Do You (really) Need A Sales Agent?

At this very moment probably there’s no a filmmaker that didn’t question those simple but yet very important words.
I’ll spare you a longer debate on this topic and go with a simple YES. Yes you do, stop fooling yourself.
And here are the 5 main reasons on why you should go with a yes:
- you’re new to all of this;
- you have no idea how it works;
- even less you know to whom to offer your film. Now, don’t worry, you’re not the only one;
- it is definitely 24/7 hour job, not something you can do along the way;
- in other words you’ll have no time for a new project you’re starting/or plan to start (we wouldn’t like to see you giving up on it)

Some of you have probably heard about at least one filmmaker who decided to go alone mostly because he/she considered having a sales agent is just a waste of time (read money). Now, I wonder how much their own ”time” they’ve managed to waste. Not to mention if they had any new projects made in the meantime.

On the other hand we’ve all heard stories about sales agents exploiting filmmakers… Sadly, those stories are true. I should know, I witnessed some of them (about that maybe some other time).

Before going into this topic more wider let’s first define a sales agents, by making it clear who they are not:

Sales agents are NOT all mighty (though they tend to think that. Sorry agents!).
Don’t expect from them to make you a millionaire. But by now you’re already aware that film making (sadly) will not bring you too much money. Walt Disney once said: ”We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies” (particularly true in documentary world).

I bet you’re joggling several jobs just to have enough income that  you could invest in your new project you’re so excited about.

Sales agents are NOT distributors. 
I’ve noticed lately that filmmakers tend to confuse these two different things. So, let’s (hopefully) clear the confusion:

Distributors (simply said) are companies who bring your film to a theaters, TV and VOD channels, DVD platforms, educational institutions (you know libraries, schools, stuff like that), and all that in the country they’ve registered their business at, the one you’ve made the deal for. More on this subject in some of my future posts.

While sales agents (simply said) are companies who represent your film internationally and make deals with the above mentioned distributors, TV channels, VOD channels, festivals, educational institutions,… in other words with anyone who’s interested in your film.

Now we’ve come to a more delicate part of this post. Remember how I mentioned those exploited filmmakers? The reason for that situation is …wait, wait for it….The contract.

For a sales agent to be able to represent your film internationally they’ll, of course, need you to sign the contract with them first (some call it also World Sales Distribution Agreement).

Many first-time filmmakers make a mistake and simply rush into things, by signing the first piece of paper they get offered (not you of course, you’re ace :).  Maybe they tend to do that because they’re afraid sales agent will change their mind, drop out the film… or they’re simply naive and blindly trust everyone…
Just remember how much love, time, money (and nerves) you’ve invested into your film… easily handing it over to someone who wouldn’t treat it with love and care is just, sorry, being plain stupid.

Trust me, no sales agent will give up or change their mind regarding your film. They want your film because they’re sure it can bring them money (yes, in their email to you they’ll say all the nice things: how it’s one of a kind, beautiful, amazing piece of the work, they’ve never seen anything like that before…, but reading between the lines it all sums up to $$$).

Therefore, if your film gets rejected from a sales agent(s) (God forbid!) it’s not because your film is badly made or it doesn’t have ”that spark”, but because they don’t see it bringing them money (but we both know they’re wrong, right? ;).  Would you believe me if I’d tell you that ”Sofia’s Last Ambulance” (yes, you guessed, THAT documentary I ”molest” you with on twitter all the time) was rejected from several sales agents. Oh, yes. I assume they didn’t find it very special. Well, that win in Cannes proved them being wrong. I bet Films Boutique, SLA’s sales agent, would like to thank them for that.

Ok, let’s cut to the chase. Below are listed the most common parts of a sales agreement between you, a filmmaker and a sales agent

1. Duration of the agreement

The last thing you need in your life is an agreement with a duration of 15-20 years (ouch!). Believe me that happens in the documentary world.
For you and your film ideally would be between 2 to 3 years (don’t go longer than 5 years!).
Remember, you can and should always include in the contract the clause ”with possible agreement renewal” (you can decide whether it will be on the same period of time or even shorter, what ever suits you the best). That way if you’re happy with their work so far, you can renew the contract. And if that’s not the case, you can continue on your own or look out for some other sales agent (to be honest so far I’ve seen only filmmakers continuing on their own. If you know a situation where a sales agent took over a film who had previously been represented by another sales agent please feel free to comment below).

Why should you go with a short term? You’ll breath easily knowing that things like this won’t happen: ”… If we personally knew all of this would happen, we’d never sign it for 14 years. We thought to bring the whole case on court, but after speaking with our lawyer we decided not to; damn, we’re not able to do anything besides wait these several years to pass :(… ” – one depressed filmmaker from Czech Republic. Not to mention the fact that by the time you get your film back it will be too old (and unexploitable).

In my life I’ve been always lead by ”Better safe then sorry” and from what I had a chance to see/hear so far, I would say in a film industry it’s a motif to act accordingly.

2. Services

There are two main services sales agents can be doing for you and your film: Sales and Festivals. Ideally you should let them do the both, of course in case they are interested (it can happen that sales agent don’t see your film as a festival potential, which means you’ll have to deal with that on your own. Fear not, there are things like Film Festival Life!).

2.1 Sales

For all the hard work they’ll do for your film, sales agents naturally need to be paid. Around 99 % of them will ask for a certain percentage from every sale. Truth to be told I’m not a fan of those 1% who will ask you for a monthly fee whether there’s a sale or not (avoid them at any cost. Otherwise you won’t see a dime.)

When it comes to a percentage, it’s different from company to company. From what I could find out (talking to some of them) it varies from 15 to 40(!) percent.

Last year, I had a chance to be present at one of the masterclasses of Min-Chul Kim, the producer of Planet Of Snails. (If you haven’t seen this great documentary, you should. It is for a reason on my Docs You Have To See list).
At one point conversation somehow ended with a certain filmmaker complaining how his sales agent was taking 40%  from every sale of his film. Min-Chul’s reaction to that: ”Maybe you should hire me a next time. I’d never let them take that much”.  And he’s right!

What you should know is that the fee, like everything else in the contract, IS negotiable and it IS possible to get it lower for at least a 5 % (especially if you ran into a sales agents who will ask you to give them 35% of the ”cake”).

2.2 Festivals

World, International, National  Premiere…deadlines, submission fees…which festival is the best for my film… all of this can be quite confusing for a filmmaker. That’s why having a sales agent taking care of it can be a quite handy, especially when it comes to charging a festival fees. Yes, that’s right. Festivals DO pay a fees (exceptions are the major ones like SXSW, Berlinale, Sundance FF, Cannes, …). Just to clarify I’m not writing here about a submission/entry fees you need to pay to a festival. But, about the fee the festivals have to pay to you (that is to your sales agent if you have one) as a some kind of a compensation for showing your film.

During a festival in Czech Republic last year, at one of those masterclasses a certain young filmmaker from one of the Balkan countries mentioned how she gave all 100% of a festival fees to her sales agent. When she heard that it’s a common practice (and it’s not a secret) that those fees are and should be shared 50%-50%…well, the look on her face said it all…

Therefore, don’t. even. think. about giving up on your 50%. Screening fees vary from 200 to 1300 Euros depending on the budget and the reputation of a festival; so, if we assume that your film will be screened at least 10 festivals…well, you do the math on how much money you’re giving up on. Besides, this may be the only income you’ll see before any sale: it may take up to more than 6 months before you see the first results (you have to understand that acquisition people are overwhelmed with screeners and your film is certainly not the only one they have to see. Besides, they have life too you know).

2.2.1 Market costs

Certain film festivals (e.g. Visions Du Reel, HotDocs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Dok Leipzig, Sunny Side Of The Doc, IDFA, …) have something that is called the market: a special place intended just for a film professionals ( TV/VOD buyers/distributors/festival programmers…in other words for anyone who’s interested in buying your film). Here they are able to see your film in piece and quiet (without having to be with us, ordinary mortals :). For your film to appear at the market, naturally a certain fee needs to be paid.  These costs can be from 30 to 250 Euros per one entry, depending on the festival.

There are 2 ways market costs can be paid:

- by a filmmaker (you), before the festival starts (not recommended. Remember, you’re broke. There’s still no income);

by your sales agent, before the festival starts (recommended). BUT, you should know that they will ask you to refund them that money (you didn’t expect they will be so kind and treat you, now did you?). It’s strongly recommended that you let them recoup the market fees costs from the upcoming sales (no sale = no recoupment = no costs from your side. Plus, I guess that way they’ll be more motivated to make a sales happen more quickly).

Make sure that the fact ”the market costs will be recouped from the upcoming sales” is clearly stated in the agreement (I doubt sales agents will mention it in the draft agreement they’ll send to you. It’s on you to suggest/demand it). Also, you should make sure that market participation fees are capped (you don’t want to see yourself paying it indefinitely). To what amount? It’s up to you and your sales agent (make sure that the limit is as low as possible. I’ve seen cases where market costs were capped up to 1000-1500 euros. So, I guess everything above that amount would be exaggeration).

3. Territories

In the agreement you’ll be signing with a sales agent, it’s especially important to define in which territories they’ll act as a representatives of your film. Naturally, you will have to keep production countries for yourself (as already specified in the agreement you have with your producer/s).

4. Sales reports & payments

One of the obligations of a sales agents is to produce a sales report monthly or quarterly (that is in every three months) and send it to you. Exact dates should be defined in the agreement. Make sure that in the contract you have a clause by which you’ll able to request all the invoices and contracts, as well as a clause which will give you the right to request interests on every late payments (I had seen these things happening too often).

Last but not least: get a lawyer if you’re not confident enough to deal with this on your own. Make sure that he/she already had experience in dealing with things like these. Trust me, it will cost you less than a headache you might get after several days/months upon signing the agreement.

Remember: Like with every contract your goal is to have as less costs and obligations as possible. Reputable sales agents should be willing to accept terms in the contract that protect filmmakers interests.

And now, to ease your pursuit, the list of the sales agents everyone has heard of (the list is in no particular order)

Cat N Docs - 30+ years of experience in this business, plus not many sales agents can brag on having an Oscar nominee in it’s fold (5 Broken Cameras sounds familiar?);

First Hand - present at every market, speakers at various panels, close to 300 films in a catalogue…

- Autlook - well known Austrian sales agent;

Films Boutique - they mainly represent art house film, but there’s a space for extraordinary documentaries (it’s just enough to look at their catalogue, not to mention that their titles get seen at approximately 80 festivals worldwide);

Wide House - presented in every cinema/TV market (literally), so you don’t have to worry will your film get enough exposure;

Fortissimo Films - offices in Amsterdam, London, Hong Kong, Beijing; representing the work of a filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock, Wong Kar Wai, Mira Nair,…

The Match Factory - they successfully represent all kinds of films (art house, documentaries, animated, you name it);

Rise And Shine - they act as producers, distributors, sales agents (all in one);

Film Transit - founded in 1982 (probably the only sales agent out there that lasts this long). Rumor has it that they decided to join their forces with Autlook to get the maximum exposure for their films (which is certainly good);

- Sideways Film - very young sales agency, but it’s enough to look at their testimonials page to know they might be exactly what filmmakers look for;

Dogwoof Global - International sales arm of a very well known UK distributor.

P.S. While you’re on the look out for a sales agent, don’t be afraid to ask around and hear what others have to say about their work (Especially pay attention to how many filmmakers gave them their second, third… title. If they went to someone else with their newly piece of art, well…). Believe it or not sales agents themselves are very open and will tell you the truth about their competitors (which I found very surprising to be honest).

There. Hope you enjoyed. All I can do now is to wish you luck (and keep fingers you’ll have a great experience with a sales agents. You certainly deserve it).

One thought on “Do You (really) Need A Sales Agent?

  1. Thanks for this blog. Helpful and interesting. I’ve been working on a documentary for a couple of years and am starting to wonder how it’s going to reach an audience. Anxious…

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