Are you capable of standing outside your films premiere and smiling as people politely avert their eyes when they leave? Or wonder out loud where theyre going to go for dinner? Or, if youre lucky, approach you with outstretched palms saying, "Congratulations! It looks great! Who was the d.p.?" If so, you may and I repeat, may be capable of selling your own film. Not every film can attract a sales agent. If you wind up selling your own film, here are a dozen things to keep in mind.
1. Dont buy into your own hype.
The hardest thing for any independent producer to do is form a realistic assessment of his or her films value in the marketplace. You may have raided your IRAs, bankrupt your parents and are living on food stamps, but none of those facts relate to the actual worth of your film. Gather as much information about the acquisitions of films similar to yours, work out best- and worst-case scenarios, and be realistic in your expectations
2. Develop a strategy and stick to it.
Come up with first, second and third festival choices and submit to them in that order. If you cant get into a major acquisitions festival, move to a plan B a key second-tier festival, an Independent Feature Project (IFP) Market work-in-progress viewing, or well strategized AFM or industry screenings. Control the time and place of the first screening. Dont let tapes float around.
3. Know the terrain.
"In any military operation, it is important first to know the lay of the land," writes Sun Tzu in his classic guide to strategy, The Art of War. So too in distribution. Is it a buyers market or a sellers market? Be on the outlook for new companies, new players and new outlets. If the theatrical terrain is rocky, consider a straight-to-cable deal or video deal.
4. Know the calendar.
Acquisitions execs plan their calendar a year in advance. If you are holding industry screenings, hold them in the pockets between the major festivals. Dont compete with the weeks in which executives are assigned dozens of films to screen.
5. Know the players.
Read interviews. Attend panels and seminars. Form an assessment of buyers individual tastes. More importantly, know who the key decision makers are and get on their radar. Cultivate both the low-level players but also their bosses. Dont let a low-level acquisitions exec kill your film without trying to have his or her boss take a look at it.
6. Keep the heat down until you are ready to screen.
Protracted buildups may have worked for Stanley Kubrick, but they are a little ridiculous for an indie film. Your film may be three years in post, but quit with the constant updates and faxed press releases outlining every tidbit of news. When your film is near ready, you want it to appear to the acquisitions community as new and fresh.
7. Enhance your films value.
Without genre elements coupled with major stars, an independent film has no inherent value. Your process of selling involves creating value for your film. Things like a Sundance Competition slot, a good review in The New York Times, and great word-of-mouth from a festival screening add value. So do a database of the 250,000 people that have visited the films Web site, a promotional tie-in with your uncles chain of 500 seafood restaurants, and the $1 million in prints and advertising funds offered by your biggest investor. Translate marketing and promotion ideas into tangible deals and alliances that will demonstrably enhance the value of the film.
8. Seek outside validation.
One key persons positive opinion of your film is enough to get the ball rolling. Consider showing your rough cut to an established producer or director and ask them to sign on as an executive producer. If you have connections with a key agent or manager, have them help spread the word. Or, hire a reputable publicist who likes the film.
9. Hand the ball off.
If youve hustled a small theatrical deal or a hot festival slot, consider bringing on a rep to handle things from here. Youve done the heavy lifting; the rep will be in a position to enhance the value of the film from now on.
10. Reevaluate and follow-up.
After your screening, make sure that acquisitions execs know how to reach you, and follow up with them a day or two after the screening. Dont be desperate, and have some kind of positive news to convey that makes it seem good things are happening. If they have criticisms of your film, listen. If you recut after your screenings, do it quickly and rescreen. It doesnt take long for films to feel old.
11. Close deals quickly.
Theres an old saying, "Never take your first offer." In film, this is not always true. While most offers can be bettered, sometimes the first offer comes from the best, and certainly most enthusiastic, buyer. But whether its your first offer or your tenth, dont let offers hang out there indefinitely. Bad Variety reviews or a poor screening in a sweaty theater can sour a distributors good vibes towards your film.
12. Declare victory and move on.
Dont flog your film to death. It is unlikely that a better deal will pop up a year from now. Okay, your investors poured $2 million into the film, and all youve got is a no-advance deal. If thats all thats out there, take the deal and be happy with it. If the film is a hit, your investors will get their money back. If it isnt, and you feel guilty, cut them in on your next project or repay them when your penny stock hits the Dow. If you have the energy and smarts to do grass-roots self-distribution, thats one thing. But too many filmmakers spend too long pushing films that will never sell. Its best to cultivate an impression of success and move on to the next project.
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