An increasing number of producers are choosing to bypass sales agents altogether and negotiate directly with international buyers. As a producer points out, it can make sense to sell your own film — but only in special cases.

Stevan Riley’s recent feature documentary Fire In Babylon — about the all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and early 1980s — has been sold theatrically to several territories without a sales agent attached. UK producers Charles Steel of Cowboy Films and John Battsek of Passion Pictures enlisted consultant Mia Bays of production company and marketing outfit Missing In Action to devise a sales strategy for the film.

Fire In Babylon sold to several territories without a sales agent attached

“I was charged with finding a sales agent and UK distributor,” Bays recalls of her initial brief. But after conversations with the film’s main investors and executive producers, businessmen Ben Goldsmith and Ben Elliot, she decided to take a different tack. The estimates they were being given by potential sales agents were “really underwhelming”; the team was ambitious for the film, ready to put marketing money behind it at the outset — and decided to do it themselves.

Their interest was not so much in a big advance from a distributor as in “as much of the back end as possible”.

After the film’s launch at the London Film Festival in 2010, half a dozen UK distributors were vying for the film. Bays and her team eventually opted for Revolver.

Crossing boundaries

Bays and Battsek also had strong relationships with leading Aussie distributor Madman, which bought the film. Indeed, while there has been an obvious demand in cricket-playing nations, the producers’ biggest coup was to secure a US theatrical deal with Tribeca.

“We thought we’re on to something here. We are right not to bother with a sales agent,” says Bays. “Sales agents [with documentaries] are super-conservative. They didn’t necessarily believe or match our ambition for the film.”

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s recent feature Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (a Grand Prix winner in Cannes) was likewise sold through its production company, Zeynofilm. Veteran UK arthouse distributor Robert Beeson of New Wave Films, who bought the title, suggests this did not damage its sales strategy as Ceylan was a director with a proven track record. Buyers who had handled his previous films already had a relationship with Zeynofilm — and so a lack of a sales agent was not a problem.

There are certain films sales agents will pass on that go on to find distributors. Dutch director Elbert van Strien’s horror picture Two Eyes Staring, produced by Accento Films, sold widely on the back of its multiple festival screenings and the remake rights were eventually picked up by Charlize Theron’s company, Denver & Delilah.

All producers admit that taking on the sales work is not the easy option. It means, as Beeson puts it: “Being prepared to do the work the sales agents would otherwise do” — and that is easy to underestimate.