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Mary Jane Skalski lists 10 rules for new independent producers.

While on a panel, I was asked to think of some new rules of independent producing. I don’t think the following are rules, and I’m pretty sure most of them aren’t new, but if I were deciding today to start producing movies I wouldn’t mind if someone told me the following:

Measure success by something other than a domestic theatrical release.
The stakes are too high, and the costs of distribution keep rising. Your movie may be great, but it may not be right for today’s theatrical marketplace.

Not every indie film is suited for theatrical release, but just because a film isn’t "theatrical" doesn’t mean there’s no audience for it. Depending on the film, a cable premiere might be the best outcome for the film’s producers, financiers and director. Or limited self-distribution could be the best choice. Just know that if you go through all the trials and tribulations of making your film without U.S. distribution in place and you plan on celebrating when it premieres in a theater near you, you are setting yourself up for a big disappointment. Remember, Showtime financed Gods and Monsters, and Alan Ball wrote for the television program "Cybill". There is a great deal of crossover in the film world these days.

Don’t be afraid of agents.
Although I’m sure there are still big muckety-muck wheeler-dealers out there trying to mastermind the film business, there are also plenty of agents who just want to get the job done. Films bridge the world of art and commerce. Agents live more on the commerce side of the street. Respect that. Find your champions. Pay attention to who they represent and what kinds of material they are looking for.

Know that it is almost impossible to presell a non-U.S. territory before you have U.S. distribution.
Everyone loves to talk about financing a film from a few foreign presales and saving the U.S. advance for pure upside. Well, I think those days are gone for us regular joes. Now with the studios and the big foreign sales companies doing it, the foreign distributors with money are buying from them. And really, why shouldn’t they? The odds are those studio films will have a theatrical release with a solid ad campaign, trailer materials and a reliable delivery. As an independent producer, you still should know those distributors, but preselling those territories shouldn’t be part of your business plan.

Scour the world for new financiers – the old ones all want the same thing.
The tried-and-true sources of financing are everyone’s favorites. In many cases it’s a lot easier to do a movie with an entity that has been in the business of doing movies for a while. They have systems in place, pre-negotiated deals that you can piggyback on, forms they prefer and (hopefully) enough production savvy to understand some of the normal trials and tribulations of production. But they are deluged by material from experienced and established producers. Keep your eye out for the new folks who are moving to town, those who are more willing to take a risk with you if you’ll take a risk with them. But because you aren’t able to read the future, be as smart as you can when entering into production finance deals. If you’re getting into business with an entity that’s new, don’t skimp on your legal representation – this is not the time to encourage your uncle’s real estate firm to jump into the entertainment business – and consider "banking" the contract so your cash flow is guaranteed.

There are other festivals besides Sundance.
Now, some folks would argue that this isn’t true, and that for American independent films, not getting into the festival is an insurmountable obstacle to getting your film distributed. Maybe. But Boys Don’t Cry, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Daytrippers, Trust, and The Wedding Banquet didn’t premiere at Sundance. So although a Sundance competition berth is a wonderful thing, the odds are against you, so investigate other launch possibilities and work them.

If you’re taking a film to market, assume you will not get a financial advance for its international rights.
Therefore, know the deals, know the sales agents, and choose carefully. Don’t fixate so much on a number – evaluate who is selling your film and what their deal is. Will they support a European festival launch? What is their recommendation for festival exposure? Do they create nice materials? Do they "get" your film?

Recognize the difference between making a big sale and building a career.
Sometimes the buyer frenzy inflates prices beyond reason. It seems that every film bought for a big domestic theatrical advance over the past few years has wound up a box-office disappointment. And I think that such "failures" make it harder for those filmmakers to get their next films off the ground. Also, some larger sales agents can come in and pay an advance for a title knowing that they will keep expenses down and maximize sales by including a film in a package and selling it more aggressively to the television market. This may keep you from building relationships with foreign theatrical distributors and developing a non-U.S. audience for your director’s films. In today’s increasingly global marketplace, knowing that a director has pockets of fans in Italy or Sweden or Japan may be helpful down the line.

Success is a relative thing.
Try to ensure that your film will be perceived as a success. For example, your most "successful" release may be an effectively mounted rollout by a small distributor rather than a costly blowout by one of the majors. When making a distribution deal, meet with everyone who responds to your movie and ask them what they like about it and how they intend to support it, and investigate their track record by calling the producers of other films in their catalogue. Because it is unlikely that any film will outperform The Blair Witch Project at the box office, filmmakers should think about where they want their careers to be in a year and what their films are realistically capable of in order to take them there.

It is never too early to bring on a sales agent.
Sales agents do more than just negotiate sales of finished films at markets and film festivals. They position films at festivals and work to ensure that they have a profile and that their potential is maximized. If you wait until it premieres at a major festival to show your film to a sales agent, you are not giving him or her enough time to do the job properly.


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