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BSS2015: in negotiation

Tom Hern brought producers Matthew Metcalfe and Liz Watts to the table to discuss making dealsRather than report this as a “he said, she said” narrative, the speakers’ points are summarised here separately.

Matthew Metcalfe: NZ Producer of films, television dramas and documentaries and music videos. Credits include Love Birds, 6 Days, Dean Spanley and The Dead Lands.

Estimates are the values your sales agent gives on all global territories. These are underpinned by talent, which can include everyone above the line e.g. cast, writers. The key thing to consider is what package you want and what your sales points are.

I liken it to chess. I have to have a game plan. Don’t box yourself in. Set expectations that can hit goals and build momentum. Sales agents call up key buyers to get their estimates. When you take a project to a sales agent you need a good script, a good director and cast and an affordable budget. But that’s a generalisation because there may be an actor who “shifts the needle”. You need to know who’s upcoming. A rising tide raises all boats. An Oscar nomination is the Holy Grail for talent.

Agents are gatekeepers. They have to forward your offer, but what have they promised their client?

You have to manage the expectations of sales agents and pre-buyers. Be realistic. You’re not going to get Brad Pitt even if he is looking for a film. Having that as your plan is like winning Lotto being your financial strategy. It can happen but it probably won’t.

There’s a massive star system in the UK. I always work with a good casting director there who’s in the know. Trust those relationships and don’t haggle. Take them out for dinner. Pay actors on time.

You need to be strategic with casting, e.g. get a run on the board with someone like Charles Dance. Some top actors pass on a project then eventually agree to it if you’re persistent. (In another session, one speaker noted that many people say yes the third time you ask them because, if you keep going back to them, they become convinced it’s real.)

You must at all times protect the concept that you have a real movie, i.e. one that is financed and is capable of paying the client. In terms of budget, above $6 million you need a brand. 6 Days, for example, was about a historical event.

To contradict everything I’ve said, there are no rules. Some projects need a different approach. There will always be an argument to do it another way. Always do it politely and remember you’re dealing with human beings.

As a producer it’s a numbers game. With every film you get smarter at clipping the ticket on the money flows. It’s part of the learning to negotiate better deals.

Liz Watts: Principal Director of Australian film and TV independent production company Porchlight Films. Credits include Animal Kingdom, Lore, Little Fish and Jewboy.

You need to decide what a package needs to get it to the marketplace. Lore, for example, didn’t require top tier English speaking actors. Everything is a matter of negotiation – if you have a great director the actors will follow. Interesting names attract other names. If the talent is American you have to sell them the idea of shifting countries to do the job. Actors want to know what’s in it for them – is it a good lead or are they sick of being the woman in peril?

It’s about what position you’re in to go for the ask. We wouldn’t go out without a full package unless the cast don’t matter in terms of the deal.

As a producer you recognize talent and that’s the success of your career. You have to know where an actor is in their career and you have to know what the agents’ criteria are. e.g. When Robert Pattinson signed for The Rover he was desperate to get out of Twilight. It’s about building good relationships with agents, who trade in knowledge, as the world’s becoming more borderless and you’re casting from all around the world.

I do the deal for the above-the-line cost. I use UTA to get me estimates on quotes because they will know if we’re in the realm of affordability.

I also work with other producers. I agree with Matthew that it’s like a game of chess, where you decide what your elements are and where you need to get to. The script and the talent are crucial.

Often the Blue Sky thing is more attractive to a sales’ agent, for example an actor may have done well in a small thing. You don’t always need a huge cast, sometimes you can discover cast.

I never do a heavy pitch. I’m more of a conversation person. I have a softer touch than Matthew. I’m for the slow seduction. If I go to an actor with a script it has to be ready with the director and budget level in place.

Regarding distribution, I get very involved in the release. We co-distribute all our films and get a percentage of the return. It’s a conversation worked out in pre-production with the sales agent who co-ordinates distribution. You need to collaborate. Exploitation of your project goes on for years and money goes back into revenue streams.

On a weekend when Turbo Kid was noted as the world’s most popular film to download illegally, both speakers agreed that everyone loses from piracy.

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