Sales agent. Producer’s rep. Consultant. International sales agent. The number of titles used to describe the people who play matchmaker between filmmakers and buyers is dizzying, not to mention confusing. And, although there are subtle differences ascribed to each designation, these are by no means clear cut or recognized industry wide. Strip away the spin and they all have one thing in common: they sell films. And none are distributors. Distributors are the people who actually exploit a film’s rights in a territory. But there are a few assumptions that can be made based on the title a rep chooses to take.
In general, ‘producer’s rep’ and ‘sales agent’ are used interchangeably. Some focus on a filmmaker’s career as much as what’s best for a film. Others consider the film their client. Commissions for both generally range from 7% to 15%. Usually they concentrate on their domestic market and divvy up worldwide rights to an international sales agent. This later group – firms like Films Transit in Canada, Fortissimo in the U.K. and Wild Bunch in France – deal with buyers around the globe, striking deals with territories as big as the U.K. and as small as Greece. Naturally, they demand higher commissions – anywhere from 15% to 30% – especially since many also handle deliverables. Lastly, consultants can be hired for different levels of involvement, collect a commission similar to a sales agent, but don’t actually sign the contracts.
The nature of a film and the aspirations of the filmmaker can help guide a producer towards choosing the right shepherd for their film. To get them started, RealScreen profiles five sales reps that have made a name in the documentary market.
The Talent Scout
Motion picture agent and co-head of the independent film financing and film packaging department, United Talent Agency
Track record: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Sony Pictures Classics)
Rich Klubeck joined UTA in Los Angeles two years ago after running the studio-based prodco Jersey Films, which produced Erin Brockovich, Get Shorty and Garden State during his tenure. He looks at docs as a fertile source of feature film talent. ‘Documentary filmmakers aren’t necessarily limited to a career in documentaries,’ he says.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is Klubeck’s first feature doc, but he says UTA is looking for more. ‘We handle films we want to be identified with as much as films that are going to generate revenue,’ he explains. ‘We look at docs for their artistic significance and whether there’s a filmmaker involved who we think has a career.’ As for the reputation of talent/sales agents as interested only in distributors who offer big advances? ‘That’s kind of cliché,’ says Klubeck. ‘We’re looking at who is going to provide the best platform for that filmmaker. For us, it’s very much about the film, but it’s also about the next film and the career.’
The Legal-Ease Sue Bodine
Partner, Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein
Track record: Fahrenheit 9/11 (Lions Gate Films/IFC Films/Fellowship Adventure Group), Sicko (TBA)
Upcoming: Punk Magazine by Michael Gramaglia, and Utopia 38483 by Nadine and Rena Mundo
Sue Bodine’s first experience in the film industry was handling legal for the home video release of the Maysles brothers’ Rolling Stones doc Gimme Shelter, which had a fair share of music rights and right-to-privacy issues. ‘At the time, the distribution right was for ‘television’ and arguments were being made as to whether home video was actually television or not,’ she recalls. Bodine is first and foremost a lawyer, but her New York firm recently expanded its sales activities, hiring consultant Dan O’Meara to help source potential projects and put the firm on the industry’s radar. Given the complexity of today’s theatrical deals, Bodine claims it can help to have a lawyer as the primary negotiator. ‘You need to be sophisticated about the way home video, DVD and pay-per-view are interlocked and dealt with,’ she explains. The firm usually gets involved with docs it’s confident will reach the public.
Producer’s rep, Angel City Entertainment
Track record: Ballet Russes (Zeitgeist Films), Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Artisan), The Boys of 2nd St. Park (Showtime Entertainment), The Cockettes (Strand Releasing), and more
Jonathan Dana is a producer’s producer’s rep. The L.A.-based rep handles only two or three films a year, so he can give each his full attention. It’s not unusual to find him in the edit room, making suggestions alongside the filmmaker. ‘I’ve got to put my name on the movie one way or another, and I have to sell it,’ he explains. ‘If I don’t think the movie’s done, I will say so.’ An acquisitions executive for more than 15 years, Dana became a rep in 1995 when his friend, producer Anne-Marie Mackay, asked him to help her take director Don Was’ film about Brian Wilson, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, to Sundance. Since then he’s been involved with approximately 20 different docs, sometimes as a producer, sometimes as a producer’s rep, sometimes as both. ‘I’ve done docs as a hobby as much as anything,’ says Dana. ‘I laugh now that I see they’re big business.’
The Heavy Hitter
Principal, Cinetic Media
Track record: The Fog of War (Sony Pictures Classics), Dig! (Palm Pictures), Mad Hot Ballroom (Paramount Classics), Why We Fight (Sony Pictures Classics), New York Doll (First Independent Pictures), and many more Current titles: Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack, Ward Serrill’s The Heart of the Game, and more
When specialty distributors were still chasing foreign-language narratives, Cinetic noticed documentaries were scooping up festival audience awards. So it began researching the market and studying how to maximize the value of non-fiction films through distribution. Five years later, the New York-based company has positioned itself as the preeminent sales consultancy for indies, having brokered the deal for almost every break-out theatrical doc since then. With the help of eager MBA students and interns, Cinetic maintains an extensive database on potential buyers throughout the world, and keeps close tabs on the market. ‘When we sit down with a theatrical distributor to negotiate a deal, we know what our film is worth,’ says Green.
Cinetic handles between 20 and 30 films a year, about 50% of which are documentaries. Green acknowledges that more buyers are interested in docs now than before, but he urges filmmakers to keep their expectations in check. ‘The biggest success stories of the summer might be documentary films, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to sell docs,’ he says. ‘But when you can sell a documentary to the right distributor, there’s a real upside for you.’
President and CEO, Films Transit International
Track record: Shake Hands with the Devil (California Newsreel), The Corporation (Zeitgeist Films), Another Road Home(Geoquest), Yang Ban Xi (TBA), and many more
Current titles: Christian Frei’s The Giant Buddhas, Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, and more
Long before docs were mainstream, Jan Rofekamp was convincing buyers to risk taking them to the big screen. At the same time, he ensured doc-makers made back their money by selling each title to multiple territories around the globe. In business since 1982, Films Transit specializes in docs about arts, culture, politics and society, and has achieved its reputation by consistently choosing quality films. Says Sara Rose, senior VP of acquisitions for theatrical distributor Picturehouse Films, ‘I always see a doc Jan tells me to see, because I know it will be a great film.’ In addition to helping producers prepare for the splashier launch festivals, Rofekamp creates a blueprint for films to optimize the smaller fest circuit. ‘It’s all about shelf space,’ says Rofekamp. ‘If a film is at the front of the shelf, people see it. If it’s at the back, people don’t. We create a situation where people see it. Then you can convince them it’s a good film with good reviews. Then they buy it.’