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
By Stacey Parks
This is an excerpt of the interview Stacey Parks did with our own Orly Ravid regarding digital distribution. Stacey’s book is now available in paperback and kindle versions at www.FilmSpecific.com/Book.
What To Expect From A Distribution Deal: Interview With Orly Ravid from The Film Collaborative
Q: What’s it like for filmmakers these days in terms of getting traditional theatrical, broadcast, and DVD distribution deals for their films?
A: I think that film like any business, is affected by market forces. There’s more supply than there has ever been. The means of production have become less expensive and more accessible and film has gotten even more and more popular as evidenced by the proliferation of film festivals and film schools and corporate brands who have initiatives relating to film (contests and such). There are thousands of films for sale in markets such as Cannes & AFM each year and that’s not counting the projects in development, also for sale.
So the bottom line is that there’s simply an excess of supply over demand. And the other factor that has changed is the attrition, if not the collapse, of the middle B2B infrastructure that did emerge and sustain with VHS & DVD, but that does not maintain with digital distribution. The reason being is that when there were many DVD stores (and VHS before that) the businesses were in competition and they all needed product and weren’t always sure of what would sell or rent well so they actually stocked up, which gave the distributors a huge upside and that potential upside lead to healthy competition, which lead to a healthier business. These days, many video stores are out of business and the ones that still exist (such as Walmart) buy cheap and then return what does not sell (not that that did not happen before, but to a lesser extent), and so the traditional distributors proceed with greater caution when it comes to acquiring new films for the pipeline.
Then there’s the other issue of piracy which leads to less consumption overall and now over 20,000,000 subscribers wait for a film to be available on Netflix which can be healthy business for smaller films that otherwise could not sell well, BUT it’s not great for films that could or would sell otherwise.
The theatrical business is also hurt by both over-supply and by the ‘Netflixing’ of the U.S market. Digital distribution is there, but again the oversupply makes things competitive and the price points are different so volume is critical, hence the middle man aggregator can do well if it has a breadth of content, but individual producers need to have a film that competes very well in order to be made whole.
And then lastly there’s the Broadcast market. Well, as TV and the Internet become one, TV buying is less of a reliable source of revenue, prices have come down considerably and more rights / revenue streams are impacted when prices are higher such that the net is affected. Of course, bigger films can be exceptions and studios have their deals. But for the independents and smaller films, Broadcast deals are harder to get and worth less when one gets them. And nothing but a change in supply can change any of this because technology is certainly not going backwards.
Q: I know you’ve been a champion of ‘newer’ distribution platforms like Video On Demand (VOD), but what’s in it for the filmmakers?
A: I don’t champion them as much as I address that Cable VOD is responsible for 80% of the revenue in the digital space, which is not the same as all VOD. Films that do well in VOD can make 5 and 6 figures in revenue. By contrast, films that don’t do well make much less and sometimes almost nothing. The truth is VOD is not some magic pill; it’s simply a new delivery mechanism, with some advantages over physical media in terms of accessibility and with some disadvantages in terms of even greater glut and not always great recommendation engines or as easy of time to market (images are smaller, you don’t have as much real estate to market the film). The proliferation of the iPad is expected to increase the transactional rental business (ex: Netflix) and that interface is also seemingly more filmmaker / film consumption friendly. In any case, no one in distribution thinks DVD and physical media is going up; it’s only going down so for home entertainment or entertainment on the go (e.g. mobile), digital is here, we have to make the most of it.
Q: In your opinion, do film festivals still play a key role in helping filmmakers find distribution for their films? Or have you seen cases where skipping the festival route and going straight to distribution is OK too?
A: If your film is festival-worthy or festival-appropriate going that route can never hurt and in fact, often helps. The better the festivals are, the better the film can succeed in terms of sales and also often in terms of audience awareness and interest. Skipping festivals makes sense for non-festival-type films. For example, genre films normally don’t need festivals although sometimes they can be helped by a good festival strategy. I think now more than ever festivals play a key role in helping audiences find films and filmmakers find audiences. AND, since at least 5 years ago I have been championing festivals getting involved more in distribution. I expressed that enthusiastically to the folks at Sundance starting in 2009 and also to other niche festivals too. I truly believe that a more distribution-centric strategy makes sense for both filmmakers and festivals, though only for festivals with a strong brand or niche appeal.
Q: What about foreign distribution? In your experience is this still a major revenue stream for the filmmakers you’re working with?
A: Only for some of our filmmakers – for example, genre filmmakers, niche filmmakers, and some of the more commercial documentaries. For the others, it’s not really a viable option. The money for foreign distribution deals is so small for most films so we end up licensing the films when possible for a good enough deal and otherwise invoke a direct digital distribution and DIY strategy.
Q: What are some things filmmakers need to look out for when making any distribution deal? In other words, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see filmmakers making in regards to negotiating distribution deals?
A: I covered this a bit in my recent blog post and I do encourage filmmakers to read the blog when the topic relates to them because it covers a lot. Some of the key mistakes in short are:
1. Not getting references and checking on those in order to evaluate the verity of the distributor’s claims.
2. Not knowing enough and analyzing enough the degree of middlemen between the distributor and each key revenue stream.
3. Not having enough protection for material breach.
4. Not defining and also capping recoupable costs properly.
5. Giving up too many rights for too little reason.
6. Having blind faith and being too passive in one’s own responsibility to know the film’s audience and how to reach it.
7. Not having good photography or images to help market the film.
8. On the pro distributor side, sometimes filmmakers think they know better and can do a better trailer for example. They may be right but they can be wrong too and be too close to the film to know how to “sell it”.
Stacey Parks is a Producer and film distribution expert with over 15 years experience working with independent filmmakers. As a Foreign Sales Agent for several years, she secured distribution for hundreds of independent worldwide. Stacey currently specializes in coaching independent filmmakers on financing and distribution strategies for their projects, and works with them both one-on-one and through her online training site www.FilmSpecific.com The 2nd edition of her best selling film book “Insiders Guide To Independent Film Distribution” (Focal) is now available at www.FilmSpecific.com/Book.
Orly Ravid May 1st, 2012
Tags: analyze middlemen, book, cap marketing expenses, check references, DVD distribution, Film Festivals, foreign sales, Insider's Guide to Independent Film Distribution, Netflix, Orly Ravid, Stacey Parks, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, VOD distribution
TFC Tidbit of the Day 46 Balancing Old World Model Licensing Distribution With New Media Opportunities and DIY
The Tidbits this week will be bolstered by CASE STUDIES and real numbers to come after the initial releases have completed. These TidBits are the conclusion of our first DISTRIBUTION TIDBITS series and a bit of a general overview of how to blend traditional distribution with new DIY opportunities.
FOREIGN (OUTSIDE US DISTRIBUTION): TFC usually employs a hybrid approach when it comes to distributing films outside of the US. There is still a lot a distributor in another country can do with your film that you cannot do yourself, i.e. theatrical and non-theatrical, additional festivals per territory are harder to suss , and of course
retail DVD and often TV etc. To balance things out, TFC often combines licensing rights to distributors with some DIY. For example, we make sure filmmakers can sell off their own site (we can help facilitate that) and also have the right to get the film onto any
digital platforms that the distributors cannot and we can facilitate a worldwide iPhone App and other Apps which also allow for direct digital distribution in many countries around the world. We also aggregate directly and through our partners to key digital platforms available worldwide.
TFC helps filmmakers with foreign sales and will also soon have a booth at key sales markets. If you are going with another sales company, we will help you not get stuck in an abusive deal or one that recoups excessive costs at your expense of reasonable revenue. And many buyers will buy directly from filmmakers if they are properly motivated, thus decreasing the need for a sales agent.
Orly Ravid August 23rd, 2010