Cashing in on collections

After a film is wrapped and delivered, all that remains with the producer are the reels (or tapes) on the shelf. One of the main reasons for keeping this footage lies in the potential for profits through licensing, a concept that has undoubtedly crossed the mind of many a filmmaker. As an independent undertaking, however, establishing a library is an immense task. An alternative to the
August 1, 2001

After a film is wrapped and delivered, all that remains with the producer are the reels (or tapes) on the shelf. One of the main reasons for keeping this footage lies in the potential for profits through licensing, a concept that has undoubtedly crossed the mind of many a filmmaker. As an independent undertaking, however, establishing a library is an immense task. An alternative to the do-it-yourself route is to place the collection with an established stock footage house, which acts as an agent. The benefit is additional income with minimal expenditure of time or money. The drawback is sharing the revenues, usually 50/50.

John Flewin, president of Television, Archive and New Media, a London-based commercial footage consulting firm, tends to weigh in on the side of collaboration: ‘It’s very difficult to make the independent route work financially if you’re starting from the beginning. To set up the marketing, the costs are likely to be more – certainly in the first few years – than 50%.’

Wildlife filmmaker Will Taylor, of Dallas, U.S.-based Panthera Productions, agrees: ‘I think that when you start off [as a production company], especially being fiercely independent like us, you just don’t have the resources to be able to handle cataloging, running, billing, all that kind of thing. Going with a stock footage house is the easier option.’

Shopping around

While using an established archive is simpler than going it alone, finding the right house, and negotiating a satisfactory deal, still requires time and effort.

Jean Horton Garner, senior vice president of Ojai, U.S.-based Thomas Horton Associates, has spent years searching for the perfect rep for her company’s footage, and she’s still looking. Part of the reason is the cost involved in prepping THA’s collection – logging the collection and creating a database – but Garner also wants to be sure she finds a stock shop she really likes. ‘We’re looking for a house that has the same kind of materials that we have [mostly underwater footage and some wwii public domain material] so it would be a good fit, so that they know how to market the genres we work in.’

Garner says THA has been wooed by big companies, including Nat Geo, but turned them down. ‘Part of my concern with big stock houses is that they would be pushing more of the highly marketable material.’

For Panthera’s Taylor, a large, general interest library appeals to him, even though he licenses out only a small collection (15 to 20 hours). He reasons that if he were to place his footage with a specialized library, he might be limiting himself to sales in the wildlife community. ‘In a simplistic way, I thought if I don’t confine myself to being known as the wildlife guy, there might be more opportunities for people who want stock footage.’

Taylor’s decision to go with New York-based Hot Shots Cool Cuts (now part of Sekani) was governed largely by instinct. ‘I think that what did it for me was personality and personal communications. At a stock footage seminar in Jackson Hole, there was a workshop going on and one of the guys on the board was from Hot Shots. He was making the most sense to me.’ Shortly after, Taylor negotiated a representation deal with the company, and has stayed with them for over six years.

Small or large, specialized or general, the best choice of library is a matter of individual preference. Regardless, Flewin recommends beginning with the libraries you frequent and consulting with more than one. ‘Choose two or three and then go and negotiate. As a producer, you will want to hear how they can best market your footage. Then when you go to the next stage, to negotiate, you need to compare what kind of percentages you’re going to get and work out what kind of monies you’ll earn as a result. If you do just one at a time, you’re asking to perhaps not be in the strongest position to negotiate.’

Always be prepared

From the library’s point of view, offers of footage are a regular occurrence, so producers hoping to contract with a specific house would be wise to do some homework. Content is important, but most archives have specific requirements for format, quality and organization as well.

‘We get offers of footage, like all libraries do, almost daily,’ says Gerry Weinbren, principal of London-based archive Index. ‘But, the amount of footage that’s of any use to us is very small because we ideally want it shot on 35mm, and we want the subject matter to be saleable or archivable – it’s not just the content, but also the quality. These days, quality doesn’t just mean that it’s [shot by] a first class cameraman, it also means the material was shot on a certain format. It’s no use if somebody comes to us with a VHS or even a DVD. We will consider footage on digibeta, but we prefer 35mm.’

Stephen Parr, director of Oddball Film + Video in San Francisco, sets broader parameters because of his library’s focus on offbeat and unusual material. ‘Generally we look for 35mm, 16mm and high quality video formats. There may be an exception, like rare home movies that might exist on 8mm or even a more obsolete format.’ As a rule, however, ‘it has to be shot on the right format and it has to be shot professionally,’ he says.

While providing the archive with a detailed log is not absolutely necessary, it helps ensure your material is made available as soon as possible, and can also affect your share of the revenues. Nathalie Banaigs, of Moving Image in London, explains: ‘If the footage has not been logged at all, this means that all of the tapes have to be viewed and complete descriptions typed into the database, so an effective search can be done in the future. The percentage that the supplier receives varies depending on the extent of cataloging that needs to be done.’

Libraries often prefer to keep the masters on site for quick turn around, but producers are not obligated to give up the goods. ‘I keep my master material at a lab,’ says doc-maker John McKenney, of Creston, U.S.-based Jack McKenney Productions. ‘The agent has a three-quarter-inch window dub of all the material, but the masters stay at the lab. They sell from the window dub, then fax me a copy of the order and fax a copy to the lab.’ McKenney has arranged for the lab to bill the agent directly, so he does not have to deal with the dub charges. ‘[When masters are in the lab,] you know exactly what goes out, to the frame,’ he notes.

Striking the deal

When the time comes to talk dollars and cents, each company will angle for its fair share. But, what’s fair? Consultant Flewin says, ‘Unless there is some inhibiting factor, all copyright owners should aim for 50% of revenues, not profits. The only thing that might come off is any expense the library incurs in presenting, cataloging, or recording your footage into a different format.’

Aside from royalties, the other major points to negotiate are exclusivity, territories and contract duration. McKenney lobbies hard against exclusive deals. ‘I didn’t want to go down that route. I wanted to have a few agents representing me that were spread out.’ He adds that he always informs each company of the other representatives and that he will sell his footage directly, if contacted.

Asking one company to represent your material worldwide may seem more efficient on the surface, but Flewin cautions that it could lead to a serious reduction in earnings. ‘If a producer puts his collection with a large library that has representatives overseas, normally that representative would work with the library based on 50% of the revenues,’ he explains. ‘So, the producer is not going to get 50% of the revenues [from overseas sales], he’s going to get 50% of 50%. This is the most common way of doing it. It immediately dilutes the earnings.’

The minimum contract runs three to five years. Any less, says Index’s Weinbren, and it’s not worth putting the material in the system. But, producers don’t have to sit idle. Flewin advises spot checks on the library. ‘You know what material you’ve got, so hire a researcher to look for it in that footage house. If yours doesn’t come to the fore, you know they’re not keeping the agreement.’

Another option to ensure sales are to your liking is to negotiate for a minimum guarantee. When Panthera’s contract with Hot Shots came up for renewal a couple of years ago, Taylor considered walking away. Instead, Hot Shots offered a guaranteed minimum payment each quarter. Observes Taylor, ‘I think your stock can go into a collection and sit there gathering dust if someone’s not championing it and pushing it. So, it’s a way of making sure it’s getting represented properly.’

The cost of creating window dub versions, and even masters, can also go on the table during negotiations. Says Parr, ‘If someone wants us to represent their materials, they usually make us copies of the masters and we make the windows.’ McKenney says his agents also generally favor a shared cost arrangement. ‘They pay for the stock and I make the dubs. It’s kind of a 50/50 split.’

As final advice to producers, McKenney says to negotiate for a share of kill fees. ‘A lot of times a production company will order a shot – let’s say it’s a us$3,000 sale – and the agent has negotiated a $750 kill fee if the sale is cancelled. You need to share that with your agent. You don’t just let them put that in their pocket. Your material has left the vault, it’s in somebody else’s hands, and whether they used it or not, you should be paid for it. Not a lot of producers know that.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.