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Good Lobbyists or Used Car Salesmen?
by Jerome Courshon
(Part I can be read here)
I will admit right now, front and center: I am biased. I am not a big fan of Producer Reps (short for "Producer Representatives"). They frequently do more harm than good in trying to sell your movie, and when they're done trying -- if they were unsuccessful -- your movie is in worse shape than it was before they started. I speak through personal experience as a producer, as well as from the experiences of my colleagues.
However, they're not all evil incarnate; a few Producer Reps out there are very good and reputable. The trick is, who is good -- and -- how do you know if you really need one?
I'll break this article down into three sections. The first is on the general pros and cons of Producer Reps. The second section is when and why you might want one. The third section is what to do should you hire one.
PROS & CONS OF PRODUCER REPS
What is a Producer Rep and what do they do? In a nutshell, Producer Reps look for movies to represent, then pitch and attempt to sell them to domestic (U.S.) distributors. They are essentially middlemen.
What many Producer Representatives do, is solicit filmmakers who have movies playing in festivals -- this is one of the ways they find movies needing distribution. They then call or email the filmmakers and make their pitch. Which may go something like this: "I heard you have a great movie, I'm a Producer's Rep, I have relationships with Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features and may be able to help get your movie sold." You the filmmaker think you have just struck gold. And this wily Producer's Rep just dangled the "T" word in front of you without actually saying it: Theatrical Release. What producer or director wouldn't like that??
Once a filmmaker is hooked, a number of Producer Reps will now drop the "F" bomb. No, not the expletive, but "Fee." That's right, if you want the Producer Rep's service in trying to sell your movie, it will cost you $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 upfront. If you say "Sorry, I'd love to hire you but I don't have the money" and they really like your movie, they may offer to lower the upfront fee to $5,000 or $2,500.
Should you pay this money and give them a shot? As I discuss in my class, I strongly advise against this. You see, what many Producer Reps do is collect a bunch of movies to represent and then shotgun them to all the distributors. So the distributors get a stack of movies from the Rep with your movie among them, and how is the distributor to know that YOUR movie is the gem among the bunch? Because the Producer Rep told them so? Not if this Rep has 10 or 20 movies he's trying to sell. Your movie is just one in the stack.
"But," you may think, "At least my movie will be considered by Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight and Focus Features!" Well, if your movie is being sent on a DVD to any of those distributors by a Producer's Rep, you will not be getting a theatrical pick-up, I can promise you that. Even if you have a film print that is being sent around for screenings to these distributors -- and you didn't just premiere at a top festival -- your movie will meet the same fate. Are there any exceptions to this? Sure, if Brad Pitt and George Clooney are starring in it!
So what about those Producer Reps who don't charge an upfront fee to represent your movie? Are they any different? The short answer is 'No.' They do the same thing, only now they're assuming more risk, as it's their time and energy they're exerting to try to sell your movie, with no upfront compensation. That generally means they truly believe in your movie, think it has a real shot and expect to see real money on the back end. This can certainly be admirable, but this doesn't mean they'll be any more successful than you would be, were you to represent the movie yourself. Why? Because ALL distributors want to see ALL movies, no matter where they're coming from OR who is handling them.
This bears repeating: ALL distributors want to see ALL movies. This is their job, this is why there are acquisitions people at every single distributor. They want to see everything, and ideally before their competitors do. Which is why when getting wind of a preview screening of a just-completed indie film out in Kansas, for example, they will get someone from their team on a plane to go see it! It truly does not matter whether there is a Producer's Rep involved or not.
Well, what about the "special relationships" that Producer Reps say they have? That they can get your movie in the door where you can't? Newsflash: YOU can get your movie in the door as easily as any Producer Rep. Yes, you can.
So is there any positive reason to hire a Producer Rep? There is one.
WHERE & WHEN YOU MIGHT HIRE A PRODUCER REP
The dirty little secret that most filmmakers don't realize, is that if your movie is not playing at Sundance, Toronto, Cannes or a couple of the other top film festivals -- or if it is and a feeding frenzy among distributors does not break out over your movie -- you will not be getting a theatrical deal. Not by any studio and not by any of their specialty arms. Not gonna happen. Could you get a deal from one of the respected smaller theatrical distributors? Yes. But that will take strategizing and usually building a pedigree.
So here's where a Producer's Rep can become vital to your movie. If you are selected to screen at Sundance, Toronto, Cannes or Tribeca, you should put together a team of people to help you premiere your movie, which should include an agent, a PR person/company -- and possibly one of the higher level Producer Reps. You will need to position your movie in the right way for its premiere. This means preparatory work, planning and "setting the stage." You'll want to choreograph your premiere to build a buzz and anticipation. A top Producer's Rep in this situation can help tremendously. But, there are ONLY a handful who are good at these situations.
One could also try to hire one of these top Producer Reps to help them get accepted into one of the top festivals. But here again, there are only a handful who have this ability or clout. Be very selective if you go this route.
[Side Note: It amazes me how many filmmakers "win the lottery" with a screening slot at Sundance, but then just show up with no team and no buzz building efforts and hope for the best. The majority of these filmmakers walk away with no deal.]
Other than the above situations, there really isn't much point to hiring a Producer's Rep. If you want a home video deal, you certainly don't need them to make a phone call to any of the home video companies. You can do this yourself. When you need a foreign sales company to handle your movie in the overseas markets, you don't need a Producer's Rep to find you a foreign sales company. This you can do for yourself as well.
If, however, you are looking at getting your movie onto various cable systems' VOD platforms, or onto pay cable or basic cable, you're best served by using an aggregator or sales agent (usually not a Producer Rep) that specifically sells to these markets. This is where a relationship can mean something in the domestic marketplace, simply because cablers generally don't want to deal with individual producers for each movie they buy. But this is NOT true for theatrical, home video or foreign sales.
The reason there has been such a cottage industry of Producer Reps springing up in recent years, is because most producers and directors don't know what to do to get distribution, or how to approach distributors. They think it's a mystery, and/or they don't know who is who or where to go. Since the '90s, there are now more Producer Reps than ever, soliciting filmmakers and telling them they know how to get their movies sold. Unfortunately, most of these movies do not get sold. Of those that do, it's often because the filmmaker has gotten their movie back and secured their own deal.
Alright, so now you've read this, or you've heard other producers say the same thing, but you're still enamored with some Producer Rep who's putting on the full court press. You think YOU will be the exception and he will get YOUR movie a great deal. I know. This happens all the time. The filmmaker knows what his peers are telling him, but he or she thinks they'll be the exception to the "rule." Since anything can happen in life, let's say this is you. Or let's say you're exhausted -- you just don't want to deal with your movie anymore -- and you'd rather hand over your piece of gold you spent years forging to a wholesale jeweler. (This feeling or attitude, by the way, is frequently the mistake between success and failure.) What do you need to know?
IF YOU HIRE A PRODUCER REP
If you hire one, know what your goal is going in, and be sure the Producer Rep is on the same page with you. So if you're going after a theatrical deal and the Rep is in alignment with this, create a strategy that you both will follow. Decide ahead of time which top festivals you'll be targeting, and decide ahead of time exactly what strategy you will employ, once accepted to any of these festivals.
Also, let's say you're premiering at Toronto and the strategy you and your Producer Rep have employed doesn't result in a sale. Know ahead of time what you and your Rep will be doing as "Plan B." Otherwise, if this isn't discussed beforehand, your Rep may get cold and lose interest in your movie. Of course, even with an agreed upon Plan B, he may still get cold and lose interest. But this should be discussed ahead of time and considered -- because in truth, a movie that doesn't sell soon after its premiere is less likely to secure a theatrical deal from a major player.
If your initial goal is not theatrical but home video, this is much easier to accomplish. However, do not let the Producer Rep shotgun your movie to all the home video companies. You should put into place an agreement that the Rep will only approach a small number of companies at first -- a group that you both agree on -- and then you both will evaluate the next step if everyone in this first group passes.
Will all Reps go along with this? No. Doing this in stages is more work for them, and more involvement from you -- which many don't want. But, it's better for your movie. If your movie is shotgunned to all the home video companies and they all pass, something was clearly wrong with the artwork, the press kit, the movie, or a combination of any of these. You're in trouble now, because you had no chance to stop and evaluate why distributors were passing. And now that everyone has passed, your options have been severely reduced. If however, you stop submitting after you get ten rejections, you can better figure out what is wrong and correct it before submitting to the next ten and so on.
This, by the way, is a strategy for home video that no one else teaches or preaches, but it works. Either with a Producer Rep or on your own.
But as I said earlier, if you are interested in a home video deal and/or foreign sales, there is no point in hiring a middleman. Learn who the distributors are and submit your movie yourself. (It's not difficult, and this distributor information is available in my classes or in my 3-Day Distribution Program.) Just be sure you are submitting it with your best foot forward -- which means good artwork and good press material. They will see this before watching your movie, so make it good! This is a key point to understand: A 'No' from a distributor is often NOT a reflection on your actual movie or its quality.
Lastly, if you've developed a pedigree for your film (as discussed in my classes or 3-Day Program) and now want to approach the smaller theatrical distributors, you don't need a Producer's Rep for this. None of the top ones would be interested at this point anyway, as they go for the big score of a Sundance or Toronto hit.
Film Excerpts from
3-Day Distribution Program