DOC NYC ’15: Finding the right distribution deal, sales agent

Filmmakers attending DOC NYC's industry conference were told they have to decide what type of filmmaker they want to be before signing a distribution deal or setting an impact campaign in motion. (Pictured: "Do I Need a Sales Agent?" panel)
November 19, 2015

Newly installed ‘POV’ executive producer Justine Nagan kicked off a day of panels devoted to audience strategy at DOC NYC PRO by outlining the types of distribution deals available to doc makers.

The former executive director at Chicago’s Kartemquin Films said doc makers can either hold on to rights and maximize revenue through digital, or strike an all-rights deal with one distributor.

“The challenge for the organization is how do we meet in the middle?” she told DOC NYC artistic director Thom Powers. “At this moment, broadcast is still important, but for a lot of the country, that is not the case. They’re engaging digitally.”

Nagan, who joined ‘POV’ from Kartemquin in September, is hoping the strand’s emphasis on community engagement and digital support will give it an edge when it comes to competing for films with other well-regarded outlets such as Netflix and HBO – especially at a time when directors are being pushed towards lengthy social impact campaigns during distribution.

“Filmmakers are having a hard time navigating that,” she said, adding that some directors are “exhausted” by the outreach process.

That exhaustion was a recurring theme throughout the remainder of the day, with most panels telling audience members at the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea that they have to decide what type of filmmaker they want to be before they sign a deal or set a distribution strategy in motion.

The dichotomy was apparent in the following discussion between Daniel Chalfen, producer of Chris Bell’s upcoming examination of the pharmaceutical industry, Prescription Thugs, and Kelly Nyks, co-director of Requiem for the American Dream, a doc about Noam Chomsky.

Nyks explained how he was strategic in asking the leftist intellectual to look back on the subject of inequality as his career winds down, which would be a new angle for those already interested in Chomsky’s work. From there, he hopes the audience for the film will grow wider as it rolls out theatrically and through various platforms.

“One has to be very clear and work backwards and say, ‘What are the objectives of these films?’” he said, adding that taking the time to do that will pay off when a film opens theatrically. “I don’t think theatrical has to be a loss-leader.”

Prescription Thugs opens theatrically in the new year through distributor Samuel-Goldwyn Films and Chalfen hopes that a big commercial push will impact a broad audience and then effect change among political and business leaders through exposure.

“I think theatrical for most docs should be [about] marketing,” he said. “Under 12 cities cannot be a money-maker. How do you measure the long tail of that?”

justine nagan

‘POV’ executive producer Justine Nagan

Elsewhere, during the panel “Do I Need A Sales Agent?” filmmakers including Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), Yale Melamede (Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies), Karim Amer (The Square), Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Thank You For Playing) and Doug Block (112 Weddings) weighed the pros and cons of securing domestic and international sales agents.

Sales agents can help create bidding wars at a festival but once a festival is over, keeping that agent excited about a film can be a challenge – especially if it didn’t sell.

“Most films don’t have bidding wars,” said Melamede. “You need to keep your sales agent enthusiastic after a festival. A lot of that is relationship-building. How do you get your sales agent to stay interested [in] the digital rights? A tremendous amount of it is trust.”

All the panelists agreed the filmmaker has to decide what type of filmmaker they want to be before signing a deal: a director that helms a project and moves on to the next one, or a director who tours with a film and participates in an impact campaign?

For directors that choose the latter, Borderline Media’s Jennifer MacArthur had a blunt message: “Time is money.”

“Oftentimes when we talk about social impact distribution we gloss over the budgets, the free labor and internships it takes to make these things work,” she said during the “Social Issue Distribution” panel. “You’ve got to make a decision about what kind of filmmaker you want to be in terms of the distribution route. This is something you’ve got to pay for or you’re doing it for free.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.