Micah Green is a natural salesman – confident, persuasive and press savvy, delivering juicy quotes as often as teenage girls say ‘like.’ He’s also a tad cocky, but he’s earned the right to be a little arrogant. Having joined film consulting firm Cinetic Media in 2001, and working alongside colleague John Sloss, Green has helped broker sales deals for a list of films that reads like a countdown of ‘Top 10 Big Screen Doc Hits.’ The Fog of War, Spellbound, Bowling for Columbine, Capturing the Friedmans, Control Room, and Super Size Me were all handled by the New York-based company.
Cinetic’s reputation as a tough negotiator has earned its principals the respect of the industry, but they also have their fair share of detractors among distributors who question their practices. Green takes that as a compliment. ‘We are their biggest nightmare,’ he says. ‘They shudder when we get involved with a film, because we generally sell the films we pick up for the highest potential market value. That’s not what most sell for. Most films not only sell for less than they’re worth, but often for far less then their budgets. Frankly,’ he adds, ‘that’s how most distributors would like it to be, because it’s a safer investment for them.’
For as long as there have been films, there have been people hired to sell them. But with docs performing well at box office, a new crop of middle men have emerged. Cinetic is among the most active of these, but it’s joined by talent agencies, international sales agents and a growing number of producer’s reps. Together with the advent of more commercial docs and an increasingly sophisticated film market, these reps are not only changing the way docs are bought and sold, they’re determining which docs make it to the silver screen, and the prices they fetch.
And then docs made money
Hamish McAlpine, owner of Tartan Films, a U.K.-based theatrical distributor that opened an office in L.A. in July, 2004, has observed a swell of new faces selling docs. ‘Documentaries have suddenly become more valuable,’ he says, noting that good box office creates greater value in the tv and home video markets. ‘That’s caused all sorts of people to jump in who were previously not interested.’ Among them are law firms, talent agencies like William Morris and United Talent Agency and even former acquisition execs.
New York law firm Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein recently expanded its sales activities, hiring a consultant to track films it could rep in the market. (Bodine and partners represent Michael Moore and helped negotiate the sale of Fahrenheit 9/11.) Unlike legal work or talent representation, notes founding partner and attorney Susan Bodine, film sales can produce a potential windfall. ‘Your ticket to being able to put a swimming pool in your country home comes from the sales aspect,’ she offers ironically.
And while docs were slowly inching their way into the mainstream market, the market itself matured. Says Bodine of the sales business in the ’80s and ’90s: ‘It was kind of Wild West and amateur. Today, many distributors are part of multinational corporations. Those kinds of changes are subtle in the way they influence the market, but they’ve brought a level of sophistication and professionalism to the activity of being a sales rep that wasn’t there before.’
An early player on the doc scene, Cinetic’s approach is indicative of this influence. The company uses a custom data and communications tool called CiNet to keep up-to-date with buyers and trends. Rather than picking films based only on his personal taste, Green studies a title against the company’s market research to determine which theatrical and TV buyers might be interested in the film given their target audience, demographic or corporate profile. Once potential buyers are identified, the value of the rights can be evaluated. If the outlook appears profitable, Cinetic will consider representing the film.
‘We’re very much a research- and data-driven company,’ says Green. ‘It’s been our strategic advantage from the very beginning.’
The allure of agents
A more sophisticated market means sales and producer’s reps have become less of a luxury for doc-makers hoping to secure distribution. ‘Filmmakers need professional help to go through this process in a way that was an advantage before, but not as necessary as it is now,’ says Bodine.
McAlpine, who distributed Super Size Me, My Architect, and Dig! in the U.K., among others, concedes docs represented by a respected producer’s rep or sales agent enter the market with a certain gravitas. Indeed, almost every buyer interviewed for this article said a film with representation is given higher priority than a film without. ‘If a rep takes on a documentary you think, ‘It must be something worth seeing.’ You’re going to pay more attention to it than something they decided to pass over,’ says Sara Rose, who bought Bowling for Columbine and The Yes Men while at United Artists and is currently senior VP of acquisitions for Picturehouse Films, a joint venture between HBO and New Line Cinema.
Most reps prefer to get onboard a film early enough to position it in the market. That involves everything from choosing a launch festival and wrangling an acquisition-friendly screening slot (Friday and Saturday nights are best, if you’re wondering) to spinning the film for buyers and press. ‘Distributors need to be marketed to just like an audience,’ says Green. ‘They don’t necessarily have the guts to pick up and promote a film they screen on tape with no real context. They want to see reviews and they are effected by how an audience sitting around them responds to a movie.’
Once a sales rep has distributors interested in a doc, they really start to earn their commission. Sales agents, armed with experience and market research, drive a hard bargain. Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit, for example, is concentrating on splitting up a doc’s rights among buyers. ‘If you do an all media deal that includes tv rights and the theatrical release loses money, the DVD breaks even, and the TV makes money, you will never see that tv money,’ he explains. ‘So we say to the client, ‘You want theatrical and DVD, that’s fine, but we’re not going to give you television rights.”
Rofekamp says smaller companies are more inclined to cut such a deal, but Green contends even large distribs will accept terms if they are enthusiastic about a title. ‘Part of our job,’ he says, ‘is getting to a place where distributors want the film badly enough.’
Green adds that Cinetic has also fought to get theatrical distribs to understand that docs with good pr can be worth a lot of money to tv and, therefore, that it’s worthwhile to pay market value for those rights. ‘When we sold Mad Hot Ballroom, we did an all rights deal in North America to Paramount Classics,’ he says. ‘We knew what the film was worth to television and video and we got a much better price for all rights than we would have even a year ago.’
Although buyers acknowledge that producer’s reps and agents often negotiate terms and prices better suited to the filmmakers than the distributors, many prefer to deal with experienced sales people rather than producers. ‘When you’re negotiating for your side, you don’t want to explain to the side against whom you’re negotiating, ‘This is what you need to be doing,” says Christian Vesper, VP, acquisitions, program planning and scheduling for the Sundance Channel. ‘The grinding details of selling to a TV network are not what filmmakers are focused on.’ In 2004, the Sundance Channel acquired 82 one-off docs. This year, it will premiere about 60 non-fiction films.
The darker side of higher prices
Tom Bernard, co-president of U.S. distrib Sony Pictures Classics, admits theatrical sales are complex, but cautions: ‘Filmmakers feel they need a producer’s rep to make a deal; they feel totally unempowered when it comes to trying to sell their film. What’s happened,’ he continues, ‘is the filmmaker is now working for the producer’s rep, the producer’s rep isn’t working for the filmmaker.’
Too often, he adds, films go to the highest bidder rather than the best distributor. ‘Many producer’s reps don’t nurture the talent’s career,’ he posits. ‘In the indie world, that’s one of the key factors of putting a movie in the right place.’
Tartan’s McAlpine has observed another troubling trend: ‘The major agencies getting involved have a fairly aggressive attitude to sales, which is pushing up the prices,’ he says. ‘That’s going to push out a lot of worthy, smaller distributors who often do a very good job because they don’t have a lot of resources – they have to make sure the films they handle really work. For the smaller filmmaker, that is a tragedy.’
Before the critical success of The Trials of Henry Kissinger in 2002, Eugene Jarecki was one of those smaller doc-makers. This year, the New York-based filmmaker scooped up the Sundance Film Fest’s grand jury prize with Why We Fight. The win, he says, attracted enough attention to spark a bidding war among a few major distribs. To help find the right deal for the film, he hired Cinetic. ‘I’m so accustomed to doing it all myself that one of the hardest things was relinquishing some of that responsibility,’ says Jarecki. But he notes that a producer’s rep has a valuable role as a shock absorber in the deal-making process. ‘The distributor and the filmmaker have to have a long and happy marriage,’ he explains. ‘A sales rep can deal with the sticky subjects that might otherwise cause people to grow weary of each other before they even start. The preservation of that relationship is probably the number one thing a sales rep can do.’
Jarecki ultimately signed with spc to release Why We Fight. Cinetic, he says, worked out the fine points of the deal. ‘We who bring out the film together can do so without any gripes, resentments and anxieties,’ says Jarecki, ‘because those were worked out by the middle men.’
Jarecki advises filmmakers considering a rep to evaluate their unique situation, rather than trying to follow in the footsteps of a successful film. ‘Be aware of your own gifts and limitations, and understand where a sales agent either can or can’t compensate for those,’ he says.
Rofekamp further councils filmmakers entering a partnership with a rep or sales agent to make decisions based on a plan of action. Too often, he says, domestic reps in the U.S. will sell the rights for North America as well as the big foreign territories, such as France and the U.K. But once the most lucrative foreign regions are wrapped up, international sales agents like himself, who chase deals in smaller territories like Finland and Greece, are no longer interested in the project. Rofekamp also notes that sales agents should be willing to work the second-tier festival circuit as well as the launch fests such as Sundance, Toronto and Berlin. ‘That little festival circuit of about eight or nine festivals is a shit load of work, but it makes a big difference,’ he explains. ‘Reps are ripping off producers if they don’t go that far. They should spend a year on a film instead of just three months.’
‘Filmmakers need to be aware of what to do with their movies after they’ve made them, and be able to steer all the people who are there to help facilitate the distribution and sale of their film,’ councils Bernard. ‘That’s the challenge for the next generation.’