Int’l distribs agree trust a must

Panelists promote people over product

“I don’t sell films,” producer Ted Hope said at Variety‘s Conference Series on Tuesday. “I sell relationships.”

Hope was part of the International Buy and Sell panel, moderated by Variety‘s European editor Adam Dawtrey, and his comments echoed a widespread sentiment. The business of international financing, pre-sales and distribution is so precarious, the most important commodity a partner can bring to the table isn’t money. It’s trust.

“People are the first step,” ICB Entertainment Finance co-managing director David Hutkin said.

Media 8 chairman Mark Damon agreed: Often the best distrib won’t offer the best upfront advantage.

Hope, a partner and producer at This is that, said he often looks for a key first partner to help finance a project — a “value-added distributor who classifies a film with other buyers.”

Hope said some foreign buyers have told him they would invest in a project only if Focus Features, Fox Searchlight or Newmarket is the U.S. distrib.

It’s a challenging time for independent financiers. U.S. majors are seeking more control over the international market. Independent sales agents are complaining the market is sluggish. And the ongoing lawsuit between Intertainment and Elie Samaha’s Franchise Pictures serves as a painful reminder of the breakdown in trust between sellers and buyers

“Cheat me once and I won’t do business with you again,” Hope warned.

The ground continues to shift underfoot for these players. Hope said last year at Cannes, Miramax indicated it would distribute its own pics in France. This year, said Samuel Hadida, prexy of Metropolitan FilmExport/Davis Films, Miramax sold him French distribution rights to “Brothers Grimm.”

But all agreed the business still rewards big risks.

Hadida said “Resident Evil” was pre-sold everywhere before Sony came onboard to distribute the pic Stateside. Sony didn’t put money into the film, he said, but was so pleased with its box office results, it’s co-financing “Resident Evil 2.”

Damon said when his company was searching for a U.S. distrib for “Monster,” Newmarket was the only company that promised to take the pic out before Christmas, but it would do so only without paying an advance. Pic now is on track to achieve $80 million in international B.O.

Hope acknowledged Newmarket’s track record has given the company enormous cachet with foreign buyers, but pointedly asked Newmarket Film Group president Bob Berney, “Are you willing to pay top dollar for my movies?

Berney said his company’s business model is shifting. Long focused on buying completed films from festival screenings, it may pursue more aggressive pre-buys.

Newmarket signed deals to distribute Dylan Kidd’s “P.S.” and John Sayles’ “Silver City” based on early screenings, Berney said. “Our accessibility is increasing as we grow.”

CAA’s Manny Nunez said the agency discerned advantages in the shifting marketplace. He hailed the emergence of hybrid entrepreneurs — financier/producer/sales agents — who he said had “added a great deal to the market domestically and internationally.”

Some clients, Nunez adds, “are interested in doing more entrepreneurial deals, isolating and excluding key territories.”

All are hoping the partnerships they forge this year will yield dividends over the long term, but they’re also watching their assets closely. “I don’t think you’ll find the Franchise syndrome at Cannes this year,” Damon said.