How to Know if Your Documentary is in Need of a Sales Agent
Unsure of what a sales agent does or how they could benefit your project? Let's break it down.
Documentary filmmakers know, that in order to make a film, we have to wear many hats. We're often a combination of directors, producers, cinematographers, sound operators, and editors...and due to low budgets, we even find ourselves as accountants, production assistants, and grant writers; the list goes on and on. We can’t be experts in every field, and in some cases, it can be vital to delegate the tasks to someone else, particularly in areas where professional expertise can make or break our chances of our projects getting seen (and of recouping our time and money).
One of those areas may be the act of selling our films. At NYWIFT’s (New York Women in Film & Television) Film Financing Day for Documentary Features held at NYU/Tisch, we heard from leading film sales agents on four key questions documentary filmmakers should consider. The panel—titled "Demystifying Sales Agents"—was moderated by film producer Alexis Alexanian and included Ben Braun (Director of Sales and Distribution at Submarine Entertainment/Submarine Deluxe), Alexis Galfas (Head of Tracking at Cinetic Media), and David Kennedy (Executive at Saboteur Media).
1. What exactly does a sales agent do?
From tracking and signing projects to helping with festival strategy, assessing market trends, securing financing, and finally, to selling films, sales agents work on a variety of elements of a film’s release into the marketplace.
Not all agents help with all stages of a film's production, but Saboteur is hands-on in many areas. Kennedy shared that their mandate is “to find films we can help finance, help with the post-production, and sell both domestically and internationally.” The company also has a New York City-based post facility: Goldcrest Post NY.
Agents occasionally must have difficult conversations with filmmakers who have long dreamed of a certain trajectory for their film which agents may see as not the best (or even a possible path) for the project. Kennedy discussed the necessity of being realistic and straightforward with filmmakers: “We’re in front of [film buyers/distributors] all the time, and so we manage expectations. Tell filmmakers the truth. Manage expectations. [What they want] doesn’t always work.”
Braun noted that his team often attends filmmaker markets, such as IFP Week, in search of great projects to track throughout the year.
2. What makes a sales agent sign on to a project?
While each individual sales agent has their process for selecting projects, often each company has to reach an internal consensus on the films they select. Braun shared that since it’s a family-owned business, it’s often their staff’s “gut reactions” that lead to them coming on board.
One case study he provided was for Nanfu Wang’s I Am Another You. “It was such an artful masterpiece [that] we had to do it.," Braun admitted, "even if on paper it was uncommercial.” This demonstrates that while a company like Submarine is a successful business, they also make decisions based on their own passion for films, as opposed to solely taking on projects they're sure will be financially profitable. Braun noted that his team often attends filmmaker markets, such as IFP Week, in search of great projects to track throughout the year.
Kennedy gleans valuable information from a documentary’s budget. “If I see a doc budget that’s millions of dollars, I’m already skeptical of what’s in front of me because I know what’s on the other side of that. Whereas if a film [has] already been shot, the access has been granted and they need a few $100,000 then you’re starting to say, ‘alright, this might be something for us.’”
When Cinetic is considering a film, they like to make sure that they're able to come on at the right time in a film’s release. “It’s tough to come on board if it’s already premiered at a festival,” says Galfas, as Cinetic’s strategy involves getting ready to put their team’s best foot forward by strategically preparing the film leading up to the festival, maximizing the sales opportunities there.
3. Why is it important to have a sales agent and when should they come aboard?
Each the agents agreed that you shouldn’t be shy about sending along your films to them, but that you should make sure you do it when you’re ready to be seriously considered. For example, Braun suggests not to contact them when you’ve just begun research on a subject’s Wiki page, but rather, after you’ve secured amazing access to an archive or a unique subject, etc.
In general, agents are more likely to come on board for filmmakers with a track record, but with the right story and access, they do consider debut documentarians. While newbies are often asked for a rough cut before agents will sign on, Braun stated that roughly 30% of the films they take on resulted from cold emails or calls; so it’s not always known entities that lead to a relationship.
Some distributors prefer to work via an agent and may balk at an offer if the filmmaker comes to them directly.
Cinetic often gets involved at the rough-cut stage and helps with festival strategy, thinking about where the film can and should premiere. Filmmakers “should have a whole sales team in place months before the festival, as it’s harder to make a good sale later,” offered Kennedy. Saboteur Media is “historically known for financing and producing," and unlike the other companies, they take just six docs per year and like to join a project as early as possible.
There are several reasons why having a sales agent is important, according to the panel. For one, films can be taken less seriously by distributors if they don't have an agent attached. Some distributors prefer to work via an agent and may balk at an offer if the filmmaker comes to them directly. They may judge that a filmmaker without an agent is not worth considering, or may not take them seriously. “People have said ‘oh it doesn’t have a sales agent? It must not be good,’” said Galfas. Even if we filmmakers know that’s not true, it’s useful to know we’re being judged on that criteria.
Many filmmakers are not versed in the multiple markets that may exist for their projects, and a seasoned agent can make sure that all of a film’s rights are sold for maximum profit.
Another benefit of having an agent, according to Galfas, is “so deals don’t get left on the table.” In other words, many filmmakers are not versed in the multiple markets that may exist for their projects, and a seasoned agent can make sure that all of a film’s rights are sold for maximum profit. Given the current, changeable marketplace, it helps to have a guide who knows the consequences of different sales decisions and knock-off effects that a filmmaker has to live with depending which path they take. “You don’t want to make a decision in a vacuum,” she said.
Obviously, one of the main objectives in bringing on an agent is to maximize the sale of your film. Braun says that they “have relationships with distributors and know who wants what”, and that their negotiating experience can “bring in more money to your deal.” Of course, bringing on an agent is not a free endeavor, and so filmmakers need to consider the cut of their sales that agents will take. According to the three panelists, this is typically between 10-20%.
4. What’s the state of the current marketplace?
We are in a time where docs seem to be more celebrated and appreciated than ever before, yet the funding to support the projects and the filmmakers who make them is still elusive. How can filmmakers make the most of the current market?
Kennedy observed, “It’s a top-heavy market. [For] the stuff that premieres at festivals that has a filmmaker with a track record of delivering hits, you have options…. but that’s very rare. Maybe a dozen films a year have that luxury of being able to choose exactly what they get to do with their release. After that, it gets dicier.” A lot of filmmakers face the “now what” moment when “the big offer does not come” and they are trying to recoup the money they spent on it. The reality is that many films struggle to find an audience. He continued, “I think it’s misleading that because Netflix, Amazon, and HBO are buying docs, there’s this feeling that there’s more being bought all the time. That’s not the case.”
There are nuanced decisions to be made which often involve a risk, and that's all the more reason to have sound guidance when figuring out what the most fruitful outcome for a project may be.
The good news is that there is not just one cookie cutter way for a film to have a successful run. Braun echoed Kennedy and added a hint of optimism, saying “There are lots of high highs out there for worldwide platform deals which you’re looking at in comparison to US theatrical deals. It becomes a question of 'what do I want for my film?' RBG (the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, currently in theaters) is a perfect example of a film where Netflix might not have been the right model for it;there was a theatrical deal and it ended up doing really well.”
Braun also added that sometimes the traditional feature model is not the best path for a film to be a hit. For Submarine’s popular series Wild Wild Country, the bingeable series model and focus on digital streaming was the perfect fit, even though Braun said it “wouldn’t have worked as a feature.”
There are nuanced decisions to be made which often involve a risk, and that's all the more reason to have sound guidance when figuring out what the most fruitful outcome for a project may be. For Galfas and Cinetic, watching RBG’s rise from a CNN production to a theatrical smash hit was an eye-opener that forced “filmmakers to really think about what the consequences of their decisions are going to be.” For example, if you decide to go for ITVS funding, then certain buyers may not bite because your rights are not fully available. Or, if you take a Netflix Originals deal, “they want all rights worldwide in perpetuity, so they’re going to have control of your film.“ These are just a handful of the many considerations that should go into a sales plan for a viable project.