International Sales Agents Offer Helsinki Crowd Tips on Selling Films Abroad

"The Raid" started a bidding war at Cannes.

Buyers and movie experts warned the Finnish fest's filmmakers to avoid child nudity, go for horror and lesbians, look beyond a theatrical release, and forget about making big money.

Sales agents and experts pulled no punches at the Sept. 26 Helsinki International Film Festival panel Focus on Film Sales, giving opinions and advice filmmakers beyond Finland might be smart to heed. Here are a few takeaways:

Stop dreaming of big money and minimum guarantees.

"The marketing situation is a catastrophe in some territories," said The Yellow Affair managing director sales Miira Paasilinna. "We used to get for an arthouse film for Poland 20,000. Now it's 2,000. Some people think we're still back there two or three years ago. We haven't bounced back." "I don't think there's much money in it for anybody with arthouse films," concurred City Screen Picturehouse programming and acquisitions director Clare Binns. "We've had a big hit with The Imposter and we'll make some money, but all the other films we've released were more or less broken even." Know that your asking price is not the same as your take price, and take the smart deal. "And get a lawyer," says Paasilinna.

STORY: Helsinki's Film Festival Goes Hollywood, Marketing-Wise

What buyers like and what they buy are utterly different things.

"My favorite movie this year is The Hunt, by Thomas Vinterberg," said NBCUniversal Pictures junior acquisitions manager Amit Dey. "Me too," said The Salt Company acquisitions manager Afolabi Kuti. "And The Master," added Dey. "But those are films I would never buy. If your film is $8 million, I'll say no, unless you have prepays. But nobody's going to prebuy an Estonian SF film." "The Pusher is not going to work," says Binns of Luis Peitro's remake of Nicolas Winding Refn's crime drama. "I love the original and the remake's not bad at all. But there's no taker."

So what does sell?

"Genre," says Dey. "Horror," says Kuti. "They have so many people writing blogs, picking up on things early -- earlier than the industry would want them to." "I can't do horrors because I can't watch them and I don't understand them," says Paasilinna. "I love gay titles because they have a fan base. I'm working on Mika Kaurismäki's Kristina of Sweden, about the queen of Sweden, a lesbian queen." Foreign dialogue can be a tough sell, but fisticuffs can save you. "An interesting test case is the Indonesian balls to the wall action film The Raid," says Dey. "Made for just under a million. They brought it to Cannes, showed maybe three minutes to a few buyers, and inspired a bidding war. The language didn't matter, because it had intense action that I had never seen before. In 90 minutes, there's 82 minutes of fighting. They made their money back before it even hit a screen."

Beware child nudity.

"She Monkeys was a Swedish film we sold to 40 markets," says Paasilinna." The film won [Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature] at Tribeca. And the North American theatrical became almost impossible because of a scene with a girl of 7 or 8 who goes into a shower and she's naked. That's it. You have no idea of the implications of that. It had to be edited, which I'm not sure the director knew about." Summing up the lessons the Focus on Film Sales panel had taught so far, moderator Wendy Mitchell, Screen International editor, said, "So somebody in Finland needs to make a lesbian fighting movie with no naked bodies." "If somebody came to me and said, 'I got this crazy martial arts in a sauna movie,' I'd be like, 'All right, let me see it,'" said Dey. "Versus, 'I have a film about a kid who loses a dog and has to go on a journey in Lapland.'"

Get smart and stop dreaming of theatrical wide release.

"Instead of saying, 'It has to be theatrical,' maybe you should say, 'VOD and DVD is how I'm going to pay my investors and my career can take the next step," said Dey. "Iron Sky's theatrical release was a massive disappointment, but on DVD it moved 50,000 units or something. George Harrison did one screening, invited everyone from the music and film industry, and sold something like 60,000 units." "Trollhunters didn't do as well in box office as people expected, but on DVD it did well," said Kuti.

Pitch your movie fast, but don't be shy.

"Get outside the comfort zone," said Binns. Said Dey, "Lots of us have time to read 200 words about a film. People often say, 'Don't cold call,' but you should. Even if they say not to email a certain person, if you send it to that email, they will see it and read it if they choose. The internet is a thing. Use it." Where do emails come from? "Imdbpro -- pay the Euros," says Kuti. "It's my bible."