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Film producers are always knocking on Screen Australia’s door because there’s money behind it.

For those formally requesting feature film investment, one of the eligibility criteria is that they must have signed on a sales agent committed to selling the film outside Australia and New Zealand. There is some flexibility around low budget films however.

Screen Australia has a directory of sales agents comprising about 80 companies that already represent Australian films around the world. It includes contact details and other information.

For a list of the 300 or so exhibitors at the 2016 American Film Market – most of which are sales agents – go here

Head of Production Sally Caplan says about 20 of the companies in the Screen Australia directory rigorously track what’s in development in Australia, indicative of serious, ongoing interest. For this set of interviews, these 20 were culled down to a manageable number of targets after consultation with her and others. The focus was put on those companies that regularly acquire quality Australian films with perceived theatrical potential – “perceived” because projects are usually picked up at script stage.

Bankside, LevelK, Memento, Mongrel and Seville agreed to participate.

The directory includes sales agents with considerable financial grunt that put their hands up from time to time for commercially ambitious Australian films, recent examples being FilmNation (The Rover), IM Global (Hacksaw Ridge), Lionsgate (The Railway Man), Mister Smith (The Water Diviner) and The Weinstein Company (Lion). It also includes comparatively small sales agents: some that don’t have much access to finance; some that don’t shy away from difficult films; and some that are highly skilled at getting films into A-list festivals. The five companies focused on here are somewhere between these two groups.

<em>The Daughter</em>

Hilary Davis, Bankside Films;  |  Charlotte Mickie, Mongrel International  |   Anick Poirier, Seville International 
Naima Abed, Memento Films International  |  Tine Klint, LevelK

What films are you interested in? What are the most important components of the package?

Naima Abed, production and finance executive, Memento Films International: “We’re not looking for particular genres and there’s no editorial line per se. We are French-based and France is very respectful to the filmmaker, the auteur, and that shapes what we are looking for. We are a small company – 10 people full time – and the acquisition process is very collaborative. It sounds a little cheesy but we trust each other’s taste: if someone feels very strongly about a film it would be rare that the rest of us would be totally against it.

“Just because we like a film doesn’t mean we will take it: all the sales people might say they can’t sell it in their territories. We are guided by our passion but consider what the filmmaker needs, what we can bring, how we mitigate risk and the right pricing. Knowledge is at the heart of acquisitions and it’s been built up over years through experience and the sharing of information. It’s about what’s selling in what territories, what’s happening at the box office, the attraction of certain directors, how films might be positioned. The business is based on taking risks. We are both adventurous and rational.”

Hilary Davis, co-managing director, Bankside Films: “Director driven, quality scripts, distinctive, the best examples of the genre that the film is. We have to personally respond to a film and feel we can sell it. That’s always our intention going in but it doesn’t always work out that way. Inevitably our choices reflect the personalities of the people in the company. I represent the older female audience and it’s an incredibly successful segment – especially in Australia but here in the UK too.

“What you’ve got when you are preselling is the cast and the director. When the film is finished you’ve got the film itself … We are constantly evolving. We are looking to bigger and more ambitious projects than previously.”

Tine Klint, chief executive officer, LevelK: “Unique films. I guess that’s what all arthouse sales agents want in order to stand out in the marketplace. And then we need more commercial films for financial balance. Sometimes we pick up a film knowing it will be a hard sell because we feel passion for it and want to give it a chance. Sometimes we get surprised because it finds audiences in countries we did not expect. But it takes time: we say two to four years after completion.

<em>The Daughter</em> The Daughter

“We look at producers because we have to work with them for four, six, eight years. We have to know that the director and producer can deliver, particularly if a big MG (minimum guarantee) is required. Communication is of great importance and never simple. Do they listen when we make comments? We may not be right but they need to be able to argue for their decisions. How will they deal with it when someone loves and hates their film?”

Anick Poirier, senior vice president, international sales, Seville International: “My first inclination is to tell producers they need to have the film flowing through their veins. The idea has to be visceral to them.

“The studios do the formulaic stuff. Independent films have to be original, left of field. True talent rises and it’s the films with that talent that are successful … Seville’s taste is eclectic but we still have an editorial line. We want something classy. We can do raunchy but it needs to be fun. We sold The Mule and had great fun doing so. I’m reluctant to talk about latest trends or genres doing well because two years down the road it will have changed.

“We are not buying to fill a pipeline; we are buying because we feel something for the film. We have to fall in love with it and want to champion it with every ounce of our passion. It starts with a great story and if it has a known director, that’s a (positive) factor. Then it is about who’s in the cast. Some producers bring value and produce strongly; others let the director’s creative juices flow.”

Charlotte Mickie, president, Mongrel International: “Original, authentic, smart films. Films aiming for a theatrical release … I would like to acquire more commercial films … I care about the package: having a great director, a producer with a good track record, appropriate and meaningful cast, people I’ve enjoyed working with before. But I care about script first and foremost.”

What are you not interested in?

Naima Abed, Memento: “I can’t think of anything that systemically puts us off … Sometimes producers haven’t done their homework and haven’t thought about what’s right for Memento.”

Hilary Davis, Bankside: “Family films, foreign language films … We’ve never done animation but that’s not to say we wouldn’t. We would sell a documentary if it was fully theatrical and appealing to a worldwide audience. Subject matter is crucial.”

Tine Klint, Level K: “We don’t do hard-core horror. Sometimes we get producers saying they have a gay western road movie with horror elements. If I told my distributors that, they’d have no clue what I’m talking about. Be very clear about the genre. A drama can be funny but it’s still a drama. A drama with thriller elements can’t be sold as a thriller.”

Charlotte Mickie, Mongrel: “If a film is repeating a formula without a twist. There were a lot of post-apocalyptic films set in the desert for a while. Documentary made for television. I’m hesitant about faith-based movies.”

Anick Poirier, Seville: “Pure horror or pure action. If we go for genre, it should be elevated, it should set itself apart from the rest and it should have value for our theatrical clients and festivals worldwide. We even picked up an elevated sci–fi film recently… it really depends on the project.”

Do you pick up finished films? What about films by first-timers? Is the local distributor relevant?

<em>The Babadook</em> The Babadook

This set of questions drew very similar responses: yes they will pick up finished films but it’s not something they seek to do; supporting first-timers is a risky business but they all do that too; and the identity of the local distributor is important because it sends a message to the market about the ambition behind the film.

Seville is part of Entertainment One and Poirier says they will get involved with or without the Australian office handling local distribution: “As with Canadians, Australian audiences do not support their own cinema. The Babadook went gangbusters for us with worldwide gross box office revenue of US$11.1 million (A$14.7 million). Only US$250K (A$332K) came from Australia and New Zealand.” (Umbrella Entertainment released the film locally.)

How many films do you pick up a year? How many would you be pitched?

Naima Abed, Memento: “Generally eight to 10 per year. We could go to 12 but not really above that. I can’t give you a number on submissions and pitches: it’s constant and can be a bit overwhelming to count!”

Hilary Davis, Bankside: “We’ve been picking up four or five but have been looking at representing more. We get pitched in the 700s and are especially swamped post Cannes. That’s when I feel like I can’t breathe. I like to give everything a proper reading. We have relationships with a lot of producers and you have to give considered feedback on everything if you want to be a top sales agent. When we do our annual review we go through and say ‘damn, we missed out on that one’ or ‘that was a lucky escape’.

“Competition is fierce. There are 30 sales companies in the UK alone now. There’s been an explosion of companies in every country. Australian producers usually have to look offshore for sales. Being in same time zone and country makes things easier, especially in post, and aids the getting-to-know-you process.”

Tine Klint, Level K: “Ten to 15 for theatrical. We also pick up TV series and family films, but they rarely get a theatrical release.”

Charlotte Mickie, Mongrel: “We usually have 15 films on the slate per year at various stages of production. We are pitched hundreds, literally. I like meeting the team – producers just as much as directors – but don’t like to be pitched to, particularly if someone is just describing the plot. It takes the joy out of it. If I tried to sell films like that I’d never sell anything. Filmmakers are often not very good at encapsulating what makes their films special.”

Anick Poirier, Seville: “Ten but more if there are strong projects out there. We are pitched, easily, 200 to 300 films from across the world. We know how much time, effort and energy has gone in by the time a film comes to us and 95 per cent of the time I’m saying ‘no’. In the past we might have said ‘oh we’ll just take it’, but that always ends badly.

“Producers need to perfect their pitch and be able to describe how they envision the trailer. They need to understand which audience the film targets. Materials have to be as good as possible. Recently, we created a mood reel for a film and presold 75 per cent of the budget in one market. The reel could use news footage for an actual true story or previous work the director did, but it needs to be presented as professionally as possible and set the tone for what’s to come.”

How important is theatrical potential to your decisions on acquisitions?

<em>Cargo</em> Cargo

All left no doubt that perceived theatrical potential is a key driver behind most of their acquisition decisions. That said, this selection of sales agents are all in the business of arthouse independent films with commercial aspirations so quality is important. None of them believe that the arrival of powerful new SVOD (subscription video on demand) players – Netflix and Amazon for example – will destroy the theatrical business. (But it’s also comforting for them to think that.) Theatrical potential triggers festival business, says one, and festivals are crucial in exposing films worldwide.

What prompted you to sign on for your most recent Australian films?

Naima Abed, Memento: “On Berlin Syndrome we wanted to work with and support the director (Cate Shortland) with whom we did Lore. We were excited by her take on the thrillerish dark material. We are really happy with what she’s done: we are one of the financiers so have even more at stake commercially. With Girl Asleep we could hear the person who manages festivals and our Artscope label laughing in another room. It was dark and raining and my colleague said: ‘I don’t know what she’s watching but she’s having a really good time’. The film is brilliant and fun and we knew it would be nice to pitch to buyers. It shows what a first time director (Rosemary Myers) can do.”

Hilary Davis, Bankside: “Cargo is elevated genre with zombies. Genre isn’t particularly successful in Australia but it doesn’t matter because we don’t handle Australia. It’s a solid production with an interesting and different script. The two writer/directors (Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke) proved the viability of the feature with a short that’s had millions of hits and one of the producers (Kristina Ceyton) made The Babadook, which we passed on. An error in retrospect! That Cargo attracted Martin Freeman (actor) is significant. Backtrack was a sophisticated thriller with an international name in Adrien Brody and we believed in the producers and director (Jamie Hilton, Antonia Barnard, Michael Petroni).”

Tine Klint, Level K: “We’ve been following Teenage Kicks for more than five years. There’s a lack of strong LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual) titles for distributors with LGBT labels. We try and have one per year. Rabbit is our upcoming thriller by first-time feature director Luke Shanahan and producer David Ngo. It’s a very strong genre script and a superb crew. I have high expectations. We picked up Downriver on script and after great communication with producer Jannine Barnes we decided to work together on international sales.”

Charlotte Mickie, Mongrel: “The Daughter was an amazing script, with good cast and clearly it was theatrical. We were not familiar with the director’s (Simon Stone’s) work but we trusted the producers (Jan Chapman, Nicole O’Donohue). And Simo seemed amazing based on what we read and heard about his theatre work. Jasper Jones is from Porchlight Films and I love working with them and it’s pretty hard to turn down anything of theirs. I’d already worked with producer David Jowsey on Mad Bastards and the director (Rachel Perkins) was ideal for that material.”

Anick Poirier, Seville:There was something about the script of Lonely Girl: it’s Misery meets Prisoners. We also love our relationship with Causeway Films, the company being The Babadook.”

How do you think about Australia as a source of films in general?

Naima Abed, Memento: “It is quite a prolific territory and one of the best and very good for directors: David Michôd, Cate Shortland, Justin Kurzel, to name a few. The scripts are not always as good as the directors. There are some very passionate producers. There are a lot of active women and I’m always excited to find out about their work. Interesting films are pitched. They can be original with an unexpected take on their subjects. Being English language, it’s easier to export Australian films.”

Hilary Davis, Bankside: “If a film is good it’s good irrespective of nationality. There have been some brilliant Australian films, strong and distinctive. We stepped back after doing several that were not great successes. When we find a good one, we are up for it.”

Tine Klint, Level K: “You know you’ll get high production value on films coming from Australia and well-written developed scripts  – better than those you get from anywhere else in the world. Being an English-speaking country puts you in another league but also puts you in competition with other English speaking countries (which can be a disadvantage).”

Charlotte Mickie, Mongrel: “Australian producers are generally very professional. They present projects well, and are smart in how they execute them. In general what they pitch is strong. When I was at eOne we had one hit from Australia after another. I am very positive about Australian movies, genuinely.”

Anick Poirier, Seville: “There’s a lot of talent in Australia; for the size of the country it’s fascinating. Government financing breeds talent. We find that Australian films don’t feel the need to have happy endings or be glossy which is quite refreshing since it is a happy medium between Europe and the US.”

The second part of this examination of the international sales business digs down into the market: the reasons for the current volatility, the components of deals, and so on.