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The changing nature of sales under the spotlight at the HFM


- Industry experts discussed the changing nature and role of sales companies at Utrecht’s Holland Film Meeting

The changing nature of sales under the spotlight at the HFM
(l-r) Vanessa Saal, head of Worldwide Sales, Protagonist Pictures; Jason Ishikawa, head of International Sales, Cinetic Media; Tanja Meissner, head of International Sales & Acquisition, Memento Films International; moderator Uzma Hasan, Little House Productions (© Birgit Heidsiek)

At the recent Holland Film Meeting (HFM) in Utrecht, sales agents discussed changes to acquisitions and sales due to SVoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. “Today we know more about what it means to sell a film to Netflix or Amazon. If you go theatrical it won’t go so well,” said Vanessa Saal, head of Worldwide Sales at Protagonist Pictures.

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“Amazon is building an in-house strategy for distribution, so they’re not partnering with other distributors,” stressed Jason Ishikawa, head of the International Sales division at New York-based film and media company Cinetic Media. In Toronto, the world sales company has made a deal with the subscription platform that YouTube is launching for the new documentary Supersize Me 2 by Morgan Spurlock. “We were happy that this new platform allowed us to put out a theatrical release because they only have SVoD in seven countries and an exclusive window with Google Play.” 

“The role of the sales agent is to protect the film,” emphasised Tanja Meissner, head of International Sales & Acquisitions at French sales outfit Memento Films International, which has a strong line-up of European arthouse films. At the AFM, the company made pre-sales for the crime-drama Good Time by Benny and Josh Safdie, which premiered at Cannes. “Netflix came in later,” underlined Meissner. “All of that’s possible to a certain extent.” On average, about 25% of the films on VoD are European. But there’s no transparency around how foreign films perform on these subscription platforms. “Companies like Netflix don’t share their data.”

There’s also a huge amount of competition between the various world sales groups looking for talent. “We have 44 sales agents in France,” said Meissner. It’s also become harder to discover filmmakers at festivals. “Festivals are key for sales and the distribution strategy of a film,” opined Saal. “The sales agent can figure out the right festival and slot for the film. We need to be a part of it because it’s difficult when a film has already been shown at a festival.”

Meanwhile, in the USA, the ecosystem is dominated by agencies. If a filmmaker has great success with his first feature film, world sales won’t be able to take his second film. “A lot of our clients come with very specific projects with which agencies don’t get involved,” explained Cinetic's head of Sales. “We have a lot of relationships with directors and actors such as Ethan Hawke.” The company also handled sales for Borg/McEnroe [+see also:
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at Toronto because they had already helped director Janus Metz Pedersen to finance his first feature.

"We have a curatorial role, which is proven by the fact that we choose the films that we represent," concluded Meissner. “That is a brand for good films.” Some sales companies use algorithms, as Ishikawa reported. “We survive because the people in the market know that we have good taste,” summarised Saal. “The algorithm can’t compete with that.”

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