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Industry Report: Distribution and exhibition

Producers’ relationships with sales agents and distributors


- Irina Ignatiew is Executive Vice President International of Telepool GmbH München. She heads the world sales division of international distributor Telepool, and is responsible for the sales of more than 20.000 hours and growing TV library including the vast catalog of Germany’s No. 1 commercial broadcaster RTL, as well as a variety of theatrical feature films, including international animation hit Niko and The Way to the Stars, Walt Disney Germany’s Lilly the Witch, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Angelface and Marleen Gorries’ Within the Whirlwind starring Oscar Nominee Emily Watson.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Paul Young is a co-founder and CEO of Cartoon Saloon, Producer of the animated feature The Secret of Kells and Executive Producer of the animated children's series Skunk Fu! which has sold globally to territories including the BBC, Super RTL, Kids WB and Cartoon Network in the US.

Can you use an example you’ve been working - The Secret of Kells – co-produced by Cartoon Saloon, to illustrate the relationship between a sales agent, co-producer and theatrical distributor?
Paul Young. The Secret of Kells was done in a very traditional way. We presented the project at the Cartoon Movie in 2000. We partnered with our French co-producers, Les Armateurs, France Television and Gébeka Films. From a very early stage of development we had a sales agent interested. We also partnered with a Belgium company, called Vivi Films. In the end it was a three-way coproduction where Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon kept the UK and Ireland as our territory to have the rights, Les Armateurs kept France and Vivi Films kept Belgium with a little part of France.

We share the rights outside. Our sales agent is Celluloid Dreams. Financially it was a complicated production, because it was with three partners. Creatively it was a good co-production because everybody was very involved in the production from the beginning, included the sales agent.

In Ireland we ended with the financing after three years of development, with the involvement of Disney to distribute the film in Ireland.

How did you market the film in different territories?
Paul. The marketing in France was more in line with how we felt the film should be presented. Even though the sales were not as we expected even in France, I think it was a difficult time to bring out a film at the moment. In Ireland the film didn’t work as well as we expected.

In France we got feedback from Gébeka and from France TV. I think is very important for the sales agent to know exactly what kind of movie is being made, so that they can target the right audience and decide how the film is going to be pitched with posters and trailers.

I think what happened in Ireland was that Disney didn’t know what the film was and we pitched it a little bit more like a Disney film, I don’t know whether it was wrong or right, but it was just different from they way it was pitched in France, in Belgium and internationally. The film was also coming out soon in the US, in Canada and in Australia. It’s very different from a commercial film like Kung-Fu Panda in the sense that it’s more traditional for younger children and family audience. I think pitching it more like a Disney commercial film it might give the wrong impression in Ireland.

How far can the sales agent go in the process of discussing at an early stage of development, like the script, production?
Irina. We can’t do it for every single project, we have over 20.000 hours of programmes in our catalogue and when we are talking about feature films we’d love to come in as early as possible. We can advise at the financing when there is a certain gap the sales agent can fill… we try to minimize that obviously and we’re not thinking we can get the part of the creator process, we want to make money for us, we want to make money for the producer, that’s our job.

But, on the other hand, when we read a project, we carefully look at the track record, is there a brand behind it? Is it a unique story? Everything starts in the story telling and we like to advise producers that may have certain expectations from international markets, explain the cultural differences in the territories, what they like to buy and what they consider as commercial and what they don’t consider as commercial. For us, is into our own interest, and also the producer’s, to come as early as possible.

When we have something we fell in love with, we show it very early to the market place, we choose the international distributors that we feel are the most appropriate for the project, because not every project should be released by Disney or not every project should be released by small distributors.

We continuously, especially in the animation side, show very early stages of animation, we’re showing turn around, we go the various international markets. Our main markets: the Berlinale, the Cannes Film Festival and the AFM. Toronto is getting more and more important. We go to that places, we need the clients… on a regular market day we have team meetings, we sit in our booths…

The promo is a very very important part of our sale stage besides flyers, turnarounds, scripts, besides being able to tell the story and make somebody be passionate about it and spend a lot of money on it. It’s because we have to show the creativity, more of the story and that’s why a four minutes promo is very important in the sale process.

It usually takes, especially for animated films, a good 2 years on the sales stage.

We are very eager to bring a certain number of international distributors together to have meetings. It is very important in the relationship with the producer to access as much material as possible at a very early stage, to be more able to create an international campaign.

Do you feel that producers are now flexible to accept comments, remarks in the development phase?
Irina. It is always collaboration between the two. The important thing is that the producer needs to understand that we’re doing a different job.

We had a project called Lily the witch, which is a fairly unique project because it combines live action with CGI. It was originally a book series, and a German producer acquired that and coproduced with Disney Germany. It was the first time that a European film received the Walt Disney branding. We had certain agitations from the producing side like “should we show earlier animated scenes? This is not really something that is finished, we don’t feel comfortable showing that to the international audience…”. What we tried to explain to them is that our client know exactly how the process was. There has to be a certain trust between the sales agent and the producer It is our own interest to do the very best for the project to find the perfect distributor in the respective country and we can work with early rough material.

Can you compare TV shows and movies?
Irina. On the TV side you have much more specific target audience that you’re trying to get. On the feature film side, is more important to reach the entire family to have not only pre-schools but also children between 6 and 10.

As far as series are concerned, there are certain limitations in pricing, it becomes very difficult for sales agent to place animated series on TV because advertising revenues have dropped, especially in that particular audience.

On the feature side, it’s always: what is the demand? What is the uniqueness of the project? At the moment, what is the trend? What international clients are asking from a sales agent?

Do you feel a sales agent should also get involved in co-production?
Irina. From the Telepool perspective we would like to co-produce, but it’s really a question of how the financing structure of the film is and how big the gap is. If you need a lot of money a co-production may make more sense, if you are almost fully financed, from a producer point of view, I would hire a sales agent not a co-producer.

How did you end up with Telepool?
Paul. I first went to the market not knowing anything about it. But we still met a lot of people that were able to give us guide that was very valuable.

You see many many pictures, what did you take into consideration when choosing a project?
Irina. What we really look at is the package, the story is the base of everything. We want to see what kind of financing you have brought together. It’s really a question of what the producer want and maybe we consider if maybe we are not the right agents for the project, we look from a very commercial point of view and it’s important to us that it appeals to the entire audience, it’s more for a target audience? is it too German?, is it too Irish?, is it too French? And then it’s also the feeling, how we fell in love with the film, you can feel much better when you like it.

The production process of an animation project is much longer compared to action movies…
Irina. With animated films we have pictures for two years in the marketplace and we can continuously inform our international agents. In the larger territories we like to have the producers at our meetings with the clients because we strongly believe that a producer can always pitch a project better than a sales agent. People sometimes assume that we can sell anything, but we like to have whenever possible the producer on board and it can help tremendously.

It’s a bit difficult, because as a producer you have a baby you want to be very careful in where and who you pitch your project to, I would not pitch an animated film to a distributor who doesn’t have any experience in releasing such a film. If it’s an animation you have to dub it, to be able to do creative marketing campaigns, it’s very different to live action.

You’re talking about two years on the process of selling, what happen doing this process? Is it that you make one selling after another? How these contracts are made?
Irina. Usually when we start with the pre-sales we send short trailers or promoreels as much as it advanced in the production. And with contracts, usually they pay a minimum guarantee, they pay a percentage of the value of the contract and the rest come when the film is finished and we can deliver it to the client. Within the two years, the earlier you sell, the best, but the majority of the revenue comes when the film is finished and you can deliver it to the client.

What do you think about minimum guarantee?
Irina. Usually, at a very early stage, maybe too early, we are used to do what we called a self-estimate, often at the script stage when the movie hasn’t started yet, the producer needs to go to the bank and get financing and it’s always better when the producer shows an advance of a sales agent.

In terms of a minimum guarantee, obviously, everybody wants to avoid risks. The good projects are lacking financing so the sales agent become an important part of the financing, and growingly because networks are willing to invest less and less.

I can’t say a specific percentage, because it really depends on what we feel we can get out from the international market, what the producer can meet in terms of closing the financing and that is a matter of discussion.

For theatrical films, giving an MG is a little bit more difficult because it depends on the trends that you’re running. As it takes two years to sell a project, certain trend passes very quickly…

The sales agent is more active with the marketing of the movie, investing in deciding for market and doing promoreels … is this becoming an increasing part of your job?
Irina. I think you have to differentiate between good marketing, expensive marketing and what the producer expect to get out of the film, the revenue.

In Telepool we try not to spend too much money on marketing, we are more interested in travelling, going to the market, talking about the project…

The dialogue with the producers is essential: what exactly do you want to do at the market? Do you think is necessary to do a party? What we do expect in terms of revenue? What is the need of the producer in terms of what will land in his pocket? I’ve seen many sales agents who have done exactly that, they’ve paid a minimum guarantee, then they made all deals but they spend so much money on festivals and in marketing, that the producer never sees any money. We try to minimize that, the question is it’s maybe more sexy to have a big poster on the Croissette, but I’m not sure it helps that much.

For traditional films it’s very important for distributors to have the exclusive rights in their respective territory and don’t do a non-exclusive thing, I think we’re all here to make money, so the local distributors are specialist in their country.

Talking about the relationship between the sales agent and local distributors, do you think sales agents should be involved, not to control the marketing of a theatrical release or DVD sales in the country, but to be in a position to say yes to the poster?
Irina. Not only we exchange on an international level what kind of marketing campaign local distributors will do, but also we are the experts in the various territories, and I’m not doing that by myself, I have agents who are the absolute experts in the territories, who know exactly who are the right distributors for our project, what are the admission numbers in France, Bulgaria, South Korea, Argentina… for the genre we are selling, what would be the appropriate person, what kind of revenues do they generate…

It’s not that we want to control, but we want to support the distributor especially in smaller territories.

We know getting money from the local distributors is now difficult because independent distributors are facing financial problems, and it seems that some bodies investing in cinema, such as Eurimages, are suggesting the use of collecting agents, in other words, a specific company in charge of collecting the money. What’s your feeling about it?
Irina. I wonder why. I would like to know the reasons. Well, it depends, if you’re a big company like Telepool, we have a fantastic accounting division of nine or ten people, so I think it doesn’t make any sense to spend extra money for a collecting agent. It’s different with smaller sales agent who doesn’t have the ability to do it; I know US companies have a lot of collecting agents. A collecting agent takes 3% or 5%, and that’s money the producer will not get.

Are you facing problems with local distributors trying to change the basic agreement?
Irina. Rarely, we had some problems in the past with Eastern Europe. If a local distributor send me an e-mail and tell me “Irina I don’t know how to bring out this film, I have no money for P&I, can you help me?” And it’s a good client, we’ll have conversations. We had cancellation deals in India, people who come in and buy and then you never hear from them again, so we try to avoid dealing with companies that we don’t know if we’ll have a future together.

What would be the best festival or market for a producer and a sales agent to find each other and sign the deal?
Irina. I would say before a festival, because at a festival one can talk, one can meet… It’s much better to meet before a festival, before a market. Cartoon is a very good way to have a lot of conversations about projects. In Toronto you sometimes have some more time than in Cannes or Berlin to discuss projects in more details.

I guess you’d be also interested in being contacted directly.
Irina. Always. We work in between the markets, so we have more time to read and evaluate projects in between the markets, so it’s thoughtful when you do that.


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