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EDN Member of the Month - Calum Gray, Independent


In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.

Our EDN member of the month for February 2013 is Calum Gray, Sales Manager at Independent Film Company based in London, UK. Independent specializes in the development, financing, production, sales and distribution of independent feature films, and recently Calum Gray has acted as international sales agent on such titles as Exit Through The Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012) and Manda Bala - Send a Bullet (Jason Kohn, 2007). Internationally the company has produced and sold such titles as We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011) the sci-fi Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) and a host of other director-led, high-end feature fictions and documentaries.

EDN has among other things talked to Calum about how Independent works with production and distribution and about this month’s European Film Market in Berlin.

EDN: Can you start by telling us about your background – how did you get started in the business and how did you end up at Independent?

CG: I have always been keenly interested in film and following my studies I was determined to go into Cinema. I knew that film was in essence an “industrial art form” and that a strong grounding in the business aspects of the industry would be vital.  Knowing this, I applied to several sales agents, first training at Content Film and then at Celsius Entertainment.  At that time we were selling a wonderful Sundance winning doc called Manda Bala (Jason Kohn), which really initiated my love of docs and also the omnibus doc Freakonomics (Alex Gibney/ Eugene Jarecki), which was based on the phenomenally popular non-fiction book.  We also worked on the doc We Live in Public (Ondi Timoner), which had just won the Sundance Grand Jury Award and the feature film Paris Je T’aime

After two years and with my interest in documentaries thoroughly cemented, I applied for and got a role as Acquisitions Executive with Mercury Media, a documentary specialist. My then CEO Tim Sparke, proved a brilliant mentor and whilst there I got the chance to work with some world class filmmakers like James Moll (Inheritance), Niall Ferguson/ Adrian Pennick (Kissinger) and Tyler Measom (Sons of Perdition) on the international rollouts of their films. I rose to the position of Head of Sales and Acquisitions and it was an excellent grounding in the international TV market for documentaries.   

I then moved to my current position at all rights sales agent Independent where I have worked on international sales on two recent theatrical documentary hits; Exit Through The Gift Shop, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, both of which have significantly deepened my understanding of the commercial potential of the documentary form and in particular its theatrical/ all rights potential in the international market.   

EDN: At Independent you work as Sales Manager. What is the job description for this title and what do you think are important assets for this type of job?  

CG: I source deals from the international market and handle all negotiation and contractual aspects of these. I travel to several major markets in a year to ensure our films get the best possible coverage. I advise on and help to create high quality marketing materials (trailers, brochures, worldwide poster etc), which can be used for the international release.  I supervise delivery of materials on each deal.  I keep the producer informed as to the status of the international rollout and after markets I compile reports as to the deals done and to the strategy following each market push. I help to handle worldwide festival strategy. Later on, I marshal the reporting process so that any monies or overages that are owed to a producer are paid as they become due over the course of the license. Also I am actively involved in acquisitions. 

As a salesman, I am also quite research heavy and I’m constantly looking at market data (increases or decreases in all rights sales/ what subgenres are selling/ new buyers in all rights and TV or VOD/ box office grosses/ ancillary values etc).  Through this I’m trying to understand what kinds of films have value and where they have that value across the 35 or so territories we have to sell.

As far as qualities needed for the role are concerned, I would say a good ear and an eye for detail are essential. If you are not listening (to buyers, to producers, to market trends) then it’s going to be tough.  Research is clearly an important factor too. 

Given that this is independent cinema, I would say that a passion for film and a considered understanding of narrative are also a must. Both will aid your “ethos” and your integrity as a pitcher.  Since we are often dealing with sophisticated buyers who need concepts deftly framed to understand their value, a certain rhetorical panache and a passion for communication are fundamental. Simply put, if you cannot ably convey a story, then sales is probably not the most suitable career path.

The role also requires tenacity.  The Independent filmmaking process is extremely intensive and I have noticed that the  best practitioners all share a kind of “stickability” especially when circumstances are not so favourable.    

EDN: Your company specializes in high-end feature fiction and documentary films. Can you tell a bit more about what types of documentaries are included in the catalogue – is there a prevalent theme, genre or style?

CG: On the international sales side we have had great success with art docs like Exit Through The Gift Shop and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. For UK distribution we have an eclectic catalogue and have worked on war documentaries like Sundance winner Hell and back Again, culinary documentaries like A Matter Of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt and music documentaries like Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

In essence we are not prescriptive about genre but are looking for films, which have genuine commercial theatrical potential.

EDN: How do you select the titles for distribution?

CG: It certainly helps if a film has had or will have a major festival launch.  Sundance has for example proved a very useful hunting ground for us in the past.  A good festival launch gives a film a strong initial referral, which buyers will pick up on and will help with sales and awards further down the line.  We therefore monitor top festivals like Sundance, TIFF, Berlin, Sheffield, IDFA, SXSW, Tribeca, etc for new documentary films.    

The provenance of the filmmaking/ producing team can also be important.  Previous successes translate to confidence in the market. We therefore monitor the output of key companies and maintain a continuous dialogue with these to ensure we are in the mix by the time they come to appointing their sales agent or UK distributor on a new project.

We are also receptive to pitches from filmmakers at any stage provided they consider their project to be a genuinely wide theatrical proposition.   

EDN: How many titles do you take on a year and do you take on films before they are completed? Are your company also actively involved in the production?

CG: We take on about 5 -6 films per year for international sales and 10 films for UK distribution.  If a doc has a strong enough pitch/ concept then we can certainly take it on prior to completion. Some projects are by their nature more execution dependent in which case we would wait. This is evaluated on a case by case basis.

At the moment we concentrate on fiction production. We can however help with documentary financing on films with a strong enough pitch. Certain subgenres (the music doc for example) are eminently pre-sellable both from licenses to international TV but also from the all rights world and we can help producers explore these opportunities at financing stage. 

EDN: Can you tell a bit more about how a sales agent works – what happens after the film is selected for your catalogue, what are the strategies and where do you take the films?

CG: Strategy depends on whether the film has had an international festival launch. I would consider the two best in terms of all rights buyer contact to be Sundance and TIFF (Sheffield and SXSW are also good). Launching at either of these is going to put you on the map and give a film the right referral.  We would look then to market premiere the Film.  EFM is very good for this, followed by attendance at a MIPTV, Cannes and LUFF.  By this time we would have a very good idea of whether the film is a high seller, a mid seller, or a film that was going to be television led in terms of deals and would strategize accordingly. 

I would here suggest that producers be very careful in terms of how many festivals they allow the film to feature at before they appoint a sales agent.  This is because all rights buyers in each territory like to have the option of premiering a film at the festival of their choice.  Therefore if they are denied this because a film is not eligible due to no longer being a territorial premiere, then this has cannibalised the value of the film and lessened your chance of getting an all rights sale.

Regarding sales, I tend to take a four tiered approach. Firstly I would target high end all rights distributors with a proven history of monetising documentaries. 

In each territory there are key commercial buyers for docs. For example Kinowelt and DCM in Germany,  Le Pacte, Pretty Pictures and Diaphana in France etc.

Secondly we will also introduce the film to the more arthouse inclined distributors as they frequently have a natural sympathy for the doc form and will often acquire them in territories where docs are harder to sell to the premiere commercial companies.  Such discussions with both commercial and arthouse buyers will take place primarily over EFM, MIPTV and Cannes.    

Thirdly we also have extensive contacts within worldwide Prestige TV doc strands (BBC Storyville, C4 True Stories, Sky, Canal+ Spain, Canal+ Poland,  Canal+ France,  ZDF, SVT, DR, NRK, YLE, NHK etc). We attend MIPTV in April and begin dialogues with these companies. 

It frequently works that getting high end TV interest can help build a case for an all rights distributor to take a documentary. Once they can see the TV value, this can be an incentive for them to exploit the other windows, knowing that they have the safety net of a TV sale. Having said this,  we are very happy to split the rights in certain key territories, especially those like the UK where there are prestige doc TV strands with the kind of cache (Storyville, True Stories for example) to genuinely benefit sales in other  terrories via the referral of such a purchase.  Storyville for example I consider to be a Rolls Royce and it’s most often a genuine validation of a film’s quality which can in turn be a useful tool pitching to other territories.  

Where a territory does not necessarily have a theatrical doc infrastructure or where splitting the rights is the most useful path, the appropriate high end TV buyer will be pitched, met with and invited to screen the film. 

Fourthly, we maintain excellent contacts with those Cable and Cinephile Channels worldwide who could take the film following any high end PTV/  FTV broadcast.  Further down the line, we look to exploit those opportunities over the long term in any territory where an all rights deal has not been possible.       

EDN: How does Independent work with rights? Do you acquire all rights when taking on a film?

CG: We acquire and sell all rights predominantly to theatrical distributors in each territory.  However there are several territories which historically do not have a strong theatrical doc infrastructure and in those it is better to split the rights by licensing TV/ limited theatrical/ DVD/ VOD separately.  We also license airlines internationally.

In the UK we work with all rights.  

EDN: Can you spot trends from year to year when working with sales? Can you say anything about what is in demand at the moment and what Independent is looking for?  

CG: Yes. Over the last 15 or so months artist/ fashion/ photographer bios have performed extremely well.  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Bill Cunningham: New York, Pina, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Marina Abramovich: The Artist is Present being examples. Pina for example achieved the remarkable distinction of massively out-grossing its (very high) US figure from international, which is very encouraging.  Music docs will always perform and over the last 12 months Searching For Sugarman, Marley and Living in Material World have all done well either from ancillary windows or theatrical itself.  Wildlife docs will always sell. Jiro Dreams of Sushi proved that food is also one of the most universalisable subjects.  Then you have wonderful films like The Imposter, which sold through the strength of its remarkable story.

As far as what we are looking for, we are not prescriptive.  It helps to have a universalisable or well known subject, one which is not bindingly culturally specific or fundamentally esoteric, to create a film which is artful/ filmmakerly and not “informational” in style and to make sure that the subject can sustain 90 minutes. But really it’s all in the tasting.

EDN: This month from the 7th to the 17th the Berlinale International Film Festival takes place in Berlin also hosting the European Film Market - EFM. How do you operate there as a sales agent and how is the market there for feature documentaries?

CG: We will be in the Martin Gropius Bau, Stand 4, selling our latest doc (TBC) and a host of quality independent films to buyers from around the world.  Several of our films will also be screening at the market. I think EFM is an excellent market for documentaries as it is the best mix of all rights buyers and TV buyers at any single market.  Docs are also far more highlighted at the market and it’s therefore a great place to launch a feature documentary.       

EDN: What can be the benefits for a documentary filmmaker or producer when going to the EFM?

CG: Access to the best sales agents and distributors, great sessions provided by organisations like the EDN and an intimate and fraternal atmosphere in a beautiful city like Berlin.

EDN: Do you have any advice for independent filmmakers with a finished film – how does one go about finding the right sales agent and what to be aware of when entering a deal?  

CG: Docs are a speciality and require care. Research is key. What docs has the sales agent sold? Use IMDB. Have they performed internationally? Use IMDB and BOX OFFICE MOJO if it’s a theatrical agent or ask around if it’s for TV. (On that note I really wish there were better accessible online analytics for worldwide TV sales). Is the sales agent fundamentally passionate about your project? What is their strategy for the film? How much volume do they bring to market? Will you be swamped? Do they concentrate on TV or all rights sales and are you therefore aligned? Be realistic about this. Re the deal, its important to understand whether your film is TV or genuinely theatrical.  A standard TV distributor’s deal will not be the same as the standard all rights sales agent’s deal. It is important to understand the likely revenues of your film in order to make the right choice as the two deal structures have significant implications depending on the amount of revenue actually achieved. If anyone wants to email me on this they can, and I would be happy to take them through it after Berlin.

EDN: What lies ahead for you and Independent?

CG: Hopefully a highly successful EFM followed by more world class feature documentaries and fictions for international sales and an expanding market presence on the UK distribution scene.  


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