IDFA ’14: The dos and don’ts of selling your doc

An "Industry Talks" session at IDFA last week saw Independent Films sales manager Calum Gray (pictured, left) advising filmmakers on how to choose the right sales agent.
December 1, 2014

If you have ever wondered whether your doc is better suited for a theatrical or TV release, ask yourself this: can the film swim with a Vietnamese banker and a Mississippi pig farmer at the same time? If so, it’s theatrical.

That’s just one of the strategies used by Independent Films sales manager Calum Gray (pictured above, left) to ensure a doc meets its maximum potential. An “Industry Talks” session at IDFA last week saw the London-based agent - who negotiated sales for Exit Through the Gift Shop and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry - presenting tips on how to pick the right distribution strategy for a project.

Gray’s sales wisdom included points on carefully selecting the right film festival launch, the two-window system of theatrical versus digital and the four types of docs from a market perspective. And of utmost importance? Being honest and realistic about the kind of film you are making and where it will end up.

Here below are five things we learned at Gray’s session:

1) There’s a new paradigm of rights 

The rise of platforms such as Netflix and Amazon has heralded a new paradigm of rights and filmmakers must recognize the two-window system of theatrical versus the “vast interconnected window of digital.”

Today, without adequate visibility through a dedicated marketing campaign, festival debut or press coverage, films can get lost in the extensive digital space. This means that because films are increasingly available on mobile and TV platforms, they need to first be visible elsewhere, and get ahead of this window.

The shift has meant that pre-release marketing – in which sales agents work with filmmakers to raise awareness about the film – is even more important.

2) Make sure you pick the right agent for your project

There are two types of sales agents: theatrical (feature film) and doc-specific. Because some doc subjects simply don’t lend themselves to theatrical runs, producers can lose money by picking a theatrical agent since they won’t see high returns on this investment.

In a deal with a theatrical agent, the agent takes a 15% commission and a costs cap – which covers the first festival launch and the creation of a trailer and poster – is set between approximately US$78,000 and $122,000. Meanwhile, a TV deal will see the agent take 30%, with all costs absorbed within this amount.

Gray points out that picking a non-theatrical agent when the film is theatrical will undersell the film. He gives the example of a music documentary, where the TV recoupment is minor because there aren’t as many music-oriented TV strands, but the recoupment from an all rights deal can be significant because music docs are more successful on DVD. Therefore, if you secure an agent for an all rights deal, you have two recouping windows – both DVD and TV.

3) Research and development is key

“Do your research,” advised Gray. “Ask if there’s a film like mine that’s come out in the last five years. Has it done well? Is mine sufficiently different? Was it at the theatrical level, or the TV level?” Ask yourself these questions from inception so you can make the best bet and place the project in the right stream and get the right agent, festival and strategy.

4) The international theatrical market for docs is expanding

The agent pointed out that Searching for Sugar Man made US$1.8 million in Sweden. In addition to the U.S., the most lucrative markets are the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia, while the mid-tier markets include Scandinavia, Benelux, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. Commenting on China, Gray warned it was still a tough place to launch a theatrical doc: “It’s not the great new hope, be aware of that.”

The agent also introduced the idea of a “cultural discount,” which means that a doc will have “100% of the potential value” in its home territory but take a discount everywhere else. So, while a Korean film will do well in Korea, it will do less well in other territories. To avoid this, Gray advised staying away from overly local content and focusing instead on films that will travel. Alternatively, if you make a hyper-local film, make sure the subtext is universal.

5) The Four Types of Docs from a market perspective

a) The mainly theatrical / all rights doc

ExamplesSearching for Sugar ManPina, The Imposter and Winged Migration.
Genre: escapist, demonstrates a three-act structure, big production values and wide-ranging topicality.
Financing: combination of soft and commercial money and some equity financing; all rights are pre-sales or very few broadcaster sales.
Agent: make sure you get a feature film agent as opposed to a doc specialist.
Buyers: top-tier all rights distributors and DVD-led distributors.
Sales strategy: the film will get wide commercial releases across all rights, and a prestige festival launch at Sundance or TIFF. “If you want a true theatrical film and you sell too many TV deals in key territories, you have robbed distributors of their safety net,” said Gray. “They have now no other incentive to release that film theatrically. Any theatrical deal you get will essentially be at small levels.”

b) The hybrid all rights / ancillary doc

Examples: The SquareThe Story of Film, Bobby Fischer Against the World.
Genre: issue-based or a focus on music, dance, art, ecology and politics; medium to high budgets and immediate or wide-ranging topicality.
Financing: a bigger proportion of soft money and broadcaster pre-sales in key territories, in addition to crowdfunding and film funds. These docs generally have less commercial money and they have a lower chance of all rights pre-sales.
Agent: boutique feature film agent or a high-end doc-specific agent (who can do TV, VOD and theatrical).
Buyers: art-house all rights distributors with an eye on a split rights strategy in key territories with limited theatrical.
Festival and sales strategy: The films will launch at Sundance and TIFF as well as Berlin, Venice, SXSW, Sheffield and Tribeca. The producer should keep rights in the home territory and should not enter multiple festivals before appointing an agent.

c) The ancillary / TV doc

ExamplesThe BridgeParticle FeverReturn to Homs.
Genres: these films are aligned with international TV strands or Netflix and genres include art, ethnology, current affairs and science. The films are more niche in tone and esoteric, with a medium to low budget.
Financing: a bigger proportion of soft money and broadcaster pre-sales in key territories along with crowdfunding and film funds. There is again less commercial money in these films and no all rights pre-sales.
Agent: doc-specific sales agent should oversee the film (“If you pick a theatrical agent, you will get stung. Do not pick me for this kind of film,” warns Gray) and it should be someone familiar with every kind of market.
Sales strategy: maximizing revenues by splitting rights across as many platforms as possible. Get the film into as many film festivals as possible to increase visibility.

d) The festival-driven, occasional ancillary doc

Genre: due to language or topicality issues, this film may not get multi-territory distribution. They are either very local or specific, high-brow docs that are uncommercial in the current climate
Financing: generally all soft money, private finance and the occasional broadcaster pre-sale.
Agent: not necessary. Gray says you don’t need a sales agent for this because they’re not incentivized to sell. Instead, this doc should be thought of as a “calling card” film that demonstrates your filmmaking abilities.
Sales strategy: seek free-to-view in key territories, and especially focus on the home territory.

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