By Chris Hood
(This is Part Twenty-Four of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)
NOW you're ready! Your film is 100% complete. You have a rocking poster and a decent little website with a kick ass trailer and password protected screener with disclaimer just waiting to be savored by scores of potential buyers. You're ready to sell this puppy! Let the pimping begin! But first, let me preface this article by giving a brief explanation into the two types of companies you'll be approaching: sales agents and distributors.
The distributors are the guys who actually get the films out there to the public. The big studios have distribution wings. Paramount, Fox and Disney all are multi-tentacled distributors who can get films into all the various avenues, though they will often assign (sell off) certain rights to their films (and ones they represent) to third parties for various territories and/or ancillary markets. Even Disney doesn't make deals with Wal-Mart. They make a deal with an aggregator like Ingram or Anderson Merchandising who will handle all the DVD/Blu Rays and get them into the video stores and online retailers.
The sales agents are the guys who represent your film and get it to different distributors. In a case like this, it usually results in selling your project piecemeal. They may make a deal with one company for domestic DVD, a deal with another company for VOD, and several individual sales to different foreign buyers for their respective territories (which usually includes all rights in that territory).
The area between these two types of companies has gotten a little gray. Some sales agents dabble a little in distribution and, as stated above, some distributors sell off or assign certain rights to other parties – it's a big world out there. For the sake of this article, I'll use the phrase "distributor," but know that I'm referring to both types of individuals. You should absolutely be reaching out to both, though you'll most likely end up with a single sales agent who will work with you on getting your film placed. When it comes time to start getting your film out there, I suggest sending it to anyone and everyone you can; honest sales agents, reputable distributors and ambitious unicorns…oh, wait, none of those three actually exist, but that's all you've got to work with. You never know where the best deal might come from so take the shotgun approach.
Before considering the merits of what makes a good deal on your film, you first have to generate interest from one or more parties that want to handle it. The next articles will yield some insights into what to watch for in distribution agreements which are almost always structured to screw over the filmmakers. More on that later. So whom do you approach? In short, everyone you can find.
A huge problem that I see happen over and over again, is the lack of follow through in this part of the process. After spending thousands of hours and ten of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's amazing the degree of incompetence evidenced by many, if not most, producers when it comes to this part of the process. If you haven't approached at least 50 distributors, you're lazy or incompetent. Sadly, most new filmmakers are clueless in just about ever respect and start by sending out just a few inquiries to the big guys, they're just convinced that everyone that sees it will want to get it. They don't want to bother with medium and small distributors since they know Paramount and Sony and Lionsgate will all be fighting for their film.
When the big guys pass, some of these filmmakers essentially give up. It seems the idea of more rejection is just too great to shoulder, so the film dies right there and then. Seriously. I know a filmmaker who sent out three packages to major distributors. When all three passed, he put the film up himself on Amazon.com and ended up selling about 20 copies on DVD. Do I even need to say that he is the kind of person who has no business making movies?
In the current digital environment, most people query distributors via email which obviously costs nothing. Just a few years ago, this was all done via snail mail and every package that went out had a dollar value attached by the time you added in the press kit, glossy one sheet, DVD, postage and whatever else you may have included to jazz up the presentation. This physical approach doesn't happen much any more, though it can make your project stand out if you decide to go this route because distributors rarely get anything physical in the mail on projects, so we do take note of that. But emails are the norm.
Give yourself at least of week to devote to this first salvo of emails. While you're putting your presentation, trailer and website together, you should start assembling a list of whom you're going to approach. Depending on what source(s) you use, I recommend not discriminating unless you know for certain that a company is a no-fit. There are niche distributors that only handle gay/lesbian films. Ones that only handle Spanish language films. I know of one that only handles family films. There may even be a distributor that only handles animated gay/lesbian family films in Spanish. But generally speaking, it's not costing you anything but a little time to reach out to all these companies and you just never know who might bite. Although up front money (advances and minimum guarantees) is harder and harder to find without name talent, you never know which company might step up with the best offer, with or without cash on the barrel head.
As far as where to find the contact information for distributors, the internet is chock full of options. Personally, I recommend finding a way to access the American Film Market exhibitor database. This will be a list of hundreds of distributors/sales agents from around the world. Practically all the reputable guys attend and exhibit at the AFM every November in Santa Monica. It's basically a big convention where buyers go from booth to booth (or in this case room to room) looking for movies to acquire. This is where a sales agent will sit down with a buyer from Germany or Japan or Thailand and make a deal to sell that person the rights to your film for that territory. Domestic deals happen here as well. The AFM is a great place to launch your film. If you're wrapping up by the middle of the year, your timing is probably good for the AFM.
When you're reaching out to distributors, a few things you need to know are:
– Don't c.c. a list of dozens or hundreds of distributors. Aside from being annoying and unprofessional to mass c.c. a group of people in any business context, it couldn't make the distributor feel less special. It also calls attention to the fact that you're writing everyone on the planet. If I get an inquiry for a film and see it went to 50 other distributors as part of the same email, my enthusiasm wanes instantly knowing I'm competing with dozens of other companies. Sure, I know filmmakers are soliciting other companies, but I don't know how many or how often. Just don't make this mistake. It makes you look like an idiot.
– Customize your emails. This ties in to the above. Obviously you're not personalizing your emails if you're mass mailing to dozens of companies at once, but even when that doesn't happen, we get too many emails with "Dear sir or madam" and "To whom it may concern." In this day and age, there's no excuse for this. If you absolutely cannot find a contact name, you don't have a choice, but this should almost never happen. The information is out there. If I get a generic heading on an email query, my first thought is "lazy" as I know we have a bio page on our website and the person writing simply didn't want to invest the time to do things properly. Not a good first impression to make.
– Attach a poster in the body of your email. Make sure it's small enough so that it displays and doesn't come through as an attachment.
– Generally speaking, avoid attachments all together. You should have a nice little website with the basics. Just make sure you include it!
– Keep it simple. You're writing about a movie you want us to consider. We get that. I don't need the background on you or any of the other cast or crew. If you have a big name, mention that, though I hope it's obvious from the poster. I don't need personal details. I don't care where you went to film school. I don't care if your film has been in (or even won) film festivals unless it's one of the big ones. 100% of my decision is going to come from the film, trailer and poster, so don't waste a lot of time with a cumbersome email I'll simply skip over to find the link to your website/trailer. A sentence or two of intro is fine as a matter of protocol. A short synopsis is fine. That's about it.
After you've spent your week blasting out emails to everyone you can find, it's time to sit back and wait. The disparity here can be surprising. You'll get some responses immediately. Some will take weeks. Some will actually trickle in months later, though this has become less common since submissions have gone digital. It used to be that stacks of DVDs would sit on some people's desk for weeks and months before they got around to them. Now, an email might be flagged to revisit later, but it's rare for it to sit in the inbox for that long before being addressed or simply deleted.
Some filmmakers call prior to sending out their film be it via email or snail mail. I don't see a problem with this and don't mind getting those calls, but personally I don't feel they serve much purpose. Again, it's the film that's going to sell me. There's nothing you're going to say that's going to make me super excited. We look at everything that comes in, so you don't need to call in hopes of increasing your odds that I'll give it a chance; I will. I think a follow up phone call makes much more sense after a bit of time has passed. I'd recommend at least two weeks for this, perhaps three. Also, be aware of the various markets. If you send out your query two weeks before Cannes or AFM or Toronto, it's a bad move. It's too close to the market for a distributor to take on new films. We're too busy getting ready for the event and not watching new projects. In these cases, your email can sit for a month or more before we get around to it and that's assuming your query doesn't get lost in the interim. Otherwise, I think it's reasonable to check in after two or three weeks to confirm receipt. It also puts a little fire under our asses if we've been putting off checking out your project. No matter how busy I am or have been, if a filmmaker calls to follow up and it's been a few weeks, I feel a little guilty and it usually bumps attention to the project to the top of my mission list for the day or week.
If you've made a marketable film (note I don't say "good" film) and presented it well, you'll start getting some interest from various distributors. The nature of this interest can be quite varied and create a bit of a quandary. I can only hope you have multiple offers on the table, but that can prove daunting as well when trying to decide what makes the "best" deal. This is another place where having a person with a good sense for business is vital. There are plenty of stories of offers that have come in early on for films that were passed on or delayed to the point of losing them. Some of these are tragic and I hear them fairly often. I'm talking about $50k advance deals from Company X which end up being a $5k advance from Company Y because the filmmaker waited too long. "Bird in the hand." "Ya snooze, ya lose." All that…
Next week, I'll try to guide you more through this step of the process and tell you want to look out for.
Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as "Counterpunch" starring Danny Trejo (a Lionsgate release) and "Dirty Dealing 3D" with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He and Jon Schultz own Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and Chris operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He's also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)