DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles solely about distribution.  A lot of filmmakers are confused about the realities of distribution, and rightly so.  I’ve been making and selling movies internationally for over a decade, and I’m still learning about all the secrets and tricks The Industry hides from us.  Part of the problem is that no one shares this information with each other, both the good and bad, so I’m making it my mission to do so.  Openly, honestly, and hopefully clearly.

When your film is ready for release, there are a variety of ways to get it out into the world.  There are aggregators and sales reps, producer’s reps and distributors, foreign sales agents and a variety of “middle men” who can help you.

Today we’re going to talk about just one of those ways.  The Sales Agent.

Sales Agents are people who represent dozens, if not hundreds, of movie titles.  They take these films to markets such as Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.  (Film Markets are not to be confused with Film Festivals, which sometimes happen simultaneously and in conjunction to Film Markets).  While attending these markets, they rent a booth or a space (such as a hotel room), and invite buyers from different distribution companies from all over the world, to stop by their booth and check out their titles.  Sometimes the Sales Agent will aggressively track down certain buyers from different countries with promotional flyers about your film.

The Asylum was the first Sales Agent I worked with and they were downright brilliant.  They are incredibly nice people, they paid their bills, they were actively in touch with us, and sharing with us ways they were selling PEP SQUAD.  They managed to sell my movie all over the globe: Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Scandinavia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, China, Greece, the Baltic States, Indonesia, the Middle East, Portugal, Thailand, and Turkey.  Oh, and even Canada.  I can’t tell you how sad (okay, devastated) I was the day I learned The Asylum wouldn’t be actively selling other people’s movies anymore.

Finding a new Sales Agent to replace The Asylum was a bit like being dumped by the love of your life and having to quickly find a new soul mate or risk perishing into the depths of hell forever.  I think I’ve found a nice replacement, but to date they haven’t made as many sales as The Asylum did for us, so I’m waiting to decide if it’s true love or just fond admiration.

In the process of finding the good guys, I worked with a variety of scumbag Sales Agents selling several of my movies.  And I’ve encountered many that were so full of themselves, and so rude, that I ended up not hiring them.

First, remember that you are hiring a Sales Agent.  They aren’t hiring you.  Their egos are sometimes a problem.  To keep their egos well fed, they will often treat you badly so you think you need them, when in all honesty, to keep in business, they need you.  If they don’t have your film on their roster, they’ll have to find someone else’s film.  They cannot afford to remain in business if they aren’t selling as many movies as they can.  So if you took your film to the next sales agent, they’ll be the ones in a loss.

The second lesson is to BEWARE of Sales Agents’ so-called “marketing expenses.”  I’ve been to the Cannes.  I know for a fact it doesn’t cost several hundred thousand dollars to be there.

Most Sales Agents will pad their “marketing expenses” so they can fly First Class, put themselves up at the Carlton, or Hotel du Cap (well over $1,000 a night) and dine at the “in” places, with tasting menus featuring 20 courses, wine pairings, and more.  Yes.  That’s what they spend their money on.  Or, your money, rather.  They don’t use it to sell your movie.  They think they should be treated like Sharon Stone.  Or Madonna.  And somehow they will try and convince you they should be.

Sales Agents will sometimes pay you an advance when they acquire your movie, but then as they sell it to different buyers, they keep all the money that comes in until they recoup their “marketing expenses.”  Unless you’ve read the fine print and capped their expenses, you may never see another cent beyond the advance.

I prefer not getting an advance in exchange for the Sales Agent taking a commission on all sales, and giving me my shares from the first dollars in.  When you’re signing an agreement with a Sales Agent, be sure to discuss this aspect openly.

5 thoughts on “DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS

  1. The point about openly discussing “marketing expenses” is interesting. How do you navigate that territory safely? Do you (and I’m referring specifically to YOU, Steve, not a hypothetical “you” meaning “people”) require that a sales agent justify the expense, especially if it involves travel and accommodations?

    It’s interesting, too, to hear that The Asylum had a distribution arm. I’ve only heard of them because of their b-quality pictures. Do you know if they continue to distribute the films they had in their catalog or is their dissolution the reason Troma picked up Pep Squad?

    • I think any sales agent will always try and justify an expense, but what I do is cap the amount they can spend, and then I ask for approval of any expense above that amount. Then I can decide if it makes sense to spend the money or not. Sometimes, it’s worth it. Other times, not so much. One good aspect about doing it that way is that if they say it’s to print a stack of posters, you know that expense is going to posters and not a suite at the Ritz.

      The PEP SQUAD rights were sold to Asylum for 10 years, and when that term expired, the rights came back to me, and then I gave them to Lloyd Kaufman (Troma) as a Thank You present. It was Lloyd who championed the film and premiered it at Cannes in 1998, and it was he who got us the Asylum deal. It was right around that time Asylum said they were moving into selling their own Asylum-produced movies instead of repping other people’s movies.

  2. From what I’ve read in some books, periodicals and around the web, many film “experts” and even filmmakers alike tend to urge people towards getting advances up front because of the risk of never receiving another dime from future sales off of the deal, like you wrote above.

    The advance route and the commission route seem like they are both viable options but I’m concerned that the latter option would be more difficult to get from a lot of sales agents because it requires them to do some actual work in trying to sell a film to buyers as opposed to sitting on a film (in the cases where no advance is involved) and doing what they can to pad their own pockets before dispersing funds or inflating their expenses so that the profit share margin slim. From your experiences with various agents, it looks like the trick is finding the right sales agent who does good business, operates under good ethics or whatever and is an entity that you would be proud (or satisfied) to have rep your film.

    Is there a set fee or a range that filmmakers can expect to pay sales agents? I once considered joining a distribution co-op that consists of a group of filmmakers collectively promoting a catalog of films to buyers…their fee at the time was like two thousand dollars.

    • There is no fee for a sales agent. I’m not sure what kind of co-op you were thinking about joining, but that sounds fishy to me. I’ve never paid a sales agent. I don’t know anyone who has paid any kind of fee to a sales agent. Sales agents pay YOU. I’m automatically skeptical of anyone asking for money to help sell your film. However, if the co-op you were talking to was asking $2,000 to cover expenses related to releasing your film straight to consumers, and skipping the sales agent route, there might be something to that. But I’m not sure what.

  3. I’ve used different sales agents over the years–and there are certainly quite a few that want to charge an upfront fee(the first sales agent I naively used charged me $5K, but at least he agreed to take it out of sales rather than have me pay for it upfront). I urge people now that I know better to avoid any rep that wants money to rep your film.

    If they believe they can sell it then they will not ask for anything other than their percentage on sales.

    But I for one am more of the take-the-advance because percentage deals tend to end up as zero dollars, even if they let you cap expenses.

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