A interview with the West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference (WESTDOC) Co Founder Richard Propper. Mr. Propper is also CEO and Director, International Licensing and Acquisitions at Solid Entertainment, a sales agency specializing in documentary films.
TFC: How long have you been doing international sales and with which entities and films?
RP: “I have been licensing non-fiction programming for 19 years. It wasn’t something I fell into, I had a great desire to combine the entertainment industry and international business – and I’m a current affairs and history junkie. Having completed film school and working for a small studio for years in post production, I saw a vast number of filmmakers with great documentary films, but no knowledge of what to do next. I wanted to be the first call for filmmakers when they thought about international sales.”
“Solid Entertainment has been successfully licensing programs worldwide for almost two decades via such broadcasters as: Animal Planet, ARTE, BBC , BBC2, BBC Horizon, BSkyB, Channel 4, Canal+, The Discovery Channels (worldwide), France 2/3, France 5, HBO, History Channel, M6, NBC, NHK, NOS-EO, National Geographic Channels(worldwide), Odyssee, ORF, Orbit, Planete, Premiere, Showtime, STAR Entertainment Channel, SPIEGEL TV, STERN-TV, SBS6, SF-DRS, TaurusFilm, The Travel Channel, TSR, TV Ontario, RAI, RTI, RTP, REAL-TV, VTM, ZDF.”
“At Solid Entertainment, our deal terms are pretty standard. A flat rate of 30%. No deduction for expenses. 3 year exclusive term of representation.”
TFC: What trends do you see on sales side for documentaries? Please be specific in terms of territories, rights, prices, types of films that perform v not etc.
RP: “They love (insert doc subject here) in Japan!” – Every new filmmaker I’ve ever met. – Richard Propper
“I’m going to throw a bucket of cold water on many peoples perceptions of the international broadcast marketplace. In many ways, its tougher now than ever before. There’s a huge oversupply of programs. Technology has worked wonders for the creation of content, leading to more of it. The non-fiction broadcast marketplace has been impacted by Reality TV. Channels need ratings and they have only so many hours they can license and co-produce. The line has blurred between documentaries and reality, so channels gradually began to license more and more Reality. Most territories in Europe still license good documentaries, but license fees have been declining for a few years. Asia and Latin America continue to pay modestly. Larger US broadcasters now want all rights deals. It didn’t use to be that way, a producer could count on the international rights as his/her “back end monies.” Not anymore.”
“Today, we see around $8,000 for an hour in Germany. We used to see $20,000. France, about $7,500 and it used to be $15,000. The UK – as high as $80,000, now $25,000. Generally, all the digital, free follow along rights go with the license fee. Pay VOD is still retained by the producer. We’ve had to sell more content overall and look harder for the opportunities.”
“Uniquely, American programs don’t do very well in the international marketplace. World history, nature and wildlife, buried treasure stories, science and technology stories all do well. American social issues or narrow political issues are a much harder sale. When was the last time you saw a great Italian documentary? You haven’t. Americans think our programs should sell everywhere, but we don’t reciprocate by programming other countries films on our networks. The international marketplace looks for programs that are somehow universal. It’s an art, not a science in producing programs that are attractive to the worldwide audience. I will say that some buyers recognize a well told story, others don’t. If it’s all talking heads or about some strange subculture – it won’t sell. We look at everything that comes into our office for representation – there are always surprises. If you haven’t captured the audience within the first 10 minutes, its likely the buyers aren’t going to stick around either.”
“Running times are important. If your dream is to make a feature doc, then try to come in at 75 – 100 minutes. Have a 50 minute cut-down planned for the broadcast one-hour slots. 90% of the world broadcast slots are one-hour. If there’s only a feature version, it has to compete with every Academy nominated doc or Morgan Spurlock’s or Michael Moore’s latest feature. It a very hard road if you’re not prepared. But it’s not all bad news.”
“The digital marketplace is starting to come into its own. While broadcast is challenging, there is a long tail strategy with digital – it just needs a little more time to stand on its own two legs. It takes strategy to get a good film released onto multi-platforms and various times. These strategies are being pioneered now. That is exciting. A larger audience for many films is out there, and technically there’s a way to deliver it. You just have to find and engage that audience.”
TFC: Explain the DVD landscape.
RP: “While the general focus, and rightly so, has been on VOD and a la carte program sales, I’ve found in the last year some DVD distributors who are looking for content. Keep in mind that there’s still a huge population of people who have this machine connected to their TV that provides supplemental content. We’ve had good luck getting a 4 part limited series and larger multi-episode series into Costco and Target. It’s short term sales, but its also unexpected revenue stream. VOD and a la carte programming is great, but it requires working with the right groups to get your content out there. While filmmakers are waiting for the magic formula to distribute digitally, DVD still has a place. It’s going away, but not as quickly as you might think.”
TFC: What is WESTDOC and why should filmmakers attend?
RP: “Over nearly 2 decades of traveling to television markets and film festivals, I realized that LA needed a substantial documentary conference of its own. One that wasn’t sponsor driven, nor a fortune to attend. Chuck Braverman is a friend and producer, who for years would run into me at various conferences and ask me why there wasn’t a decent conference in LA (I was President of IDA at the time) and proposed that we start one. I begged off for a time and then thought – why not? WESTDOC was born.”
“While there are some terrific conferences in other cities, LA really has this fractured creative community. Most filmmakers belong to several organizations. But where are the conferences that bring in the decision makers? Here is a true story. I was at a conference in Cannes (MIP or MIPCOM) having a meeting with someone who worked 25 minutes away from my office. I had traveled 9,000 miles to meet her. How ridiculous. With WESTDOC we’re getting these decision makers out of their offices and into an event to connect with the LA creative community.”
“When Chuck and I first sat down, we selected the best pieces from IDFA, HOT DOCS, MIP, NATPE, and all the rest. When we were done with our mission statement and outline, we knew it would be a great conference. Luckily, between us we had really great contacts with filmmakers and broadcasters. To our surprise, everyone we asked to speak said they would show up! Looking back, just our keynote speakers are an impressive bunch; RJ Cutler, Thom Beers, Kirby Dick, Joel Berlinger. Not bad for an unknown conference! This year we have Rory Kennedy, Ondi Timoner, and Kelly Day. We have 25 panels that are in the wheelhouse of documentary, Reality, and Digital. In addition, this year we have The Sit-Down – 30 minute broadcaster overviews with 43+ different networks.”
The 2013 WESTDOC Conference will take place September 15-18 at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles, CA. For a full schedule of speakers and activities, visit their website. TFC Members will receive a promotional code for a discounted ticket. Become a TFC Member today!
About Richard Propper:
Solid Entertainment Founder and President Richard Propper is the former President of the International Documentary Association (IDA), and executive producer of over thirty internationally broadcast documentary programs. Solid Entertainment is a broadcast distribution company and one of only a handful of US specialty companies which has consistently supplied non-fiction programming to networks worldwide with a particular emphasis in Western Europe. He has spoke as an authority on development, co-production agreements, and the intricacies international distribution at: MIPDOC, HOT DOCS, IFP, AFM, Silverdocs, Realscreen Summit, NATPE, IDA, UCLA, and USC. Richard is also the co-founder of WESTDOC: The West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference. WESTDOC is a three-day event that brings together preeminent producers, directors, writers, network executives, agents and distributors for insightful and unique seminars, as well as networking opportunities.
Orly Ravid August 29th, 2013
Further to my last blog, here’s a little advice on working with sales agents. Before you sign with a sales agent, it is critical to do some homework to figure out whether the deals you could get with their help will be better than the ones you could get on your own.
-What films has this company sold? Are they similar to the kind of film you have? Do those films have the same assets (cast, budget level, festival pedigree, cause or interest based)?
-Where did they sell? Domestically or internationally? Only very large agencies have the ability to handle both and sometimes a large agency won’t be a good fit for smaller films. Bigger slate=less attention to go around. Bigger agencies tend to give preferential treatment to their bigger name clients so if you are just starting out or haven’t built up a strong name yet, don’t expect to get red carpet service.
-For what kind of prices? This may get cagey as many people in the film business don’t like to talk about other people’s deals (unless it is gossip of course!), but they should be able to give a realistic narrow range of what you can expect based on similar films they have sold.
-What are the terms? Query if the fee to the sales agent and recouped expenses are worth it or if you can just do the couple small deals directly…
-Was the revenue remitted to the filmmaker? Can the agent collect? You should want to know what percentages and recoupment will reduce your share of the sale as well as this agent’s track record for collecting from distributors and paying filmmakers. On this question, you’ll need to contact the filmmakers who have worked with the company and see if they did receive their advances and further revenue. We always recommend making sure that all rights terminate upon material delay of payment. Be specific and be clear so you are not stuck in a deal where you won’t be paid.
Agencies love to show off nice catalogs of films they represent, but a list of titles will not tell you the information you need to know if you want to make your money back or make it back for your investors.
If a sales agent or lawyer approaches you or you want to approach him or her to sell your film, drill into the details. Even on the LGBT front not all films are alike. Not all of them can do the same deals, or any deals at all. Not all have the same revenue stream potentials. Documentaries are different from narratives, for example. And of course this is true of other categories of films. One of the hardest for TFC to handle and one of the hardest to sell in general, especially out of a non-A-list festival, is a drama without name cast.
Working with a sales agent that is taking a 10% commission off of the sales she brings in doesn’t bother me. 10% is not a lot of money for an agent who brings in a six-figure advance, and most likely she will bring in less for the majority of independent films. But I am concerned about paying a producer’s rep a big up-front fee, as there are many bottom-feeding producer’s reps whose business model is only collecting the fee and offering little else. For a good one who offers invaluable advice in the early stage of production and whose contacts may indeed be useful, it could be worth paying for. It is easy enough to Google someone’s name and see the kinds of projects with which they have been associated. If the only sources citing their involvement belong to sites they run, be cautious about making upfront payments and giving an ownership stake in your work.
Let me end with saying any industry professionals reading this please, please share the types of films you are handling and the deals you are doing, be specific. We share our film slate and numbers and if you do too, filmmakers can make educated choices.
I think much of the time filmmakers will still want someone else to handle their distribution and may be happy to do deals even if there is no profit, if only to establish and develop their careers. But let them make that choice as informed filmmakers, not still clinging to the allure of the 1990’s.
Orly Ravid July 25th, 2013