Time for their close-ups

Foreign sales circuit vets hang out their own boutique shingles

When it comes to the world of international sales, nothing comes easy.

“Go to Cannes and count the international sales companies: there are about 250 of them,” says Katapult Film Sales topper Thomas Mai, “come back two years later and half will be gone — and there’ll be 125 new companies.” Much of that has to do with the nature of the business, but lately the nature of the business has gotten tougher.

“It’s a triple combination of piracy, too many movies and not enough spots on foreign TV, and the drastic rise in the number of things one can now do for entertainment that doesn’t include going to see a film,” says Voltage Pictures prexy Nicolas Chartier.

Making things even trickier, as Lumina Films chief Samantha Horley points out, are that “the days of the killer salesman are over.” No longer is it enough to pitch a film and close the deal on the spot. “To risk stating the obvious,” she continues, “buyers are much more cautious.”

With so much volatility on one end and so much caution on the other, this isn’t the type of climate where you’d expect some of the field’s young, bright stars to leave behind the safety of established companies to hang out their own shingle. But that’s what’s been happening. Here’s a look at some of them and why they’re willing to place this bet.

Nicolas Chartier, 30

Formerly: Head of U.S. office, Arclight Films

Currently: President, Voltage Pictures

Backstory: “I was an 18-year-old janitor, working at Euro-Disney, wanting to be a screenwriter. One night, during the Cannes Film Festival, I slipped a pitch for a sci-fi movie under all the hotel room doors at the Carlton (hotel). (The William Morris Agency’s) Cassian Elwes read it, liked it and sold it two days later. The day after that, I got another producer to hire me as a writer on a different project. I got two deals in two days, and suddenly I was a screenwriter. I then got tired of sitting in front of my computer and not seeing anybody, so I took a job with Alain Siritzky, producing and selling. I worked for Siritzky for two years, then Myriad for two years, Vortex for two years and Arclight for two years. I stayed such a short time because I got bored and it was great to leave on top. Now that I have my own company, I don’t know what I’ll do in two years.”

New spin: “I just want to find good movies for good prices. Sure, everyone wants to sell the next big sci-fi action film, but I’m interested in movies that slip through the cracks. There’s a glut of horror films right now, and no one’s looking for dramas. But I’m looking for dramas, because all it’s going to take right now is one good drama. It’s about both finding good films and understanding how the market moves and using that to create great opportunity.”

Samantha Horley, 35

Formerly: Senior VP, sales, Myriad Pictures

Currently: Head of sales, Lumina Film

Backstory: “I was doing sales and marketing at Fox World Cinema (U.K.). I moved to the classics division at PolyGram Film Intl., and was then promoted into sales. It was a surreal jump, going from specialist movies to selling films like ‘Barb Wire.’ At 25, I looked about 19, and suddenly had to deal with all these rude old bastards who had been in the business longer than I’d been on this planet. They gave me a run for my money, I toughened up fast, and those rude old bastards have become some of the people I love the most. I now watch them torture the new generation of sales people.”

New spin: “We have a lean, mean sales company. If I’ve got $30,000, I’d rather be spending it on script development than a huge office in Cannes. We have a small core of key staff, and a bank of freelancers for legal, collections, accounting, PR and technical services. And we have a confident, deep-pocketed parent company (the Intl. Film Collective) for development finance and overhead.

“We decided very early on that unless we could describe a movie as ‘cool,’ we did not want it. Plus, life’s too short to be working with yellers. I had one producer scream down the phone at me not so long ago that I was ‘whoring his movie.’ Guilty as charged. But in my defense, that’s my job, surely?”

Thomas Mai, 34

Formerly: Head of sales, Trust Film Sales

Currently: Partner, Katapult Film Sales

Backstory: “After business school in Copenhagen, director Anders Ronnow-Klarlund and I started producing a local radio show, where we would talk film. We also made a few shorts that I managed to sell to a local broadcaster. One thing led to another and before we knew it Anders had written a feature. We had no idea what we were doing, we never went to film school, our budget was $400,000, but somehow we managed. The film became ‘The Eighteenth,’ which went to all the festivals and we won eight or more prizes. At a film festival in Mannheim I was approached by a German distributor who wanted to buy the film for Germany — that was my first film sale.”

New spin: “I’m extremely picky. We have six films right now that are either shooting or in post, which isn’t all that many. Last month, I watched 60 films and bought none because none were projects I could believe in. That’s what I mean by picky. When I go to a buyer and tell them they need to see this film, they know I only say it when I mean it — and I mean it very rarely. The people who go to Cannes can’t see all 1,400 films in four days. They go to see the sellers they know. This business is 100% relationships. And the secret is that, over time, you begin to develop a taste for the buyers’ taste.”

Pierre Weisbein, 37

Formerly: Exec VP, sales and distribution, Senator Intl. (now Mandate)

Currently: Managing partner, The Green Room

Backstory: “I started my career at Canal Plus, selling films from their library to television. I ended up making more money for the company selling old films then anyone else was making selling new ones, so they moved me over to the fresh product side. I ended up running the sales division for a couple of years (from Los Angeles) — I loved the job — but then they wanted me to move back to France. I’m a surfer, and since you can’t surf the Seine, I didn’t want to leave L.A., so I quit and moved to Senator.” (Weisbein’s new company, The Green Room, takes its name not only from the Trauffaut film but also from the term surfers use to describe the inside of a perfectly breaking tubular wave.)

New spin: “Going forward, sales agencies will have to slim down. Now you need to be more involved, to be part of the picture, you need points, you need to build equity. The old model is volume — sell and go on to the next sale. But The Green Room is a boutique operation. We’re constantly trying to add value to our movies. We’re not polluted with a large lineup. Every time we take on a new film it’s like adding a family member. It allows the relationship between the sales rep and the producer to be much more symbiotic. That’s what’s missing from the old model.”