WHAT DOES A SALES AGENT DO? / by chad walker

Today is the last day of DocNYC, which is billed, rightfully so, as New York’s Documentary Festival.  But the festival doesn’t just limit itself to great films.  Educating filmmakers is also a huge component to DocNYC.  Yesterday’s panels were built around the theme “Protect Your Rights” and covered topics including sales agents, fair use, crowdsourcing, revenues and royalties.  Great information was given throughout the day, but the session that I found the most useful was on sales agents, a niche of the business that I’ve always been somewhat mystified by.

The question the event posed was “Do I Need a Sales Agent?

In short, yep.  You do.

That’s not a surprising answer from a panel of three of the industry’s top sales agents.  Of course, the panel didn’t end there.  Over an hour and a half, Cinetic‘s Dana O’Keefe, Submarine‘s Josh Braun and Films Transit‘s Diana Holtzberg dropped some serious knowledge about what they do, why they do it and how they do it.

There are nuts and bolts to what a sales agent does, but what it boils down to is advocacy.  Your sales agent is someone that signs your film and not only negotiates the sale, but also positions the film to do as well as it can.  They specialize in devising and implementing a strategy for a film’s sale.  A sales agent–or at least the three that spoke yesterday–only gets paid if and when you get paid.  In other words, they want you to do well.  It’s how their business succeeds.  They champion your film.

So… how do they do that?  All three panelists discussed the importance of the relationships they have in the industry and how those relationships affect the placement of your film.  While they can’t, of course, guarantee that your film will get into Sundance, they did talk about how they have contacts in the right places when it comes to programmers.  They can pick up the phone and call an influential programmer directly to make sure your film gets seen.  That doesn’t mean you’ll get into Sundance, but it does mean your film won’t get lost in a stack of screeners.  You’ll at least get a shot.  Of course, when a top sales agent like Cinetic, Submarine or Films Transit signs your movie before a festival premiere, it brings instant credibility to your project.  Programmers, broadcasters, etc. are certain to pay more attention to a film when it’s been validated by one of these industry insiders.

This, of course, brings us to the question of when do you get a sales agent.  Each person on the panel said that they want to get involved with a film as early as possible (with Dana O’Keefe joking he just wants to make sure he sees a project before Josh Braun does).  In some cases, they said, seeing selected scenes or an extended trailer is enough to decide whether or not they will take on a film. At the very least, it allows them to track what they’re interested in.  Across the board, they said they want to see the film before picture lock.  In some cases, they’ll offer creative suggestions to make the film stronger.  But overall, the earlier you can let them know about your film, the better.  For those of you who have been thwarted by agents, producers, etc. who have a policy to not accept unsolicited submissions, you’ll be happy to know this is not a barrier for sales agents.  Their contact information is readily available and, though it sounds like each differs slightly on what they want to see in that initial contact, basically, a strong synopsis could be enough to get them to review your material.

Some other highlights from the panel:

-10% is the average commission a sales agent takes

-on rare occasions, they’d get involved as an Executive Producer and help raise funds

-sales agents build their plan around a filmmaker’s expectations (ie. if you want a theatrical release, they’ll try to make that happen)

-agreements with sales agents are typically valid for 1-3 years (1 for Submarine/Cinetic, 3 for Films Transit)

-they suggested keeping a log of who’s seen your film and what you’ve shown them so they know if/how to re-approach those parties

-a sales agent helps negotiate the delivery schedule, which can end up saving you a lot of money in the end

Really, the word I took away from the day was advocacy.  Could you negotiate a deal on your own?  Absolutely.  Would it be the best deal available?  Maybe.  But in an environment that is constantly changing, sales agents are experts in how to maximize the value of your film.  And, with so many other players in the distribution paradigm trying to exploit your film, it seems like a sales agent is one of the few people fighting for you.