If you decide to separate your territories, the chances are you'll need a foreign sales agent, who will take 20 percent of your sales or more, plus expenses off the top. He represents several films at once, sometimes even twenty or more, and because of this, and because he is familiar with the workings of the foreign markets, he will have more clout. If you go to Cannes (a marketing convention masquerading as a film festival), or MIFED in Milan, or the AFM in Santa Monica, with only one film under your arm, you're at the mercy of the predators. Thousands of films are being peddled. Why should foreign distributors give you anything but a minimum bid? If you ask too high, they have hundreds of other films to choose from; they won't go home empty-handed. But if a buyer tries to lowball your sales agent, he's gambling on losing twenty films or more, not to mention the sales agent's good will down the line.
A foreign sales agent will need all the ammo you can supply him with, which is why, in my securing-distribution budgets, I include not only a category for stills and written publicity material, but for a trailer as well. A professional company may charge you $10,000-$14,000 to do a two-and-a-half minute trailer for your film. You may want to have a go at it yourself, but remember, they've been doing it for a long time and have a good understanding of the marketplace. A foreign buyer might not have time to see more than a few minutes of your film—there are simultaneous screenings going on constantly and it is in the distributor's best interest to see snippets of several than to sit through one in its entirety. But later, when they visit your suite, they can look at publicity packets and watch on the TV monitor the trailers for the films your agent is representing. The trailer we prepared for Street Trash cost us ten grand with a professional company (we talked them down from twelve). I had written a three-page script, which I thought was great, but when they presented their own, I had to agree that they had a better handle on what trailers are supposed to communicate to an audience in exactly that amount of time. Also, different countries respond to different aspects of a film, and they had all that worked out. So, my script was thrown out, and theirs was used. Having the trailer made a huge difference.
In 1986, I went to Cannes with Howard G., my foreign sales agent on Street Trash. He was representing twenty-nine films, and I was shocked to find that I was the only producer who showed up. This was very good; I was able to keep him focused on my film. And when he got bids—$35,000 from England, for example—I was able to discuss it with him. "Was it a good bid?" "Yes." "How good?" "Not great, but good." "Hmmm." My entertainment lawyer had advised me that features such as mine were going for no less than thirty grand, so I knew I wasn't under the minimum. However, I decided to hold off. Had he been alone, Howard might have gone for it; after all, it was a decent bid, and he wanted to maximize his time, and he had a relationship with that particular distributor to keep up. They'd done business in the past. But he acquiesced to my decision.
Activity goes on at Cannes for two weeks. I was there for the second week. The days went by. The British distributor peeked into Howard's suite again, and raised the bid to $40,000. I said I'd think about it. He looked at me suspiciously. At a party the next night, slightly inebriated, he came up to us and barked, "Who's biddin' . . . ?!" We played dumb, and actually there were no other bids, but I just felt like this guy would go higher, and Howard was casual about it; he played it the way I wanted.
I also ran into Sean Cunningham (the creator of the Friday the 13 th franchise) at that party. He was pitching a package of unproduced titles to which he was attached, with the help of a venerable foreign sales agent, one whom I'd gone to with Street Trash but who'd passed on it
(he wished me well but just didn't feel confident to handle that kind of aggressive genre material). Sean gave me a piece of advice, which I pass on to you, concerning investors: "You have to decide how much time to spend on each film you produce. My feeling is, if you can get your investors out, that's when you move on to another project." I liked that advice. It's not to say that you don't continue to keep on top of sales, continue to monitor the progress of the film, and endeavor to get the investors a profit. But if you've gotten them to the point that they're no longer at risk, they'll probably reinvest in your next project, and they'll probably double their original investment. At the point that you've gotten them out, you can stop spending all of your time on that film, and start spending more time on your next project.
Sure enough, on the last day of the market, the British distributor returned and upped his bid to $42,500. I went for it. My trip to Cannes, including hotel, food, entertainment, everything, was about $2,500. The additional money I made off that one sale far more than covered my expenses.
And we sold Scandinavia on that trip, too, for a whopping $75,000. The buyer brought his family to Howard's suite and they quietly watched all of his trailers; but when the Street Trash trailer came on, his kids started laughing and shouting at the special makeup effects, and he observed them carefully. He left without a committal, but later returned and bid about twenty thousand more than my lawyer had advised me to expect. He really wanted the film, and it was his kids' reactions to the trailer that did it.
I recommend that if you get a foreign sales agent, you go along for the first year to each market, and learn.
After the first year, it didn't pay to fly to each marketing convention and put myself up. Most of the larger territories had been sold, though on a few the advances hadn't been collected yet. And so, I stopped following Howard around. And that's when he started cheating us. A student came into my SVA class in the fall of '87 and said he'd seen Street Trash playing all over Italy under a different title. Howard's quarterly financial statements claimed that Italy hadn't paid their advance yet, and my deal with Howard stipulated that until a country paid their advance, they weren't to be given the film elements from which to strike their masters. I called him on it, and on several other territories that had never come in, and in the end, the executive producer, and I, and the director, flew out to L.A. for a tense confrontation with him.
We got some money on that trip, but not the bulk of it. In the year that followed, I was contacted by a Los Angeles district attorney. Seems Howard had been cheating bigger fish than us, and they were willing to take it to court. I testified along with several other individuals and companies as to Howard's shady business practices, and together we sent him to prison. But I never recovered the money he'd swindled us out of. All I had was the satisfaction of seeing him not get away with it. So here's some more advice: Don't trust these guys too far. They know you've only got one film to peddle, and limited funds to peddle it with, and that you're not going to be able to monitor carefully what they do. At the very least, insist contractually that they can't close a deal without your okay, even if it means reaching you by phone from whatever country they're in. They'll moan that a deal could be killed within an hour if they can't reach you. Too bad. Retain that power, or you're asking to get screwed.
Foreign sales agents are like actors, and DPs, and editors. You've got to interview as many of them as you can, to see which ones genuinely respond to your product, and which ones you connect with. And then you've got to find out whom else they've represented, and check on their credentials.
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