Sales Execs Work on Timing Festival Releases in Complicated Marketplace

Movie International Sales

Cannes lends glamour and a white hot focus on films, which can be great for future box office. But it’s not that simple for international sales executives.

Sometimes they need to step back and gauge if Cannes is the ideal place to launch a film’s presales. And for certain completed films, they may have a rollout strategy that differs from the U.S. distributor, impacting their overseas distribs and their own bottom line. For most sellers, deciding where to launch a film’s presales is simply a matter of timing — depending on when talent comes together, they’ll usually debut it in Cannes or the American Film Market.

Berlin’s European Film Market traditionally ranks third in importance, mainly due to its February berth — one seller notes that there are just two weeks to package a film after their AFM sales and the holidays, as evidenced this year by a dearth of commercial theatrical projects.

“Unless it’s something you’ve been working on for a very long time, it’s extremely difficult,” says Fortitude Intl. co-founder and sales vet Nadine de Barros, adding that Toronto ranks a distant fourth for presales. “You can launch sales in Toronto and continue on to AFM, and a lot of people come in wanting to know what you have in the works for AFM, but most buyers are coming to Toronto to screen movies.”

Yet a popular market like Cannes isn’t always the best place to launch a film. “The buyers focus on the bigger movies in Cannes. They fare better, and I think the smaller movies struggle,” de Barros says. “It’s just not as easy to sell them.”

Lack of competition makes Berlin attractive and lucrative for some higher-profile pics, says Foresight Unlimited prexy Tamara Birkemoe, who did $60 million in business there two years ago with “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor.”

While holding a ready-to-go package for a specific market is rare, the clutter of the markets is causing some buyers to consider targeting the best launching pad for particular projects more often.

“In the future, I could see us having a package together for AFM and saying, ‘You know what? Let’s just hold this back for Berlin where we can have a bigger-fish-in-a-smaller-pond scenario,” says Lotus Entertainment co-founder Bill Johnson, who scored big presales with the Liam Neeson-toplined thriller “The Grey.” “You can have the landscape largely to yourself, and buyers will go aggressively after one of the few viable theatrical projects in the marketplace.”

Most films with strong theatrical potential are presold to overseas distribs before production begins, but sales companies with indies that aren’t strong genre or action titles often don’t have that luxury.

In those cases, using Sundance as a launch for sales to close either by or in Berlin (or Toronto for a similar approach with AFM) can be the best strategy.

For the Sundance-preemed “The Kids Are All Right,” Johnson says, “a lot of buyers took a wait-and-see approach.” After Focus picked up U.S., U.K., German and South African rights, the rest of the world sold out quickly, with some deals wrapped right after it screened in Berlin. “Sundance and Berlin can be a good one-two punch for smaller, finished films that are well received,” Johnson says.

Missing a quick one-two punch can have expensive consequences for sellers trying to complete overseas sales on their finished films. The two-part “Eleanor Rigby” had a strong debut in Toronto last fall, landing a U.S., Canadian, U.K. and French pickup from the Weinstein Co.

“The film was invited to Berlin and we were jumping up and down, because we really wanted to keep everyone’s attention on the film,” says Myriad Pictures founder Kirk D’Amico, “but the Weinstein Co. really wanted the film to go to Cannes.”

D’Amico says the Weinstein Co. also wanted to cut a one-part “Them” version to add to the two-part “Her” and “Him” versions, so although he was nearly sold out on overseas territories a few weeks before Cannes, the holdup meant a delayed domestic release date as buyers waited to see if the film would be accepted at the fest.

“All the people we’ve sold the film to aren’t going to take delivery of that film until they know when they can release it,” D’Amico notes. “Until then, you can’t get the distributors to pay the lion’s share of the minimum guarantee. In terms of our own cash flow it really hurts, and since the bank is charging interest, financiers have to pay more the longer they wait.”

Of course, for overseas sellers, Cannes can be worth the risk of acceptance, as well as the wait. The “Rigby” gamble paid off when all three versions got a spot in Un Certain Regard, and D’Amico says all three will be available to his overseas buyers, which will arguably help its international prospects.

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