How does Your Next Movie Really Get Funded? Sales Agents at America Film Market Explain for America Film Market 2023
Evolving Roles & Relationships: Sales Agents and Producers
Moderator: Clay Epstein, President, Film Mode Entertainment
Nadine de Barros, Co-Founder, Fortitude International;
Christine Haebler, Producer, Screen Siren Pictures;
Mark Padilla, President of Worldwide Sales & Acquisitions, Jackrabbit Media LLC
Clay Epstein from Film Mode Entertainment, since launching his company in 2016. He’s the president and owner of Filmode Entertainment, a worldwide sales and distribution entity with a producer friendly initiative.
And in addition to his professional accomplishments he is also has the elected position of chairman of IFDA, the Independent Film and Television Alliance, which as many of you know, runs the American film market. He’s an instructor at UCLA Extension, a frequent lecturer at film festivals around the world, a member of the PGA, BAFTA LA, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. And he’s also the best dressed person you will see at this or any other market.
Lydia. Appreciate that. Welcome, everyone. Good morning. Thank you for being here. I want to start with one question. Who has made a movie in this room? Oh, that’s pretty good. That’s good. Who want, you know what, if you want to make a movie or you’ve made a movie, stand up and let us see who wants, get up, who wants to make a movie?
You are in the right place, you are in the right place, and you’re going to be speaking to the right people. And the reason I didn’t want to do the questions on the iPad is, one, I get confused myself as I’m scrolling through and trying to talk.
But more importantly, we are here to network, we are here to interact. And when we are typing, and it’s digital, we are not doing either of those things, okay? Those are the rules. Second rule. You can ask any question, but try not to make a stupid question stupider, right?
We only have a few minutes. Everyone’s time is important, and we want to use that time wisely, right? And first impressions are important.
Why don’t we have an introduction for our panelists? Nadine, why don’t you start? Who you are, what your name is, what you do. Does it work? Yep.
Nadine de Barros
I have a film company called Fortitude International. We’re a production, finance and foreign sales company. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years. This is actually the third company that I started. I started another company called Voltage Pictures in 2005. Was there for about seven years.
I left and started another company called Alda. Misa was there for about two years We did five films very few films, Chef with Jon Favreau, Machete Kills, and Sin City 2,
Then launched Fortitude, we are selling four movies at this market, one is called Guy Walks Into a Bar with Sam Rockwell and Kumail Nanjiani, which I’m also producing. We’ve got a Keira Knightley movie called Conception, and we are selling it.
A movie with Carol Bynes Tiffin, which is like a small Irish thriller that we’re shooting in February and that’s basically what we’re doing.
I work for a company called Jackrabbit Media. I’ve been in the business for over 20 years. I got my start in this business just haphazardly. I came up to LA. I wanted to make movies, right? I wanted to write scripts and direct and produce and do it all. And I got an internship at a company I never heard of before, but what they did was they were a buyer rep company.
And so what that means is they were LA based and they had clients around the world and some of their clients were some of the biggest international distributors including some broadcasters like Media Sets and Telecinco and ProSieben from Germany.
It introduced me to how movies get made. I had no idea. I just thought they magically appeared, right? And I thought everything came out of a studio. This is where the independent world lived and existed. It was this global entity that helped bring movies to the market and some of the biggest films.
I was just shocked. What do you mean? Lord of the rings is being sold on the international market. What do you mean? Isn’t just the studio take it out and it was a lot more than that. So it was a big exposure to me. From there. I always like to say I’ve never updated my resume because In this business, it is about networking, and every job I’ve gotten since is because someone called me and said, Hey, are you having fun over there? Do you like it over there? Do you want to do something different?
I’ve gone from company to company with big films like Defiance with Ed Zwick, or Ed Zick directed, and we broke Daniel Craig before he was Bond; and Jamie Bell was in that, I’ve done tiny little horror films for $20,000 that do10 times profit when we release and sell those.
It’s all about networking. These are the people in this room that are going to help you get your movie made. You’re sitting next to someone that can help you get your movie made.
Every independent film only gets made because someone keeps trying. As soon as you put down the phone, it’s dead. As soon as you stop sending out emails, it’s dead.
Keep Pushing. That’s my best advice.
I’m with a company called Screen Siren Pictures, and unlike these guys, I produce movies, and that’s really all I do. I don’t sell them but I make them from the top down.
I started in this business 40 years ago.
My first movie, which was for Fox television, was with Bob Hope, Don Amici, and all these old stars. I was asked to go find some locations and [once] I found them and they made me location manager. I didn’t even know what a grip was. But I was Location Manager on a Bob Hope movie.
I was 20 years old and they paid me $1,000 a week. I showed my first paycheck to my dad and he said, “What are these people, idiots? I’m paying my engineers less than you make.” Anyway, I had a great run in production for about 12 years.
I was offered to produce an art film, literally a piece of art that went into museums. And we financed the film by selling four editions of this particular art film. They sold for $65,000 each. We made the film, and I thought, I love the process of producing.
I was handed another project called Hardcore Logo. In Canada, it’s a major cult film. It was a big success. And a massive learning for me. Tarantino ended up buying it for Rolling Thunder through Miramax. It still plays and we still get a lot of accolades for it.
That launched my producing career and I caught the bug. So I’ve been doing that since about 1995.
The Canadian system is very different than what you have in the States, but like you guys, every time I do a project, sometimes we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but it is about networking.
It is about having those relationships with sales companies and marketing and distributors and financiers.
Let’s go back to Nadine. Nadine produces and she’s a sales agent. Nadine and Mark and I grew up together in the business. We started as assistants. I remember riding the shuttle with you at AFM and like all of the chaos of 20 plus years ago getting into the business and what we shared [00:09:00] is this undeniable hunger for success and accomplishment in this industry, right?
I think everyone has their own journey and maybe talk a little bit about your journey, right?
Then explain what a sales agent does, because there’s a bit of a mystery. It’s not something that they talk about much in film schools.
Nadine de Barros
I fell into it completely by accident. I was not even interested in working in film. I was living in Paris at the time. I just graduated from college. I’m half French. I just needed money, and I had a friend who was leaving a company and the company was a French buyer.
They acquired American movies for distribution in France. That was my first introduction into foreign sales and the independent film world.
I quickly educated myself on films. I love films. But there’s also an excitement and an energy about this business.
There’s a lot of bullshitters, but that’s also fun. I left France. I started at a company called Summit Entertainment, which was a foreign sales company at the time that eventually got bought by Lionsgate and then eventually moved into sales.
The sales part of it is, on one hand, it’s a means to an end to get a movie made.
Because basically you’re pre-selling your movie before it’s made in all of these territories and you’re using those pre sales and those contracts to finance a good majority of your movie, which we still do sometimes today.
Although we need more equity these days because foreign sales isn’t as strong as it was. But so that’s one aspect of foreign sales. It’s really a means to finance or partially finance your movie.
But it’s also a lifestyle because, Clay and Mark and I; we see each other three, four times a year in Berlin and Cannes and Sundance and Toronto. It’s a family. A traveling circus of people. A very small community.
Even though we’re all competitors, we’re super close. We don’t treat each other like competitors. We share information.
Christine, if you would talk about what a producer does, and of course, there’s financial producers, there’s creative producers, there are producers that are in subsidized places, the producer to tap into subsidies, but maybe talk a bit about what type of producer you are.
The company that I partner with, we have a diverse slate we do a lot of documentaries, we do documentary series, we do feature films, we do television series. And we do service work.
So we are across the board.
As our business strategy, the company’s been around for 26 years. 16 years ago I joined their team. To produce with them not exclusively, but they’re my preferred partner. I also do other projects and with other companies.
Generally, I like working with them so we’re like a bottom up company.
We like to develop so we’re looking at IP, books, stories, people send us their scripts.
We’ll develop them. We can do the financing together if they’re strictly Canadian content or we have an opportunity to co-produce with other countries like Britain or Australia or Germany.
We’ve done co-productions all over, with every country in the world practically.
I think Canada has 52 different treaties, which enables us to co-finance and co-produce and mitigate the risk on the project and help bring money to the table.
We go after soft financing in Canada and luckily we have a government that believes heavily in culture and part of that culture is film and television and so we do have subsidized programs that help us raise money.
It’s taxpayers. We also have an extremely robust and healthy tax credit system. So you can generally raise [money] on a Canadian project that’s either a co-production or a Canadian content production, about 50 to 60% of your budget just out of Canada alone.
We just finished a television series and a feature film that we were able to raise $21 million just out of Canada without selling anything else and that was unheard of, really a lot of money for that project.
But we also do service projects, so if somebody comes in and wants to do a shoot in Canada, we have obviously phenomenal relationships with crew and cast and even shoot in other countries.
I just did a service project that I shot in Indonesia, a Dev Patel film “Monkey Man” for a company called Bron that is no longer. But I was there for six months servicing that project.
We have to stay nimble, because the market’s constantly changing, and we’re developing. We’ve got three projects that are historical romances, and all of a sudden, nobody wants historical romances. They all want thrillers, thrillers always work. But dramas aren’t working.
We tend to have a lot of different hands in a lot of different pockets. Right now, we’re developing a genre slate, which is something I haven’t necessarily done. When we talk about elevated genre, we don’t want gore, horror. But we are looking at thrillers and psychological or sci fi thrillers or teen horror. But really interesting stuff and putting that slate together is really
Mark, coming back to sales, how does a film come to you? Or how do you get to a film? How do you determine what projects you want to represent?
People always ask me, “What are you looking for” and the short answer is action, thriller, horror, sci fi, right?
But the real answer is I need a great story.
If we’re going to start working at script stage, we’re not in the development business, that’s not our thing, we don’t have development funds, we’re not trying to option a ton of IPs.
When stuff comes to me, it’s got to be extremely good [already], because it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for $20 thousand, or if you’re doing it for $20 million, the audiences are more educated.
People always think, “Oh, Marvel, it’s a dumbed down audience”. Blah, blah, no. Audiences are extremely sophisticated. They are tired of seeing the same things over and over again.
That’s part of the problem is that the market has become saturated with films that are really carbon copies of each other and we see the revenue drop.
I had a meeting with Young Ho, a dear friend of ours and one of the biggest international Korean buyers. He works with CJ and Lotte, and he buys for other Southeast Asian territories.
[I pitched several movies with] Aaron Eckhart, Jason Statham, Liam Neeson. He said they’d all go straight to VOD. No theatrical.
Because all these films feel the same to their Korean audience. They want to see something interesting. The number one movie in Korea, Oppenheimer, not Barbie, not anything else.
It’s because it’s about story. Because audiences really do care about story.
If you want to actually put a name attached to your film, then you have to have something compelling that’s gonna make an actor do it. I’ve offered Liam Neeson $10 million to do a movie, and he’s rejected it because the script is simply a carbon copy of something else.
It always goes back to the quality of the work. It always has. Films are advertised to you on a [points to cellphone] screen this size. That’s what we’re dealing with.
When I talk to independent distributors, especially in the domestic space, they will tell me every time, give me a great trailer, give me a great poster over a good movie… versus a great movie with only a good poster and a good trailer, right?
You have to sell the audience.
You have to have a concept that works for the audience that they can understand. That they feel like that’s new and original. That’s what I want to see.
I’ve never had a producer send me a script and say It’s subpar. I’ve always had a producer send me a script that says this is the best script I have read in years.
We read it and we say this is the shittiest script we have read in years.
I was chatting with colleagues this week about this. Problem, let’s call it a “problem”. Either they’re not reading the script themselves, they have no concept of what is good, or they’ve only read that script in their whole life.
But that presents the problem. Is good subjective? We don’t think it is. We think it’s factual. This is a good script. It’s well written. It follows three acts. It knows the Joseph Campbell structure. This is how you tell a story, right? But I’ve had those arguments with the writer that is absolutely steadfast, convinced he’s right and I’m wrong.
I say, “But I’m right. The distributors are right. The audiences are right.”
How do we approach that challenge? You produce, you sell, you develop, maybe Nadine you can touch on that. How do you handle that situation where the idea can be good, but we all know unanimously the script is horrendous, except the entity that presented it to you?
Nadine de Barros
Having been in this for 20 years there’s been a huge evolution of the business. Just massive. I would argue that the quality of the script didn’t matter for a long time.
I’ve done five movies with Keanu Reeves, and they’re some of the worst movies that Keanu has ever done. Some of which were when I was at Voltage, and that’s no disrespect to the filmmakers, but they’re no John Wick. But, even though the scripts weren’t very strong, there was a time in which you could just sell a movie on Keanu Reeves and the business was so strong and there was DVD. As soon as DVD ended, all of the profit margins just sank, everything changed and all of a sudden quality became really important because you had to get people into the theaters.
You had to get them to pay VOD to watch it and I started telling producer friends of mine, “Guess what your job’s important again, ” because you know for a long time, it wasn’t because the quality of the film didn’t matter and we three were going to the markets and buyers were buying anything. It didn’t matter.
What we’ve discovered is that because there’s such a huge amount of content and audiences are much more savvy and they check the reviews. Not only the quality of the script matters, but the quality of the movie, the end product matters.
To be a good producer, you have to be willing to fight the fight in the editing room with the director as well. So it’s not just a script stage, it’s the whole thing.
Development is a very long and expensive process.