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In Features, Issues

LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Daniel Einfeld barters for a better budget.

A.D. Greg Webb and Phoebe Cates on the set of My Life's in Turnaround.

Thirty thousand dollars is not a lot to work with. On a big budget film it wouldn’t even cover the cost of donuts — but, as the producers of My Life’s in Turnaround, we had to make it last. We were well aware of standard cost cutting guerrilla strategies, like hand-held camera work, broken up shooting schedules and life without insurance, but these were among compromises that the directors, Eric Schaeffer and Donal Ward, were not prepared to make. They didn’t want anything that would even resemble a student film. They wanted big production value and a million dollar look.

The problems really began when the projected 6:1 shooting ratio climbed to 13:1 on the first day of production, throwing all contingency money out the window. At this rate the planned 15 consecutive day schedule would close down in less than a week. We realized immediately that some major deals would need to be struck if the film was to be completed, so in our desperation we set about analyzing what our bargaining power consisted of.

We developed the prototype of a bartering proposal which would come to be affectionately referred to by the production office as The Pitch. The Pitch offered vendors a variety of ways to get involved with Turnaround by providing us with products or services in return for publicity and exposure in connection with the film. The directors approved of the strategy as long as the deals didn’t require them to compromise their creative freedom. After all, we were desperate, and no trade off would be considered impossible to negotiate. The inescapable reality of our financial situation demanded we all become master sales-people over night.

We rose to the challenge and successfully completed our film and, for those who might be wondering, none of the products we placed were blatant enough to damage the integrity of the picture. Anyone can strike thousands of dollars off their budget by pitching for bartering deals, as long as they have the authority to place the vendor’s products in a shot, or allocate credits at the end of the film.

If you have this authority (that is, if you are the producer, director, or are authorized to act on their behalf), your first step is to determine what you need, what your goals are, prioritizing them as you see fit. Do you need to beat down the price of camera rental or get free meals for the whole crew? Whatever you need, you can make some sort of deal.

Next, you’ll need to create your Approach Lists. Who can you approach to get what you need? Use your Film Production Guide and your Yellow Pages. Also, assess the value of your production team’s personal contacts. Approaching people you know will obviously save you time and effort. Be sure to make these Approach Lists extensive. Remember, you’re asking people to give you something in return for publicity. Be prepared to get a lot of rejections as most business people are used to trading their services for cold, hard cash. Bartering is considered by many to be an unorthodox method of conducting business, but it’s not as rare as you might think. In fact, your library or your Yellow Pages can provide you with a list of Barter Exchanges or even actual Product Placement Companies and, even though they may charge a fee, they should be among the organizations you contact.

In our experience, most of these organizations require at least a few months notice prior to your desired transaction date, but you might get lucky, even with your impending production deadline, if they have immediate access to the goods or services you need. They will want a full list of all the items you’re looking for as they deal with many different companies. If you followed the first step mentioned above, you’ll already have this list prepared. Although, as mentioned, these companies may charge a fee, explain your low-budget situation and follow the pitch that you are about to create and you may be able to get them to reduce their fee. Nevertheless, your goal is to try and get things for free, so you should keep such deals in mind only as a last resort.

In order to get what you need for free, you’ll have to create your own pitch. Your pitch is going to be a series of statements that will introduce yourself and your intentions quickly and concisely, and in an attractive enough way to elicit a positive response from your target.

Having gone through your Production Guide and phone books, you should have a long list of targets to approach for each item you need (use directories at your local library if you need more names). Remember, because you have so many targets, you will most likely be approaching people over the phone as opposed to visiting each company in person. However, as mentioned, you may save a lot of time approaching your neighborhood deli for craft service supplies and groceries as he or she already knows you and may be interested in what you’re offering. Nevertheless, whomever you approach, and however you approach them, you’re going to have to know exactly what it is you’re offering them in return for what you’re asking.

D.P. Peter Hawkins and 1st A.C. Matthew Ranson.

DEAL-A-MEAL: GETTING WHAT YOU CAN

Well, for starters, as producer, director, or authorized representative, it is within your power to grant businesses a variety of publicity options. There is the straight product placement deal, that is, their product, logo, or brand name placed in a shot. Maybe one of the characters in a scene can wear their company t-shirt, or baseball cap, or perhaps drink their soda, eat at their restaurant, or walk around outside their store.

What about credits in the end of the film? Explain to them that filmmakers watch each other’s films and often write notes from the credits. A “thank you” to their company at the end of your film will surely bring them more business from the film industry, a market they may never have tapped into before. Remind them of the distribution potential of your film, and get their mouths watering at the thought of international theatrical, television, and video exposure.

How about their company being mentioned in the dialogue? How much would your screenplay actually be damaged if you were to drop in a company’s name or product somewhere in a character’s dialogue? You may or may not be prepared to compromise in this way, but if you are, it’s virtually a guarantee of a discount on walkie-talkie rental or a free week’s worth of fried chicken wings.

On a more extreme note, we were able to work a deal with the owner of a pizza restaurant who wasn’t interested in publicity but whose daughter wanted to break into acting. In return for her fleeting appearance in the background of a bar scene, we all ate heartily that night.

Also at your disposal is the ability to include participating companies in your production’s press releases and publicity materials, attributing the production’s success to the involvement of companies such as theirs. Businesses all have advertising budgets and will appreciate an opportunity to jump on your publicity bandwagon at no cost to them (except of course in return for a discount on renting their generator, or lights). Offer them publicity stills of their product on the film set, take a couple of snapshots, and follow through on your offer. This will give them tremendous satisfaction.

JOKERS WILD: SELLING WHAT YOU HAVE

The exposure and publicity angle, however, is not the only approach when negotiating for a barter deal with vendors. There are many other things that we found influenced businesses to help our production. The key is to use your imagination. If you were them, what would convince you? We had certain name actors in cameo appearances and some star-struck vendors were not interested in helping us until they saw their chance to meet a star. For others it took inviting them to the wrap party, or to the screening of the dailies. Some wanted assurances that in our dealings with other filmmakers we would provide their company with referrals. After learning of our other projects in development some businesses were excited by the prospect of a long-term relationship with a film production company. Isolate the strengths of your film. Does it have a name actor or director attached? Is the subject matter particularly timely or socially relevant? Do you have the endorsement or financial backing of any well-known people or industry players?

All of the items you can think of to offer the people who have what you want we call “Deal Sweeteners.” Don’t use them all at once. There’s no need to lay all your cards on the table in one go, and commit yourself to several obligations. After all, you do actually have to be prepared to give them something in writing and follow through on your offer. Use your offers sparingly, occasionally sweetening the deal by throwing in another item if they seem indecisive.

These “Deal Sweeteners” are just part of your pitch. You have to know how and when to use them and what else you’ll need to say before you’re actually ready to start making your calls. Planning it all out first is essential. Planning your pitch will help avoid hundreds of rejections you would receive as you “um” and “er” and stumble while trying to convince someone of something you don’t fully understand the dynamics of yourself.

In order to maximize your success rate you’ll need to be prepared for every objection you come up against. Note that when you call your targets for the first time, you don’t always have to close the deal immediately. Most large companies will expect to see something in writing before committing themselves. Some may ask for a copy of your script to determine whether or not it is appropriate for them to become involved with the project. You should have spare copies of your script standing by for this purpose. Many will also ask to see a guaranteed distribution agreement. If you don’t have one, explain that you’re currently considering a variety of distribution arrangements. Then, direct their attention back to what you can actually provide them.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: THE PITCH & THE PRESSURE POINT

Don’t expect only the large companies to ask for something in writing. Even small businesses will most likely want to see some written materials from you so you should have something prepared to send them right away. Of course, in cases where you don’t have the luxury of time, that is, if you’re desperate, you should push them for a deal right away. During Turnaround, we reached many points of desperation where we had no choice but to try and close the deal in the first call. Fortunately, by this stage, we had become so fluent in delivering The Pitch that the urgency in our voices actually worked in our favor and we were able to close certain deals immediately. Nevertheless, the best approach, and by far the easiest on your heart, is to aim for nothing more in your initial phone conversation than to get your target to expect to receive some written materials from you and to be prepared to discuss them with you later in the day.

If you don’t have a fax machine, arrange access to one. Pitch an electronics company and negotiate a deal, or borrow someone else’s fax and plug it into your phone when you want to send a document. A fax is an indispensable tool when trying to close a deal after an energetic phone conversation. Anything slower allows your target the chance to cool off and change their mind.

In terms of the actual written materials you’ll need, start with a Publicity Kit, or at least a “One-Sheet” on your company and your production. Standard publicity kit elements include the above mentioned “One-Sheet,” so named because it is essential information condensed onto one sheet of paper, so as not to waste too much of a business person’s time. This brevity is considered a sign of respect. The “One-Sheet” should be a concisely written summary of the story of your film, followed by a summary of who you and you company are. A publicity kit should also contain any newspaper or magazine articles written about your company or production. If you don’t have any, arrange a free listing for your film in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety as part of their “In Production” sections. Photocopy the listing, enlarge it, and photocopy it again with the trade publication’s masthead across the top. Anything publicized about your organization will afford you essential legitimacy in the eyes of your bartering targets. If possible, your faxable publicity materials should also include a page of short filmographies of your leading cast members. If you’ve set up a meeting with your target and are pitching them in person, your publicity materials should also include a folder (with some sort of artwork on the cover) to hold sheets of paper, professional 8 x 10 stills of your cast members, and your own business card. All of these items can be pitched for offering “Deal Sweeteners” to photographers, desktop publishers and stationery stores. Remember, if you want success badly enough you’ll hustle as much as you need to.

You’re also going to need a cover letter to send along with your publicity materials reminding them of the type of deal you’re attempting to make. Your letter should briefly re-introduce yourself, your company, and your project and refer to your telephone conversation with them. Specifically, the letter should state what it is you have asked them to provide you with, why you are asking them for such a deal, and what sort of things you would like to offer them in return, briefly mentioning some of your “Deal Sweeteners.” Remember, don’t lay all your cards out on the table once. Also, your letter should mention some of the companies you have already made similar deals with. If you haven’t yet made such deals, mention some companies you have approached, or are in the process of approaching. This will achieve two things. First, it will add legitimacy to your request. Second, your prospect will feel that other reputable companies are involved in the project, and won’t want to miss out on something that others have seen the benefits in. We call this “Pressure Point,” all the more effective if you specifically name some of their direct competition.

The structure of this letter is up to you, bearing in mind that your objective is to give them enough information to understand what you’re asking, and what the benefits are to them, if they get involved. Keep it down to one page, once again out of respect for their busy schedule. It might be worth noting in the letter bartering arrangements such as this are commonplace, as indicated by newspaper and magazine articles on bartering and product placement (available through your local library), which you can photocopy and include as part of the package you provide them with. Also, end the letter with an invitation to visit the set and attend your wrap party, concluding with an open-ended question, such as, “Why not join the fun of making a movie and advertise your business at the same time?” It’s also important to mention that you will be calling to make the necessary arrangements with them. Obviously, the letter will have to be worded so that it can he altered easily on your computer and personalized each time you need to print out a copy to fax to your current target. Like the fax machine, if you don’t own a computer, pitch for one.

COME ON DOWN: PROMPT SHEETS & APPROACH LISTS

So, you’ve worked out what you need and who you can get it from. You’ve analyzed what you have to offer and you’ve prepared your publicity materials and cover letter. Well, you’re almost ready to start calling, but in order to maximize your effectiveness, there are a few more things you’ll need in terms of preparation.

Anyone in telephone sales will tell you that before you actually make your calls you’ll need to create a “Prompt Sheet” and a system of tracking your calls. A “Prompt Sheet” is a page of key statements to have in front of you during your phone conversations to remind you of all the points to bring up with your target. Your “Prompt Sheet” should include the “Deal Sweeteners,” detailed above, the “Pressure Point,” mentioning their competition, and a reminder to yourself to arrange for them to expect your faxed publicity materials. Also on your “Prompt Sheet” should be another note to mention your needs, as well as your understanding of their need for advertising and publicity. When discussing their needs, be careful not to sound like you know more about their business than they do. Just let them know that you understand the high costs associated with advertising and this is why a deal such as yours should be attractive to them.

When revealing your own needs, both in your phone and written communication, always ask for twice as much as you actually require. If they respond negatively you are strategically prepared to reduce your request resulting in two immediate effects. Firstly, they are more likely to agree to providing you with something rather than nothing. Secondly, by reducing your request, you convey urgency and desperation, which, if they have any heart at all, will tug at their heartstrings.

As mentioned, you must also create a system of tracking your calls. Get a three-ring binder, divide it into the days of the week, and prepare a separate piece of paper for each target you are going to approach. Treat each prospect as if this is the deal you are going to close. On each page, write the name of the company, the name of the owner, manager, or decision maker, their phone number, fax number, and address. Below this, create three columns, one for the date of your call, one for the time, and one for remarks (summarizing the results of the conversation). After each call, make the necessary entries and then place the page behind the day-of-the-week-divider according to when you feel is the soonest you can re-approach this target. The object of each call is to either close a deal or to arrange for them to receive your written materials and then close the deal. If they’re busy or out of the office, call back later that day. If they’re interested, send them a fax, and call back later. If they’re not interested, tell them you’ll send them a fax anyway and that you’ll call back later to see if they’ve changed their mind. Call them back the next day, or in a couple of days (if you still need to) with a sweeter deal.

So, now you have your “Prompt Sheet,” Approach Lists, call tracking system, and written materials. You’d also better have a contract (on your letterhead) standing by if they want a written guarantee that you’ll follow through on what you’ve offered them in return for their product. Such a contract could just be in letter form and should be signed and dated by both you and them. It should say something simple like: “This letter confirms that in return for (item and quantity of product or service), (your company name) agrees to provide (specific “Deal Sweeteners” agreed upon) to (their company name) in connection with the feature film (title of film).” Make two copies of each signed contract and keep one for yourself so you have a record of who you’ve promised what.

THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE: MAKING YOUR PHONE PAY

Now you’re finally ready to make your calls. When doing so remember not to waste your pitch on the receptionist. Ask for the decision maker. Make sure your energy is up and you believe in the value of what you’re offering. Remember to convey urgency and never allow long pauses. Think on your feet, listen to the responses you’re getting, feel your prospect out, and tailor your pitch to each one specifically. Avoid using words like “donation” or “charity” to describe your target’s participation in the deal. Speak clearly and never argue with your target. If they reject your offer, sweeten the deal and return the conversation to how they will benefit. Don’t be afraid to ask for their decision. Let them know you’re just a group of hard working young people trying to make a movie and earn an honest living. Tell them how their participation will benefit the local economy and community as a whole.

Many vendors will question the worth of your project. If it’s so great, they will suggest, you’d be able to feed your crew. Do not respond that you don’t have enough money. Never expose your project’s budget weakness in full. Perhaps you’re shooting later than anticipated tonight and are required to feed your crew every six hours, or, your shooting ratio has unexpectedly skyrocketed. Don’t let them think of you as inexperienced or irresponsible. Some problems simply cannot be planned for. Bear in mind also that non-industry people love to hear “film talk,” even if they’re not quite sure what you’re saying. Industry vendors are generally harder to cut deals with because they’ve been approached so many times. Remember, it’s up to you to feel out your prospect and tailor your pitch accordingly.

If they repeatedly reject your offer, don’t give up. Make them suffer. Ask them what you can do for them to make the deal more attractive. If they insist on charging cash, ask for a payment plan or a deferment until the film is distributed. If they still won’t come to the party, ask them if they know anyone in their line of work who might help you. Get something out of every phone call. Ask them to think about your otter and let them know you’ll be calling back in a couple of days to see if they’ve reconsidered.

Cold calling can grow tiresome. There will certainly come a few moments during production when, after two hours of sleep, and four consecutive hours on the phone, the whole process will seem absurd, and you may begin to question how twenty free pizzas fit into the scheme of life. At this point you are probably delirious. Put the telephone down and take a well-deserved break.

The fact is, persistence pays off. According to a recent survey into phone sales, 80% of all successful sales were made after the fifth call on a prospect. Only 10% of sales-people keep calling after the third call. 10% of callers are making 80% of sales. Never give up.

Bartering success stories on Turnaround included: a lot of free film stock, a cellular phone (with free air time), a generator, a photocopier, a computer, a clothes rack, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, coffee urns, coffee, bagels, soda, donuts, burgers, pizza, soup, sandwiches, and a mess of fried chicken wings. In total, we estimate the amount saved for the production by The Pitch is in the $50,000 range.

CONCLUSION

Even though successful pitching can be learned, not everyone is outgoing enough to pull it off. Don’t worry. Among your crew there will be at least one or two who are natural sales people. You don’t need to be able to do it yourself; just observe those around you and delegate the job to those you feel are up to the task.

Since the making of Turnaround, research into sales, deal negotiation, and telemarketing has revealed to us that many of the techniques we instinctively developed in our moments of desperation are used by major studios, filmmakers at the highest level, and professional sales-people worldwide. Reading up on these techniques have certainly enhanced our current presentation of The Pitch, but the essentials are the same. As Phillip Mahfood puts it, in his book Tele Selling, “This is a new age. An age of immediate response to immediate problems.” And, when trying to extend what seems to be an impossibly low budget, it’s of the utmost importance to remember that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. Low budget producers must be prepared to sell themselves, and their project, and to ask if they wish to receive. Remember, after all, it’s just a numbers game.

Daniel Einfeld is the President of Frontier Productions, a film and television packaging, development, and production company based in New York. Frontier also runs a seminar on pitching, bartering, and product placement at various local film schools and trade associations.

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