Presales - Learning from the Experts

When a distributor buys a film that hasn't been made yet they are almost blindfolded - they can't see the finished product.  So what determines what they are willing to pay ?

Even though old timers mutter about how pre-sales today aren't anything like the glory days .. for those of us in the indie sector it is still a vital part of film financing.    So I thought I'd ask some experts for some answers on what we need to do to our projects to help pre-sales.

Some of these experts include:

• Will Tennant International Acquisitions Executive at Icon Entertainment Internal
• Christina Kubacki International Sales Acquisitions at Entertainment One
• Tristan Whalley Sales Agent at Goalpost films
• Mark Horowitz Sales Agent at H2O Motion Pictures
• Phil Hunt Sales Agent at Bankside Films / Head Gear Films
• Mark Sanders Producer at Berkshire Axis Media
• Andrew Mackie Transmission Distribution

I thought I'd start by getting a producer to explain what advantages they see in presales .. apart from the obvious advantage of using it as a source of finance:

Pre-sales are a tricky thing. We are producers with our own financing and presales are a must for us to internally green-light a project.
If a project can’t get acceptable presales based on Cast, key crew and Script then that would be an indicator that there is not a strong market for your film or it needs to be re-tooled.  It is also a great check on whether the budget is realistic or not
- Mark Sanders

It isn't just producers who are after presales - sales agents also seem to prefer them:

We have taken on a variety of material and certain films just aren’t that sellable until you can screen them as finished films and sometimes we believe in a project enough to wait until it’s completed. Sometimes you wouldn't bother trying to pre-sell because you believe the film will have far more value as a finished product – although this is quite rare – sales agents tend to stand by the old adage that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
- Will Tennant

So how difficult are pre-sales at the moment?

Pre sales are harder than ever before with most of the major territories adopting a wait and see approach ... although it’s still reasonably easy to pre sell to the minor territories.  With the increased cost of releasing and the collapse of the TV buyers underpinning most of the risk for local distribs,   it’s all about excellence now.  Buyers have to be as sure as they can and that means take out as much of the ‘execution dependent’ risk as possible.  Known directors and known cast are what drives pre sales now.  No longer can you produce a genre film with B list names and pre sell it (let alone on most occasions even sell it to major territories at least for theatrical release).
The key message is that it’s about known cast and directors
- Phil Hunt

What determines the level of presales a project can get?

Script, cast, confidence in overall package and those involved, funding and taste
- Tristan

There are a number of factors that determine the likelihood of presales, and cast is one of the most important.  For a distributor to consider prebuying a project, they are really looking for “sure bets” and recognizable cast is one of the surest ways to mitigate risk, especially as cast usually translates to a certain minimum on home video, even if a film doesn't turn out as planned.  That said, it’s not the only factor that helps.  Having known directors, producers and properties can all help mitigate risk for distributors, so can also be very valuable to presales. And of course the script is always important – but still needs other strong elements surrounding it!
- Christina

Whether the project is destined to DVD or theatre in the current climate the major determinant factor as to what gets pre-sold and what waits for footage or complete screening before finding a home is the strength of the "sellable" elements to wit cast and/or director.  If a project has certain cast attached i.e. Brad Pitt or George Clooney or Julia Roberts or is directed by Martin Scorsese or Roman Polanski it is going to generate pre-sales almost regardless of the quality of the script because the distributors know there is an audience for certain names whether is be in theatrical, video or TV so they are more willing to take a chance and lock in the project early.  Conversely,  If the script is the greatest grouping of words since Shakespeare but is being directed by an unknown or has a cast of extremely competent actors that only lack for name recognition then the chances of pre-sales is going to be very slim.  That is not to say that at the end of the day that project won't be successful but its not going to generate any pre-sales.
- Mark Horowitz

I'd say that pre-sales are package driven – the four main elements being director, cast, budget and genre. Having a compelling package is equally as important as having a good script. Distributors are always going to pay attention to these elements as it helps them determine (normally by comparison to films with similar packages) how well they think the finished film might do in their territory and hence how much they’re will to offer as an advance. Distributors are also always thinking about how they’ll market a film to their audiences and given that the two main factors that audiences use when choosing what film to see are the genre and the actors (if a director is very famous (Scorcese, Coen Brothers etc) then this is also an audience draw), these elements will clearly be at the forefront of a distributor’s mind when assessing material.
- Will Tennant

It's interesting how everyone is talking about 'sellable' elements such as cast.  I've really never understood how sales agents decide which cast are bankable and which aren't.

For example, for the film 'Rage at Placid Lake' the producer Miriam McGowan had to bring in Miranda Richardson as a cast member to get the presales.  I appreciate that she's a fine actor ... but I have trouble seeing why she is more bankable than the other cast members - Ben Lee has a hit music career ... so why doesn't he have a higher marquee value?

I put that question to Mark :

Sales agents are a reactive bunch.  We decide who is bankable by who was a factor in recent successful pictures and by listening to distributors who tell us who is popular in their territories.As for Miranda Richardson ...  as a sales agent I can sit in a meeting with almost any distributor in the world and they will either know of her or when told what films she was in they would recognize her.  On a video box her name coupled with the name of a big film or two that she was in would have certain value especially compared to someone like Ben Lee who is virtually unknown outside of Australia except perhaps for his music, but no one pre buys a film based on the music.
- Mark Horowitz

What about Genre?  Does that make a difference ?

It’s also true that certain genres are more pre-sellable than others and in general Horrors, Thrillers and Action films are viewed as “less risky” pre-buys by distributors. The main reason for this is because those genres have much better ancillary value (DVDs, Pay TV etc) if the films perform poorly at the box office. People still buy horrors on DVD even if it was a flop, whereas a drama or a comedy that doesn’t perform at the cinemas is unlikely to have much home entertainment value.
- Will Tennant 

For completeness I tracked down the distributor who bought one of the presales for Mark Sander's film and ask him why he bought that particular project:

Given the cast, price and fact that it had presold to UK we decided to take a punt. 
- Andrew Mackie

So it looks likes the sales agents are right - cast  is vital.  Which is a bit disappointing for those of us who are just fans of great scripts.

Image CC Licensed: Crazy Fast  
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