Monday, November 2, 2009

Meeting the enemy and Bag o' Films

There's an old filmmaker saying about distributors and sales agents; don't look for one who'll steal from you, rather find the one who'll steal from you the least.

This is the week where creative film people come face to face with their dreaded enemy. The sales agents and distributors. It's true that without them, we would cease to exist, and conversely, so would they.

It's a reluctant pact we sign with each other, we who care about our product after months of nurturing it and touching it up so it looks pretty enough to sell. And them, who care about how much money they can sell it for and how much they can take out of our share without us knowing it.

Starting Wednesday is the American Film Market, known simply as AFM. It is where sales agents and distributors converge at the Loews Santa Monica Beach hotel and the Le Merigot Beach Hotel as they have done for 28 years to buy and sell movies. Movies of every kind, color and size. Movies with Michael Madsen and movies with actors you've never heard of, and even movies with big stars. Action, erotic, comedies, dramas, science-fiction, horror and every other genre you can think of or create. And big names show up as well, Peter Jackson and A-list actors. It's a somewhat tackier version of Cannes as no awards are given. Just sales.

And chances are you have not heard of 90% of them. 

And you never will.

These are usually foreign movies from all over the world with stars you may know or probably don't. But there are American films there too, and Canadian films as well. A distributor or sales agent can show you a 2 minute trailer for a gentle love story and if you pass, he'll show you Dead Sex Vampires from Hell without blinking. It's a wide open market where anything goes... as long as it sells.

My first experience with AFM was way back in 1981 when I made Ghostkeeper and we brought it here with our sales agent, Alex Massis. I walked through the several floors of hotel rooms in awe of the sheer volume of movies of which most I had never heard of. The little guys had one room while the bigger studios like Universal had complete suites with private screenings of trailers and perqs like candy and keychains.

In addition, movies are screened on Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade theaters, a short shuttle bus ride from the hotel. This is where you as a filmmaker sit in the dark hoping for hundreds of buyers to show up, then pleading for 20, and finally begging for 5 of whom 2 will leave within the first 20 minutes. It's a killer business and this is where you get to see what your precious movie is really worth.

Sometimes it's not pretty.

Where do these movies go?

The good ones and the ones that aren't that good will get US theatrical and/or an audience in DVD land, are sold fairly well. The United States is the biggest market and everyone aims for that. The other 90% are put into what my friend Paul Lynch refers to as "Bag o' Films". Rather than try to sell each film individually, sellers will offer a package of maybe 20 films, of which 5 are pretty good, 5 are bad and 10 are really awful. And if you want the good movies, you have to take some bad movies. All for one price.

You have a great little character-driven movie? Or a comedy with a once-famous actor, or maybe an action thriller with... yes, Michael Madsen?

This is where it'll likely end up in.

So how do you make money?

Well, after the sellers pay the entrance fee of around $800 and then hotel, meals and airfare if they're from out of town, and after taking potential buyers to Chez Jay across the street or to the more expensive restaurants within walking distance, and then of course, the cost of posters, DVDs, trailers, perqs (remember that free keychain?) and then the seller's 35% commission (more or less), well, all the rest of the money is yours.

Naturally you share the costs with other filmmakers who have their films with the same seller, but by the time the audit happens, it's almost impossible to find out how much of your money he kept for himself. And unless it's in the hundreds of thousands of dollars it's too costly to sue. Not that it doesn't happen.

So why use a sales agent or distributor.

Why can't you just sell it yourself?

You can do this but consider one thing; if you want to sell foreign rights, do you have the connections? Can you call Onario in Rome and offer your movie. Or Julio in Bolivia? Can you depend on them giving you a fair price and even more important, can you depend on them to pay you. What if Turkey doesn't pay you, will you go there and demand your money?

That's where the sales agents and distribs come in. They have relationships with all of these foreign markets, they know their buyers and the buyers know they have to pay what is owed, otherwise no more movies. A buyer in a foreign country who tries to swindle a sales agent could be blackballed for a long time. And he needs product to make money.

So on Wednesday, I will take my little handful of postcards, some proposals, some phone numbers and a few meetings and hustle Travel Day to those people I have just described to you. And I will smile and laugh and maybe, just maybe buy one of them a coffee. I will see people I've seen before, producers who had seen better days lurking in the lobby where anyone can hang around, semi-famous actors looking for work, directors looking for work, writers looking for work and girls in bikinis advertising horror or comedy films made in Italy or Germany or even America.

I usually last 2 hours before I run screaming onto Ocean Boulevard like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There's no business like show business.

For a look at AFM go to My Blog List and click on 
the listing. And if you've never been and you're in town, drop by the hotel lobby, it's the only free show there.