Film sellers adapt strategies for tough climate

Savvy sales agents in step with changing demand

Economic doom and gloom has been the background of the last several major international film markets, and this fall’s sales season seems no different — tougher, if anything.

That’s one thing sellers agree on. Another is that distributors worldwide have become choosier, less likely to respond to sales pressure and more likely to take their time before opening their checkbooks. Sales agents point to different causes and, refreshingly, they offer different approaches to dealing with the slowdown.

“We need one sort of platform to start making money, to replace the losses that have been sustained by theatrical and DVD markets. Nobody knows which it is going to be — Internet, cable VOD — or when it will happen,” says Wouter Barendrecht, co-chief of Hong Kong-based sales shingle Fortissimo Films. “That’s why the business is at an impasse right now.”

He adds that the shuttering of several Stateside indie buyers is “bad for the energy of the business” and that “there are far too many films chasing too few buyers.” Fortissimo, meanwhile, is bringing eight world premieres in Toronto and a selection of new projects and works in progress to November’s American Film Market.

In contrast to the U.S. woes, there has been less bloodletting internationally. But caution and the need for careful evaluation of the full economic value of film has slowed cross-border buying and selling patterns.

Still, there have been useful exceptions: Korean buyers returned in force earlier this year, Chinese independents are showing a willingness to buy, and Indian distributors have sucked up an estimated 1,000 pictures to feed three new world cinema TV channels, although most have been library titles. But no major seller or producer can finance a picture on Indian and Vietnamese presales.

Savvy sales agents have recognized the need to stay in step with changing demand.

“Per-capita cinemagoing is falling in many places, people are becoming more picky as to what they go to and see. But when people like something, they go to great lengths to buy it,” says Thorsten Ritter, who heads Germany’s Bavaria Film Intl. “And as film sellers, we need to offer not just good films but marketable ones.”

And these films must be marketable on various evolving content platforms.

“We need to learn that not all films can be theatrical, not all films can go to TV as the number of TV slots is decreasing. We need to pick theatrical or DVD more precisely or even target particular distributors,” Ritter adds.

With all rights deals a rarity and output deals even scarcer these days, L.A.-based Frenchman Nicolas Chartier, who heads Voltage Pictures, is adopting an unbundling strategy.

“On features, we split more and more rights and sell TV and theatrical and video separately in Germany, Spain, U.K. and France,” he says. “Sometimes we even sell directly to consumers, making deals with newspapers, Internet or cell phone companies rather than distributors.”

Voltage also is making content available in different formats. Dean Devlin-produced crime thriller “Blank Slate,” for example, comes as a 90-minute movie and as 20 five-minute webisodes as well as 20 two-minute interstitials, says Chartier, “so that buyers can sell the same film on TV, video, Internet and phones.”

L.A.’s IM Global, which handled international sales on such Toronto pics such as “Religulous” and “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” is also moving into new content areas. IM Global recently added a homevid and a TV department, and is starting to handle product such as comedic podcast “Tiki Bar TV” and short toon “J-Stache.” “Whatever that space is between DVD and TV, we’re going to do that as well,” says IM Global chief Stuart Ford. “We’re very conscious of the fact that it’s an evolving universe out there. Theatrical can be precarious in the best of times.”

Sharon Swart contributed to this report.

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