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.

HOLLYWOOD APPLE TURNOVER

I’m not speaking of the traditional apple turnovers, which are tender and flaky, with apple pie-like filling and a thin, white glaze.  Nor am I speaking about Gwenyth’s daughter.  I’m speaking of the kinds that are just a bit flaky and work as executives at movie studios in Hollywood.

When I began my film career in the 90s, I met a slew of awesome people who had great jobs with MGM, Miramax, and so forth.  After Harvey Weinstein called me personally to express his interest in my film PEP SQUAD, I became friends with his assistant.  Or, rather, his assistant du jour.  That person was quickly replaced by another assistant, who, shortly after being hired, developed a crush on me.  It was kind of bizarre.  Of course I never met the guy in real life, but to be funny, I sent him an 8×10 glossy of my face as a joke.  He hung it up on the wall by his desk.  And each time I called to visit with Harvey, the assistant thought I was calling to visit with him, not Harvey.  It all became very confusing.  But, just as soon as he was developing some long-distance feelings for me, he was axed as well.  So in came another assistant.  By that point I’d sold my movie to another distributor and I didn’t think Harvey would appreciate me continuing to bother him, so I stopped calling.  I’m not sure who his next assistant was.

My mentor Eric Sherman always suggested it was a really good idea to network and make friends with executives at certain companies because at some point they might be able to help me get a movie made, or whatever.

Besides Harvey Weinstein’s assistant, I met some great people who were VP’s of production, directors of acquisitions, and other higher-ups that, one would think, would be relatively great connections.

One incredible woman, Sara Rose, was an inspiration to me.  After seeing my film at the Cannes Film Market, she came up to me afterwards to introduce herself.  Any time I was in LA I would stop by and see her at MGM.  She always took my meetings and was always a delight to visit with.  She then became VP of Production at MGM and we spoke many times about making my film FIRECRACKER together.  That didn’t happen, but we kept in touch and I always looked forward to working with her in the future.

While I was on track to develop these relationships (some of the people were awesome, like Sara Rose, but some of the other ones were the flaky kind and not so cool), a strange thing kept happening.  They kept losing their jobs.

Some executives moved to other companies on their own free will, some were moved into different jobs within the same company (but not a job that had anything to do with why I was talking to them), and then there were some were fired and were never seen or heard from again.

After several years it became clear to me that most movie executives can’t keep a job for more than about two years.  This Turnover Syndrome is a bizarre fact about the movie business.  Even Penny Marshall mentioned this phenomenon in her memoirs.  If there is someone working with you on your movie when you start the process, they won’t be working at the studio when you finish the movie.  Just as simple as that.

My question is: WHY?  Why can’t most movie executives keep a job for more than a couple years?

WAITING TO WORK

If you are serious about wanting to get your film actually made, you should avoid Hollywood altogether.  Trust me.  No one but The Majors make movies in Hollywood.  The players you would think would be the most involved are precisely the individuals least interested in the activity.  What?  How can you say that?  Well, because it’s true!  People go to Hollywood to be in a continuous state of development.  Why?  BECAUSE THEY ARE LAZY.  They do not want to work.  They do not want to be productive.  They want to stay in bed or lounge about the fucking pool sipping martinis.

No one in Hollywood will return your calls because there’s just no time!  They will tell you they’re SO swamped.  People in the movie business are SO busy.  Try so busy scheduling their August holiday!  Think you can call back in September?  Guess again!  From September to November people in the movie business can’t manage a conversation because all capable speaking skills are being sucked up by Toronto and the other fall film festivals.  No one works in December, regardless of religion, and when they return after the New Year, all available time is spent obsessing over Sundance.  And, of course, February is out of the question because everyone is obsessed with what happened or didn’t happen at Sundance.

April through May is lost to Cannes.  This leaves only March and a slim chance to reach anyone by telephone during hiatus (June and July).  Please note: no one in the industry seems to understand how to use e-mail.  Unless you’ve got Spiderman 7 in the works, or the latest “special effect’s show,” the only real chance you’ve got is to make your film on your own.  Think you want to involve the movie business?  Heed this warning!

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying time off from time to time but must we remain “off” so much of the time?  And what are people doing in their off time?  Playing videogames, chatting with online strangers, playing golf, attempting yoga, gorging on wine and cheese.  Whatever happened to productivity?  Come to think of it, maybe Hollywood isn’t the only place contaminated with laziness.

There are 365 days in a calendar year.  104 of them are wasted by people not working on the weekends.  That only leaves 261 days to get any work done.

Think it stops there?  Guess again!  We can’t forget the holidays!  (FYI: The movie industry observes every holiday known to man, and not just the major ones.  I used to think they did this to avoid offending any major cultural or religious group.  But, it seems to me that most everyone in the U.S. does it as well—even people who are deliberately offensive on a daily basis and clearly cannot be attempting to avoid offending someone!)

We have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Good Friday, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Labor Day (by all means a special day to deliberately not work!), Columbus Day, Election Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas…and those are just the Bank Holidays!

We can’t forget Chinese New Year, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Purim, St. Patrick’s Day, April Fools, Passover, Easter, Tax Day, Cinco de Mayo, Nurses Day, Mother’s Day, Armed Forces Day, Father’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Halloween, All Saint’s Day, Eid al-Fitr, Hanukkah, Ramadan, and, of course, Kwanzaa!

I found the following on the website for the Pennsylvania Department of Banking: “When a fixed holiday falls on Sunday, it shall be observed on the following Monday; when it falls on a Saturday, it may be observed on the following Monday.  Independence Day, July 4, 2004, will fall on a Sunday and, therefore, must be observed on Monday, July 5, 2004.  Christmas Day, December 25, 2004, will fall on a Saturday and, therefore, may be observed on Monday, December 27, 2004.”

Are they kidding?  No!  We wouldn’t want to overlap a weekend with a holiday for a chance at yet another day off!

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, people take yet another two days off!  Yes, two whole days.  (No one should have to work with a hangover!)  I’ve never understood why people celebrate the coming of a new year.  Are they excited that yet another year has passed?  Are they thrilled at the notion that in the coming year they only have 24 days to work?  Or, are they thrilled at the idea that 341 days will be spent not doing ANY?

On my street, there isn’t a reason to take a vacation.  We don’t need a break from our lives.  We need no escape.  We happen to enjoy what we’re doing.  That’s a rare thing these days—actually having enjoyment at your place of work.

I used to get really frustrated.  It seemed that every time I turned around people were finding any excuse possible to avoid doing any work.  Now, I see it as a gift.  While millions are sitting around by the pool, playing golf, taking a holiday, the rest of us can get the upper hand.  My advice is to encourage other people to take even more time off from work.  This way, you’ll be able to accomplish more while they’re gone.  And if you’re as efficient as some, you might even get the desired results before they get back.

If, on the notion you dislike your life and don’t really want to do any work, I suggest moving to Los Angeles and getting a job in the movie industry.  If the move seems daunting, taking any job seems to do the trick regardless of the location.  Don’t worry. You’re sure to find a place where you don’t have to do anything!

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)

The Sundance Disease

My dislike for Sundance has nothing to do with the original message of Sundance.  I genuinely think Robert (Redford) had a great idea.  The original concept is beautiful and very valuable, celebrating filmmakers of all sorts.  But in recent years it’s distorted beyond recognition.  Sundance is now a gargantuan disease infecting the world and it’s time to confront it.  We can no longer be in denial.

The first cases were diagnosed in Los Angeles, leading the CDC to theorize that neither Robert (Redford) nor Park City, Utah, was the source of The Disease.  I interviewed a Studio Executive suffering from The Disease.  Said individual stated, “You are nothing unless your film is shown at Sundance.  If you aren’t at Sundance, you must not be a real filmmaker.”  All other research indicates that most films “accepted” into Sundance have, in one way or another, been financed, produced, or planned by a company in The Industry.

What happens to the real independent film?  What happens if one doesn’t surrender?  The same thing that happens to people in our culture that don’t fit the mold!  They are exiled!  They are called freaks!  Which reminds me of the scene in FREAKS: “One of US! One of US!”

Have you been in contact with The Sundance Disease?  How would you know?  Here are signs to look for.  Common symptoms include: Confusion and general disorientation characterized by a preference for freezing temperatures, deep snow and high altitude instead of warm waters, white beaches and the mild climate of Cannes in May; Preoccupation with Sundance participation on the part of the inexperienced public who have no knowledge of important festivals such as Berlin, Toronto or SXSW; Industry Wannabes who insist that missing Sundance dooms a film to second class status.

A secondary infection of The Disease is the marginalization of all the other festivals.  It makes all the other organizations less important: “Oh, you got into Cannes – too bad you weren’t ‘accepted’ into Sundance!”

Slamdance started with good intentions and challenged the bureaucracy of Sundance.  Now, Slamdance has developed symptoms of The Disease.  And, if we aren’t careful, it will spread to Slamdunk and all the other Dances.  Remember what happened to LapDance!?  At this rate of infection, we’ll be looking at TromaDance to predict the 2006 Oscar nominees.  We’ll have forgotten all about the Independent Spirit Awards.

The Disease is as contagious as SARS.  And, like SARS, there is currently no known cure.  But if all independent filmmakers fight together, we can stop it from killing us.

Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004