Sales Agents @ SWF 2009: How I Sell Your Film

Second instalment of my SWF session notes…

Sales Agent Samantha Horley from the salt.company presented her view on what makes a film worth her while, given that budgets are coming down while upfront cost remain high, e.g. between £ 25-75,000 for a festival launch.

When deciding whether to take on a project (and, in Horley’s words, sales agents shudder when they hear the words “passion project”), they look at the taste of the targeted territories to determine whether it will sell. This is tricky as markets can turn on a dime and even festival successes like White Lightnin’ may not recoup their cost. The ideal scenario of a pre-sale is more and more difficult to attain, as especially the US buyers are spending less and less.

The salt. company gets involved at different stages, sometimes even when there is no film but only a script and perhaps a director or producer attached. They actually prefer to come in early – if a project is too packaged, e.g. with cast attached, it is difficult to “unpick”. If they get involved before the actual filming, they give input on the script, and help to find the right actors for the project. After filming, their activities include launch, delivery, release reporting, marketing campaigns, contracts and collections.

Samantha Horley mentioned two main types of deals, the “All Rights Deal” which includes theatrical, DVD, internet and all future means of distribution, and the “Minimum Guarantee”, which may be as high as 35% – or much lower, in which case the percentage of profits will be higher.

She stressed the absolute importance of knowing your GENRE inside out, as your audience will have high expectations, and presented the Salt list of genres as:
– action
– rom com
– thriller
– sci-fi
– high concept horror
– comedy
– horror
– drama
– period drama
– family (struggles in indie market)
– foreign language
Buyers don’t like magic realism – this would have to be studio / big budget.

Horley then presented Donkey Punch as a case study. Salt got involved right from the start, setting up a first-time feature director and a cast. While sales in the US were the highest in a long time, they were still disappointing after many excellent reviews. The title became the buzz– everyone wanted to read the script – but in the end it also became an obstacle and one of the reasons why it tanked in the UK, because guys had to explain the meaning to their girl-friends…

Horley drove home her point that as writers we must keep in mind that budgets are coming down and that we must know and be very specific about our audience. That means looking at comparable films and researching their audiences – which is also what buyers do; they work on spreadsheets, not on gut feeling (“this story is like film X, which sold Y in territory Z”). Also, in her experience, films too often go into production with imperfect scripts that have seen too few re-writes.

All this was pretty sobering, to put it mildly, and at certain points there was a sense of subdued outrage among the writers in the audience – such as when Samantha Horley talked about giving input on script or casting, shuddering at passion projects, or too few rewrites. To be sure, from the POV of a sales agent focusing exclusively on the commercial side makes sense. But personally I’d like to think there IS still room for passion projects… that doesn’t mean you neglect all market considerations…

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