Digital platform windows can also be more easily exploited when a film is released at the same time in all European territories.

How do you see the theatrical model evolving?

HP: We have more choices but the revenues are smaller. But in a world of multiple choices, you can decide what works best for each film and even create an individual distribution strategy to maximise its revenues. Some films are big theatrical films, others aren’t. I think it’s wiser if you can pick your format.

DE: The films we sell at Doc & Film are made for the big screen. I might seem old-fashioned, but I think the more we get films on the big screen, the better it is for all the other kinds of screens. The shared experience in a theatre still has an important impact. And I see it as the start of the career of a film in a territory.

How will a digital single market in Europe impact your business?

DE: I don’t believe the digital single market is the solution for our films in Europe. We need to take into account the differences of each nation and adapt the films to the specific market. This does not mean we shouldn’t pool our efforts to make things happen at the same moment throughout Europe.

HP: I’d see it as a new opportunity to sell my films directly in the event I don’t have a distributor who can guarantee me a theatrical distribution — and when I do, I’ll carve out these rights from the all-rights deals and re-assess the pricing, taking into account the added value their release will bring.

Does it make sense to incorporate YouTube stars and other celebrities from social and digital platforms into the films you sell to capture the millennial and Gen Z audience?

HP: If it’s a film for that specific audience and it makes sense, yes. Otherwise no, as they’re too savvy to be attracted to a film they won’t like just because it features these stars.

CG: It’s something we’re experimenting with now. We have a film coming out this summer called The Mansion featuring a number of internet stars. It’s our first attempt at such an operation, so I’m interested to see how it is received.

What do you think of France’s strict media chronology? How should it be updated?

HP: What was a big plus could turn into hell if France doesn’t adjust its media chronology. Films released theatrically for at least three weeks could stay in the system, but we should open the gate for all the other films not widely released theatrically to enable them to find an audience via on-demand and streaming.

DE: The media chronology is a key component of France’s public financing system for film. We shouldn’t forget this system is the result of state-backed policies developed over a 90-year period. The recent issues have actually been around for a relatively short period of time in the grand scheme of things. We need to take time to figure it out rather than rushing in and turning everything upside-down.

CG: We need to all sit down around a table. The broadcasters are investing far less in cinema than in the past, and it’s more challenging keeping the films in theatres for several weeks. The system should be amended.

There are more than 40 international sales companies working out of France. Is there space for all of you?

DE: It’s one of the positive consequences of France’s protective and supportive stance towards the film industry. The fact there are 40 sales companies is a result of the country’s openness to working with filmmakers from around the world as well as a sign of the expertise that has grown up in this area in France. Few countries have the breadth and range of sales companies of France, ranging from the small independents to studios.

CG: It makes it highly competitive and I sometimes ask myself how they survive, but there seems to be room and content for everyone. I guess a lot of them have found their niche — an economic model that suits them so that it works.

HP: Yes, as we’re still surviving. France is planet cinema. It’s a culture and a passion before being a business, and as long as most of the sales companies passionately handle films they love and survive by working hard, they’ll still continue to do so and even increase further in numbers.