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In Features, Issues

If a bunch of new start-ups have their way, you’ll never have to xerox press kits, stuff mailboxes and stick labels on videotapes every again. Here, Jessica Santana profiles four new companies intent on moving the buying and selling of independent films into the realm of e-commerce.

For years, disappointed independent filmmakers have come away from festivals and markets much the same way they arrived: completed film in hand, buyer unattached. Meetings take place, then disband when a buyer discovers the seller hasn’t cleared up all of their rights issues; expensive promotional materials end up clogging mailboxes and trash cans. Time and money are wasted, energy drained.

In the last few months, however, several Web-based companies have emerged with plans to streamline the interface between potential buyers and sellers of films and to develop an online business-to-business environment where deals can take place.

Promoting themselves as online marketplaces, Filmbazaar, Reelplay and OnlineFilmSales — dot-coms all — provide searchable databases with thousands of film titles, along with pertinent details regarding contact information, rights availability, development status and marketing information. A fourth, Cannesmarket — a joint venture between FilmFinders and Showbizdata — provides a similar function but exclusively serves the market that coincides with the Cannes Film Festival. All of them have one goal in mind: getting movies sold.

With over 2,500 Web microsites for film and television companies and over 2,000 registered buyers, Reelplay is currently the industry's largest player. "We’re about getting individual films to market," says vice president Rachael Shapiro, who headed the Independent Feature Project’s Independent Feature Film Market before moving to Reelplay. "We want to act as the neutral middleman for buyers and sellers."

Essentially a listing service, Reelplay — in contrast to OnlineFilmSales and Filmbazaar — does not screen its users; anyone can gain access to their data. "Our primary goal is to get as many people and projects into the system as possible," says Reelplay’s co-president Stephen Liu. "We are currently building a password-protected and secure private area where buyers and sellers can pre-screen who they want to see their materials. But right now, we want to provide the most comprehensive infrastructure where buyers and sellers can reach out to one another."

Filmbazaar has a database of 520 buying companies and 250 selling companies, but unlike Reelplay and OnlineFilmSales, only the buyer is allowed to initiate contact with the seller. "In our initial marketing research," says Jeremy Kehoe, Filmbazaar vice president and director of communications, "buyers told us again and again that they need to be protected against projects that they are not interested in." Only buyers who have registered with Filmbazaar are allowed access to the company’s Professional Business Center (their database, etc.). Filmbazaar verifies that they are who they say they are: applicants’ credit histories, their accrediting organization (such as the MPAA or UniFrance) and their financial history, as well as films they've been involved with in the past, are all factored in. Sellers are not allowed to initiate contact with potential buyers. Filmbazaar further hopes to distinguish themselves from the competition with their news coverage of the film business, and they’ve recently signed editorial deals with Germany’s Film.de and International Press Academy to provide industry news coverage exclusive to their website.

At OnlineFilmSales, the focus is on the selling and buying of international territorial distribution rights. "Seven of a film’s 10 revenue dollars come from rights sales in international markets," explains Dean Shapiro, vice president of sales and marketing at InternetStudios, the parent company of OnlineFilmSales. "Users of our site can check a film’s rights availability, conduct market research, contact the owner of the rights and, with our secure website interface, negotiate a contract." And like Filmbazaar, OnlineFilmSales conducts extensive background checks on the buying and selling companies they list. Producers with track records of selling films are eligible, but the company prefers to list sales agencies who represent producers, because, Shapiro notes, "A sales agency would know how to handle a transaction when an offer comes in.

"By providing a central meeting place over the Web," says Reelplay’s Shapiro, "we can streamline the work involved in promoting a film and greatly reduce the costs of getting to market." New solutions for reducing a seller’s marketing expenses — with, for example, downloadable high-resolution reproductions of promotional materials — is one of the attractions. "Anything you can sell with a videocassette, you can sell online," argues J. Todd Harris, an independent filmmaker and advisor to Reelplay. "The process to get to today’s film festivals and markets is inefficient. [Buyers and sellers] go with imperfect information about what is out there, and — especially as an independent filmmaker — it’s expensive to let people know about your projects." At the Reelplay site a potential buyer can view a five-minute trailer, read a synopsis, print out a credit sheet and find contact information about a film — all in a short period of time. "Instead of sending pictures or videocassettes all over the world," says Sandra Schulberg, one of the co-producers of Shadow Magic, a film listed with Reelplay, "where I'd have less control over how they were used, I can instead just point potential buyers to the website." Harris, who produced the film Urbania, confirms that Reelplay gave his film additional exposure at Sundance: "Simply being a part of the database can increase a film’s profile."

"As the seller, you have more control," says OnlineFilmSales’s Shapiro. "Whatever is important to you, whatever you want to show about your film on the website, you decide. The seller controls how the information is seen and what kind of information is made available." In promoting Shadow Magic, Schulberg was able to use the Reelplay website to hold interest in the film: "For company reasons, we’ve decided to hold off on selling the international rights to Shadow Magic until we go to Toronto. But in the meantime we’re able to direct interested parties to the website."

At this year’s Sundance, Reelplay launched a new initiative directed toward the independent filmmaker. "We want to do as much as we can to help the independent filmmaker get funding for their projects or to find a distributor," Liu says. "At Sundance we built 15 sites for independents in the festival and were able to increase their ability to communicate with buyers about their projects."

Filmbazaar’s soon-to-be-launched Indie Focus site — which will focus more on the artist, and less on the company — has a similar goal. "Indie Focus," Kehoe explains, "will focus on the artist who has been working on a certain film, has certain talent attached and is maybe $5,000 away from finishing. We’ll be in a position to put that filmmaker directly in touch with an interested buyer. Filmmakers will be able to place anything from a treatment to deliverables on the site. There will still be a qualification process, but the bar won’t be as high because of the nature of the indie film market." And even though these sites are designed to provide new forums for marketing, they know they’re up against some very traditional ways of doing business. Most of them readily admit that their immediate goal isn’t to supplant what’s already there. "There will always be a need for face-to-face contact; that’s just the nature of the film business," says Reelplay’s Shapiro. "What we want to be is the new first step for buyers. Before going to a market or festival, we want them to consult with our database."

"I still rely on sales agents to inform me of upcoming films," says Jon Gerrans of Strand Releasing, a distributor who puts out 10 to 15 independent films a year. "A good sales agent will have me in their Rolodex, and make me aware of films that are out there, well in advance of any festival that I’m planning to attend. But with the way things are changing, if you’re an acquisitions person you should probably be bookmarking all these sites as well.

"Film markets and film festivals bring many people together, but the trick is getting the right people to the right project. "If I’m a good acquisition executive," Dean Shapiro says, "I probably already know who the players are. But OnlineFilmSales is about finding new people who are serious about doing business and getting them to talk to one another."

Filmbazaar’s Kehoe, touching on the company’s selective client filtering once more, concurs: "Filmbazaar is about putting pre-screened sellers in touch with pre-screened buyers." At the recent American Film Market, OnlineFilmSales was host to the first-ever completely online transaction between a U.S. sales company and a foreign distributor when August Entertainment sold Turkey’s Pinema Productions the television broadcast rights to Tony Scott’s True Romance. No face-to-face contact ever occurred; the contractual arrangements were conducted entirely over the Web. But even with success stories like this one, Dean Shapiro admits that "there is a steep learning curve in getting people accustomed to the technology. But once they begin to get used to working this way, they’ll probably find it to be a much more efficient way of doing business."

Joe Revitte, an acquisitions agent at New Line, agrees: "At the beginning of this year’s Cannes Market, only a handful of people were using the computers provided by Cannesmarket.com. But by the end, there were lines of people at every terminal, just waiting to log on."


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