Sales agents work fest-market scramble

Film skeds, global uncertainties worry sales reps

The weeks leading up to the Cannes Film Festival and market can be the most intense of the year for international sales agents.

The notoriously late unveiling of the fest’s official lineup — this year on April 23, just three weeks before the event opens — typically leaves sales agents scrambling till the 11th hour to lock down their market slates. And this year’s worldwide economic, political and health uncertainties only add to the tension.

“We’re going to try not to get so stressed out, but I feel tired already,” says Charlotte Mickie, Alliance Atlantis’ managing director of international sales.

Her list of worries is long. She’s got the usual jitters over developing marketing materials, planning parties a continent away and packing for any eventuality. And then there’s the tension in the Middle East, the poor state of the economy, the specific financial woes of Germany, the crisis in the Spanish pay TV market, the ongoing Vivendi-Canal Plus saga and the SARS virus that may limit travel for buyers from Asia.

Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis, one of the larger producer-sales shops, handles a mix of self-financed productions and pickups. Much of the self-financed product receives Canadian government backing, such as “Owning Mahowny.” Recent acquisitions include Sundance competitors “All the Real Girls” and “The Station Agent.”

Mickie and her staff of six start planning in earnest for the festival and market after the American Film Market in March, and are pretty well set before the lineup announcements. While making preparations for the spots she already has filled, Mickie keeps her eye out for last-minute pickups, which usually account for about a quarter of her sales yearly.

Those pick-ups don’t necessarily depend on what makes the Cannes list, since most of the films selected already have a sales agent. Instead, Mickie, as well as many others, wait to see which categories her films end up in to determine the breadth of her market slate.

Myriad’s Eric Christenson usually has most of his market slate set well ahead of time, but this year waited to see where some of some of his key titles might fall in the fest lineup.

He notes that even if a title gets a competition berth or a slot in one of the important sidebars, the timing of the actual screening is crucial. “When you have a high-profile premiere up against other films, it can get lost,” he says, adding that waiting to get better placement at another festival is sometimes a better route.

Focus Intl. — which Focus co-prexy David Linde says runs pretty much like precursor Good Machine Intl., except with more money — works on getting a good spread of screenings at the festival and then decides what to highlight at the market.

“We start planning about a year in advance. You have to map out the distribution of your movies once you decide you’re going to make a film and we use Cannes as part of that process, no matter what stage of production a particular film happens to be in.”

As most major international sales companies do, Focus screens completed films at the festival, and also screens nonfest entrants privately for distributors. At the market, he shows promo reels to help sell remaining territories and introduces titles that are in pre-production, such as Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair.” Footage of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams” will be shown to buyers in Cannes.

The Focus team also acquires films for distribution at the market — last year it bought the rights to “The Pianist” for North America, South Africa and Australia.

Proactive strategy

For some of the smaller sales offices, waiting around to see what gets into the festival is not an option. “The way to really find movies is to find them before the festival finds them,” says Menemsha Films topper Neil Friedman. “We’re a small company and I can’t compete with the larger companies for acquisitions because they’ve got money. If I wait for the Cannes announcement, and any of those bigger companies get interested in a film, I’m going to lose out.”

The key is to develop relationships with the film industries in various countries and strategically scoop up product as it surfaces. That has worked out well for Menemsha with films from Argentina (“Kamchatka”), Turkey (“Marooned in Iraq”) and the Czech Republic (“Autumn Spring” and “Pupendo”).

“We try to take a proactive stand to pick up product,” adds sales veteran Carole Curb, prexy of Curb Entertainment, which finances one or two productions a year and acquires three or four more films to sell at Cannes. “We call all the attorneys, the reps, go to festivals, check film finders and people send us screeners. We’re constantly calling. And then we’re finalizing production on our new film, finalizing acquisitions, preparing marketing materials, setting up meetings and finalizing sales from AFM and Mip TV. It’s tremendously hectic.”

Among Curb’s pics headed for the market are recent acquisitions “Tattoo, A Love Story” and “Inheritance,” among an existing slate that includes “Tough Luck” and “100 Mile Rule.”

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