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All Hail The Sales Agent

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I’m well up for the recent tide turn that has led to many, many screenwriters turning to DIY filmmaking. No longer content to sit on the sidelines or get it stuck to them, screenwriters have risen up to be counted by the bucketload, even me. And good on them… Well, maybe not all of them.

Like all good things in the yin and yang of filmmaking [and indeed life n’ stuff], there are inevitably some bad things too. And I’m not even talking about those nutters who can’t tell the basics of a story, but have a few hundred, even thousand quid burning a hole in their back pocket: “Hey I wrote a script this weekend, let’s make a film!” (Yes, no development, no rewrites, no read-throughs, nothing: bit like the bizarre creature who told me only recently, “the notes you made on character are redundant, as I intend to direct.” EXCUSE ME?!). But hey: there will always be crazy people. Filmmaking attracts them by the thousand and there’s a good argument to be made that we’re ALL a little crazy taking up this madness in the first place, so let’s toast the nutters too.

No, the down-side of DIY Filmmaking is far darker: thanks to technological advances, you know those films no one in even the HALF-SANE WORLD OF FILM PRODUCTION would have ever touched with a barge pole because those scripts are so morally REPUGNANT? They now have a voice. We all know the ones. The misogynistic ones that objectify women are the biggest problem of the spec pile, though I’ve also been unlucky enough to read racist ones and various other intolerances that make my skin crawl.

So needless to say I’ve been feeling a little depressed about this side of DIY filmmaking. As naive as it might seem, it wasn’t something I foresaw back in the heady days of *just* over a year ago when I conceived Safe and heard similar tales of my friends and colleagues taking their own steps into production. Everything seemed pure, for want of a better word; we were doing it for ourselves and providing entertainment for others and everything was, well, let’s just say it: FUN.

Then I had a conversation yesterday with a friend of mine, himself an award-winning film director who’s seen his films hit the DVD shelf. He sympathised with my viewpoint, but made two very good points (if you excuse the profanity in the first):

1) Thanks to HD, etc, “any old fucker can make a film”.

2) The real challenge nowadays is getting it sold AND seen.

So there you have it: the gatekeepers might have changed and filmmakers with dodgy viewpoints might be getting past the readers, agencies and prodcos by making their even dodgier scripts themselves.

But end of the day, there IS still a gatekeeper against the flood of reeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaalllllly bad shit and that’s the Sales Agent.

Huh. Who’d have thought we’d end up thanking THOSE guys for anything?!

Previously about film sales on this blog:

Adrian Mead on what it takes to get your project distributed

Sales Agents: An Inconvenient Truth

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9 thoughts on “All Hail The Sales Agent”

  1. Hi Pete –

    Yes you're right, I'm conveniently ignoring the internet as a form of distribution. But sticking stuff up on Youtube is a handy sideline I would argue, it's not recognised as a form of distribution solely in its own right.

    To be taken seriously as a filmmaker, you need to get sold. And not just optioned, developed or whatever. Your film can be made, but it can stay in the can for years and years. Hell, I've seen/heard of GOOD films that have stayed in the can.

    On this basis then, thank heavens *someone* is in the way of those repugnant scripts that become equally repugnant DIY films. Granted: probably not enough, judging by some of the sexist horror that has done the rounds in recent years – but because sales agents are asking such Qs as "Who is in it? Who is the director? What is it about?", this at least stops the tsunami of shit.

  2. Even if I could Anya (confidentiality is key to the script reader, even when a script is not covered by an NDA) I'm not sure I would if I'm honest… No such thing as bad publicity is there!!

  3. Firstly, there's a great deal of difference between "whacking it up on YouTube" and a considered web release: Girl Number 9 and Dr Horrible are great examples of web distribution done right.

    And, well, it depends what you want for your film: if you want it to act as a doorway to the conventional film business, then getting that stamp of approval is important.

    However, if you just want it seen by people, or making money back, these goals are orthogonal to getting conventionally bought and distributed.

    And given that we all know about good films that are shot, bought and never released, exactly how much of an advantage is it to have a film in that situation as opposed to shot and streamed in HD or sold direct on DVD by the makers?

    Sure, it will never have the cachet of a distributed film, in the same way that a POD / self-published book will never have the cachet of a "published book", but some people will see it, and will pay for it.

    And again, looking over at the book market, self publishing has by no means destroyed the publishing industry. But it provides another way of getting material out there that wouldn't otherwise, for good or ill.

    Problems may come when people used to the old model presume that because something has been filmed and released, in whatever way, that it somehow legitimizes the content: people take Loose Change more seriously than any number of almost identical blogs about 911 because it looks like a serious documentary.

    But I think that people will get less trusting of the authority of the screen as the editorial power of the studios / agents wanes, and more trusting of their peer groups judgement, for better or worse.

  4. But was Girl Number 9 a feature film? No – it was a web series of 5 minute episodes. OF COURSE it's going to do web distribution right. It was FOR the web and had a proper strategy behind it. This post was not about web distribution as a workable model.

    The post is instead about those people who believe that DIY filmmaking means that get a few quid and they can write whatever they want – some of it stuff you probably won't even believe – and people will *want* to watch, as if somehow good taste, morality and decency have been suspended. But thanks to the marketplace and having to find a film's place within it – and the fact we have too many films for release – we won't have to suffer 90 mins screen time on theatrical release or DVD like I had to reading it as a script.

  5. Really? I thought your post was about "We used to be able to stop this shit pre-production, now we can stop it at distribution", which led to my tangential "Meh, not so much" post, as it pre-supposes that distribution, and the sales agent, are gatekeepers to broad availability.

    Part of my point being: More stuff being made = more stuff being available to people. Which from the point of view of a creative is probably good, from the point of view as a consumer is that this creates both new opportunities and new challenges, and from the point of view of a critic is "is it me, or is there a lot more shit about these days?" (answer, yes. More good stuff too, but the shit seems to increase exponentially, the good stuff geometrically…)

    I think this is going to become one of the themes of this century (you know, until the inevitable collapse of society and the zombie apocalypse): we're all living in the slush pile now. Instead of being a mass market for the pickings of the entertainment industry, we're more and more becoming a loose association along the lines of, frankly, the script readers community, passing along titbits of what the next big thing is, or gems that have been missed, and what is to be avoided like a Harry Potter / Star Trek crossover spec script ("Hermione, Spock and Worf get it on. It's awesome").

    What I'm saying is: we are in interesting times. Whether it's "renaissance" interesting times or "thirty years war" interesting times remains to be seen.

  6. Wow, there's an echo in here Pete. It CAN be stopped at distribution, which is what I said not only in the post but in the comment preceding this one. Bringing stuff like Girl Number 9 into the fray is not tangental to me so much as irrelevant. But hey: we're all friends here, so let's stop going round in circles ; P

    But in answer to the second half of your post, I'm totally unsure there IS more good stuff despite there being more bad stuff. People say all the time the quality of scripts in the spec pile is improving and if they mean they look better on the page, then yes: absolutely they have improved – gone are the days of scripts being 300 pages in bold Tahoma font on bright pink paper.

    But story is still something sadly lacking from the average spec (even when not morally questionable material) – but where once this was an ISSUE, the DIY revolution means it is no longer a barrier.

  7. I think the problem with DIY films (and I've been guilty of this myself!) is that if there's no barrier stopping you making something then why listen to criticism? I've read scripts for friends so many times and given critical feedback only for them to say 'we've already shot that part' or just 'we'll film it and if it doesn't work sort it out later'. And then I've seen filmmakers make the same mistakes again because they're not learning anything.

    On the subject of sales agents as gatekeepers I agree in terms of DIY films, but I think the real gatekeepers now are actors. If you get an actor in your film who can sell DVDs the sales agent won't care about the script. So what that means is the people who really decide whether your script is good enough are the actors. Which I think is a pretty good situation to be in – I'd trust the opinion of an actor over a sales agent any day.

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