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Agent overload

“The Ledge”
Cook Allender

Infighting and confusion can reign as more movies arrive at Sundance with two or three agencies attached. Says one buyer, “It’s a nightmare.”

Complaints about the crowds at Sundance are nothing new. But lately, festival players have begun griping about too many people in the bargaining room.

During the past few years, more projects are showing up in Park City with two and even three sales reps from different agencies peddling the films. Although this can be beneficial, it has made for some problematic negotiations bred of communication breakdowns and competing agendas. A sales agent repping the director on a project might be focused much more on generating the widest possible exposure for their client’s work with a hefty P&A commitment, while the agent repping the moneymen and producers might simply be looking to recoup his clients’ investments upfront rather than take a risk on box office. It could be that the agency repping the actor and/or director wants the stamp of a more pedigreed distributor, while the financier is willing to take less front-end money for a larger marketing commitment.

“It’s a nightmare at the festivals,” one buyer says plainly. A sales agent at one of the big agencies echoes the feeling: “Sometimes it’s good, a lot of the times it blows.”

This year’s program includes more than a handful of co-repping situations, including Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s competition film Another Earth, which is repped by WME and Parlay Media’s Kevin Iwashina; Jacob Aaron Estes’ The Details has UTA and CAA; Lee Tamahori and Michael Thomas’ The Devil’s Double, Paradigm and CAA; Mark Pellington’s I Melt With You, UTA and Submarine’s Josh Braun; JC Chandor’s Margin Call, UTA, Cassian Elwes and Untitled; and Dito Montiel’s The Son of No One, WME, UTA and Elwes; among others. While these could end up with healthy sales, they might have a bumpy time getting there.

“Of course there are challenges to agencies collaborating; it’s everything you would think,” a major agent says. But, sales agents claim, it’s rarely if ever had a negative impact on the final result for the clients. Braun points to several instances where he has co-repped films — like the 2009 documentary The Cove, which he and then-William Morris Independent agent Rena Ronson sold to Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate — that ended up “being to the benefit of the filmmakers,” he says. “You could view it as: There are more intelligent minds trying to figure out the best result for your film.”

As the marketplace has gotten tighter, the way indies are packaged and financed has increasingly relied on multiple parties bringing something to the table. One agency reps the director, another puts together the financing, and both want to make sure their clients’ interests are represented. Those projects that draw star talent often bring along the actor’s agency with them. Or a filmmaker with a growing profile might have representation at one of the bigger agencies but trusts the sales agency he worked with back when the WMEs and CAAs of the world didn’t care who he was.

But while co-repping might make sense on paper, it just as often becomes a headache in practice. As one sales agent puts it, the “functionality of it” becomes a problem. The simple effort of communicating new information to all the players amid a chaotic festival setting can be maddeningly difficult.

“Information control is a big part of managing a deal,” a major agent says. “You never have just one voice. But as the number of people in that decision-making process multiplies, it gets harder both to be efficient — to be able to move quickly and to have a real cohesive view of what’s happening —and to feel confident that you are actually controlling what you think you’re controlling. Because certain people aren’t accountable to each other.”


“it gets harder to be efficient and to feel confident that you are controlling what you think you’re controlling.” — Sales agent

The agencies in a co-repping situation typically try to establish a point person through which to funnel all the information, but that person is not always clear to all the buyers. So from the buyers’ perspective, it’s hard to know how seriously their bids are being taken and whether all of their parameters are being passed along fully and accurately among the agents. “It’s never a good thing when two sales agents are doing it because you think you have a deal with one and then the other gets involved,” one acquisitions exec says. Some buyers question how much the nonpoint people do for the sale to earn a commission. (Agencies are typically paid 7.5 percent-10 percent commission on a sale, agencies of equal stature co-repping a film tend to split the commission evenly, and a big agency co-repping with a smaller may weight it 60-40 or even 75-25).

Submarine’s Braun points to one contentious co-repping scenario that led to “screaming arguments,” he says. “We had recommended a strategy to the filmmakers that they wanted to go with, and the other company felt we had stepped over the bounds. In that scenario, there was an ego thing, where because they suddenly didn’t feel like they were leading it, they felt threatened.” But he takes pains to point out that the situation ended with a big sale and “everyone was happy.”

Then again, acquisitions execs have also been known to pit sales agents on the same project against one another, bypassing the point person to bring pressure through other channels. But not all buyers feel that the communication problem is so prevalent. Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker argues that the issue used to be worse and that agents have developed a much clearer line of communication before heading to Park City.

Some even see multiple agencies as a benefit. “For buyers and sellers to have more information out there, it’s better for everybody,” Oscilloscope’s David Fenkel says. “Because when people who are making decisions don’t have a lot of information, they end up not selling the way they want to sell or buying the way they want to buy.”

Producer Mark Damon, whose competition film The Ledge will be repped by Elwes and Iwashina, agrees. “If you have more than one rep, they reach out in different directions,” Damon says. “And as long as we all come to a conclusion on what’s the best deal for the picture, then I think it’s an advantage.”           

BIGGEST SUNDANCE PAYOFFS

Artisan Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection
  1. The Blair Witch Project —  $249M ($60,000)
  2. Saw —  $103M ($1.2M)
  3. Little Miss Sunshine —  $101M ($8M)
  4. Open Water —  $55M ($500,000)
  5. Precious —  $64M ($10M)
  6. An Inconvenient Truth —  $50M ($1M)
  7. Napoleon Dynamite —  $46M ($400,000)
  8. Garden State —  $36M ($2.5M)
  9. The Kids Are All Right —  $29M ($4M)
  10. sex, lies, and videotape* —  $24.7M ($1M)