Have you ever made a film but struggled with taking it to the next level? Ross Putman, producer, sales and finance agent for Verve, shares valuable insight on the world of sales and distribution agencies. He offers excellent advice for filmmakers on how to sell films and what to look for in distribution companies, emphasizing on the importance of networking and constantly making material. Listen to Ross share with Tanya his expertise and advice for filmmakers to take their films to the next level. Key points: 1:06 — Journey to becoming a sales agent 3:32 — What the sales agent job entails 6:00 — Difference between producer & sales agent 8:00 — Agent deals 9:42 — Global vs. Domestic Deals 11:36 — International Distribution 13:00 — Getting in touch with a sales agency for the first time 18:35 — The importance of networking 20:51 — How to decide how much to spend in a film 24:00 — The importance of collaboration in feature films 25:20 — Debunking the term “Story is King” 27:00 — Focusing on the strengths of your film 29:13 — Challenges of foreign/ international films 31:04 — Leverage during negotiations 36:00 — Sales discussions 40:30 — What sales agents look for in films 43:35 — How distribution deals work 46:40 — How filmmakers profit from distribution deals 48:17 — Derivative productions 49:00— How to get an agency to read your script 53:36 — Advice on budgets
I want to listen on:
Follow us on social media:
Ross Putman (00:00):
In terms of the IMDB Pro of it, look at similar films and look at who their sales agent was. Oftentimes, it will tell you who is the domestic sales agent, who is the international sales agent. If you say, "Oh, you know what? There was a little indie that I really loved that is in some ways similar to my film," why don't you take a look at who sold the film?
Tanya Musgrave (00:20):
Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts and how they got from there to here. On today's show, indie sales and finance agent for Verve, Russ Putman, pulls the curtain back and gives us an inside look at what sales agents can do for you, how to sell your film, and what distribution companies look for. As this is a new podcast, we're really wanting feedback, so go to media.colabinc.org, fill out the feedback survey, and you'll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card. From CoLab INC, I'm Tanya Musgrave, and today we have producer and sales and finance agent for Verve, Ross Putman. Welcome to the show.
Ross Putman (00:52):
Thanks for having me. It's pretty exciting. This is my first time on a podcast.
Tanya Musgrave (00:55):
It'll be painless, I promise. Sales agent, a lot of our listeners, I'll be perfectly honest, it might as well be a secret agent. So, how did you get from there to here?
Ross Putman (01:03):
All agents are secret agents. But no, I get it. I used to think the same thing. I actually came to this in a very circuitous way, which is that I wanted to be a writer, so I moved out to LA to be a screenwriter. Now, I'm sitting in an office, at least when we don't have COVID, wearing sort of a suit and making phone calls on a headset like I'm in a movie that I might have written. I kind of just opened myself up to the opportunities in this business. I didn't immediately get work as a writer, as very few 24-year-old grad school grads do. And I didn't want to bank on that being the way that I was going to pay my bills, because that seemed horrifying.
Ross Putman (01:39):
I'd always heard that it's a marathon, not a sprint. So, I wound up becoming an assistant at a production company, then I wound up becoming an executive at that production company. I transitioned from there into becoming a producer, because I wanted to make things, and thought that's what I was going to do, make independent film. Then, I wound up coming into the orbit of Verve, which is the agency I work at. We collaborated on putting a film together that I did called Plus One, which was a romantic comedy. It's on Hulu. When we collaborated on that film, Verve helped bring the financing and acted as the sales agent on the film. What that meant is that they found us our domestic distribution deal with RLJ Films and Hulu.
Ross Putman (02:21):
Through that process, got to know them, and they said, "Hey, have you ever thought about becoming an agent?" I said, "I don't know what you're talking about." Yet, I said, "Okay, I'll take the meeting." That led to another meeting and another meeting. Then I became a sales and finance agent. It's, in a lot of ways, similar to what I was doing before as a producer, except I do it for a lot more projects, and then I don't have to go and physically execute them on the ground anymore.
Tanya Musgrave (02:47):
It's nice, isn't it?
Ross Putman (02:47):
Look, no offense to my physical production-loving friends, that's not how I started in the business. I was more on the creative involvement side. I learned by doing, I had to learn how to physically produce. But I don't miss the call times, I don't miss the bad coffee. I'm here to find you your money and sell your movie.
Tanya Musgrave (03:05):
Hey, and people need you. The physical production was something that I actually started in. And then anything happening before that, and anything that came afterwards, those aren't the things that are typically covered in film school. So, pitch me, though. Why do I need a sales agent? What do you do besides get me connected to distributors? Yes, that's a huge thing, but what other parts of the job are there that we need?
Ross Putman (03:32):
The way that we operate and the way that I think finance and sales should operate, is as a kind of consigliere throughout the process. Kind of that person that you can rely on to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. If we come on board a project early, let's just say you have a great script and you want to go make it into a film, and I agree that it's a great script and it should be a film. Then, I'm going to be there every step of the way to help guide you on how you're going to raise money, how you're going to structure your financing, how you're going to make this appealing to investors. How you're going to responsibly budget the movie so that in the marketplace you're going to be making something that's economically viable, or as viable as it can be. Helping you figure out was is your festival strategy. Maybe it's actually not a movie that goes to festivals, maybe it's a movie that we take direct to distributors. There's so many different ways you can approach every project. It's about saying what does your specific film need?
Ross Putman (04:24):
And then all the way through to the sale, which is where yes, we interface with the distributors. Yes, it's our job to know what distributors want, what kind of content, what types of money would they normally pay for this kind of content. Put them in different tiers of your expectations. And then it's also our job to just kind of work between them. I mean, the best case scenario is that you have multiple parties interested in your film. Sometimes those offers, it's not just about the money. Right? Everyone can understand a big number, but it's not always just getting the most money that's the right deal for your film. Maybe it's that you really want a theatrical release and only one distributor who's offering less money will give you the theatrical. Or maybe it's that you want to have as much creative control as you can in the release of the film and one distributor is going to be willing to give you more creative control in exchange for different deal terms on something else.
Ross Putman (05:16):
I think it's good to think of us as consultants that care about the film that we're working on, and ultimately will chime in when we're asked to. But if you want to tell us to go hide in a room and not come out, we can do that for you too. But yeah, it's to fill in the-
Tanya Musgrave (05:30):
That sounds great.
Ross Putman (05:32):
It's to fill in the gaps in your knowledge that would be so hard for anyone to have all of this knowledge about every aspect of filmmaking and still do a great job. You don't have to know everything there is to know, you just have to have good collaborators.
Tanya Musgrave (05:44):
What level of this is producer level? I mean yeah, I guess it's not somebody in the corner telling you that you can't spend this amount of money and that kind of thing. But if you're there throughout the whole entire process, it's essentially a producer, correct?
Ross Putman (05:59):
Basically the way the law works in the state of California and New York is that you cannot be a producer and an agent at the same time. And that's for good reason, which is that the agents represent the clients and the talent or the financing that you would need to be making a deal with. So, if you're both representing them and trying to make a deal with them, then that's obviously a conflict of interest. That law has been in place forever and it means that me, as an agent, I can't say I'm the producer. I can't take a producer credit. I can't get paid as a producer. I can't represent myself as such, nor would I. Because that's not my job.
Ross Putman (06:33):
The difference is that the producer needs to steer the ship, we're there to give advice, maybe look at the map once in a while and give you some directions. But it's more about, look, the producer's going to carry this thing on their back. As a producer myself for five years, you have to do everything. So, we're there to lighten the load a little bit. The two biggest places where that can be tricky is raising money and then releasing the film. As a physical producer, absolutely nail the physical production, which we need you to do. Right? We need the movie to look fantastic, we need it to feel fantastic. We need the movie to be delivered on time and on budget. Because financing that we hopefully found for you is going to want that. They're going to want the film to be on time and on budget.
Ross Putman (07:17):
But the difference is essentially that whereas you as a producer, let's say you're the producer, you're going to be very deep on a given project. Right? You're going to be eating, sleeping, drinking that project for at least a month or two when you're really in the thick of making it. And that's never going to be us. Right? We have a slate of projects, we're going to be working with a lot of different creators. But I'd say the time that we do the least is when you're actually making the movie. That's what you're doing. We're most busy on the front end and the back end.
Tanya Musgrave (07:45):
Yeah. What does a deal look like with you? If I were to hire you, is it like a monthly thing? Is it only when the movie makes money again? Is it per conversation thing? Per hour? What does it look like?
Ross Putman (08:00):
We definitely don't bill by the hour. Agencies are commission-based businesses. So, that is similar to how a lot of sales works. So, we take a commission when we get a deal and negotiate a deal for you. That's standard across every agency and I think everyone understands the kind of 10% model, or has heard the 10% model of if you're a screenwriter and we get you a contract for half-a-million dollars and negotiate it for you, we would take a 10% commission on that half-million dollars.
Tanya Musgrave (08:31):
Ross Putman (08:31):
Right? That's how kind of everybody works. In terms of the finance and sales side, 10% is the industry standard sales fee. That means that should your sales agent and whoever that is find you a deal, then they can commission it at 10%. If for some reason your sales agent, wouldn't be me, doesn't find you a deal, then-
Tanya Musgrave (08:50):
I like that confidence.
Ross Putman (08:55):
... then they're not commissioning anything. Right?
Tanya Musgrave (08:56):
Ross Putman (08:57):
I think it's a pretty straightforward deal. And then in terms of putting financing together, that really varies from company to company. It's also based on the rules of the guilds and based on what is and is not allowed for agents to do. So, that really just comes down to a one-on-one conversation with your agent when you engage somebody. And basically say, "Okay, they want to go find financing for you? Well, have a conversation with them about how they commission that or if there is a commission structure at all." Usually you're happy to get the deal.
Tanya Musgrave (09:25):
You've mentioned domestic a couple of times. I had a conversation with somebody who had just started Netflix, he was talking about how a lot of the channels are kind of wanting the world. They're not wanting just domestic, they're wanting a buy out. Is that normal?
Ross Putman (09:42):
Here's how this works. So, yes. Of course a global deal is actually usually better for all involved. Here's why as producers, you only have to deliver the movie once. It's so much better to only have to deliver the finished film to one distributor as opposed to getting four different delivery sheets and having to change things for various people. So, a global deal benefits you in the sense that it's the easiest. It's a one stop shop. Look, there are companies that can buy the whole world, like Netflix. Because they operate in most countries around the world, what they would do ... They don't operate in every single country, but they have aspirations to.
Ross Putman (10:19):
So, when they make an offer for worldwide, they're going to take all rights to your project in all territories. That's not to say that they can't do deals where they don't take the world, that happens. But worldwide deals are becoming somewhat more common with streaming companies, particularly the ones that have a global footprint, like Netflix and Amazon. Some studios will acquire for the world as well because they either operate overseas or they have subsidiaries or partners. But I'd say that more often than not, you're usually dividing up the world on your film. Especially if it's an independent film, if one of the companies that doesn't buy out the whole world for your film doesn't make an offer, then what you're doing is you are selling individual territories.
Ross Putman (11:00):
And what you normally do, and this is pretty standard as well, is you would have a domestic sales agent. Domestic meaning we also throw Canada in, because apparently we don't consider them a country. Although we can't go there right now, so they're winning. But usually domestic means a distributor that's going to represent US and Canada. A lot of people don't know that when you see box office numbers, the US box office numbers includes Canada. No one ever says that. But if you went on Box Office Mojo last year and looked up the numbers for your big summer hits, that opening weekend of $100 million also includes Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver.
Tanya Musgrave (11:36):
Ross Putman (11:36):
What you would normally do, is you would also bring on an international sales agent who is then going to represent every territory except for the United States and Canada. And they will go to various sales markets, like Cannes or Toronto or Berlin and they're going to be there selling your film to individual distributors that might either operate in one or multiple territories. So, you might sell it to HBO in Eastern Europe because they are in five countries in Eastern Europe. That's kind of the way that breaks down. And usually if you're an American filmmaker and you start by working with a domestic sales agent, they can usually give you advice or suggestions on, "Hey, here are some international sales companies that I think could handle the rest of your film really well." It gets kind of divided up, and then you have multiple people working on your behalf to sell the film.
Tanya Musgrave (12:27):
For people who have come from either small schools or no film school, you don't really hear the names of sales companies and agencies that often. It's not like a production company or a studio like Universal or Netflix. People see that and they don't know how to get there. So, you guys are kind of that link there. I know that you can look up companies on IMDB Pro, but what are some points that you look for in distinguishing a good one? Because IMDB Pro to a newbie is just kind of like, "All right, well there's this company, but I have no idea if this is actually what I need."
Ross Putman (13:00):
Right. Well look, the sales agent conversation is not always the first one that you're going to have. What I mean by that is, let's say you made a film and you're super proud of it and you think it's good and you want to get it to audience. But maybe the film was made for a micro budget and you don't have any recognizable actors in it. This is not saying the film's not good, it's just saying you don't have these kind of household names or people people have heard of. And maybe you're a first time filmmaker and you don't have connections. Right? So, that's where you find yourself. You scraped together a budget and made a movie.
Ross Putman (13:35):
You could just start cold emailing sales agents if you wanted to, off IMDB, without knowing if any of them are good or not. But I think that first, if you're in that position what you should try to do is help yourself with a little bit of momentum. So, that means like a festival. Usually it's like you submit to a bunch of festivals and once you kind of know your debut, then is the time to see if you can get a little momentum with a sales agent. Because then the sales agent will say, "Okay, there is an angle on how I can sell this." Right?
Ross Putman (14:03):
The truth of the matter, just to step back for everyone, is that there's a lot of content being made. So, for any given sales agent, they're going to prioritize stuff from either filmmakers they know, referrals from people they already know, and really high level cast or recognizable filmmaker. Just because, as one myself, I'm just trying to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability and sell movies I know I can sell. And if I don't have a relationship with you, I'm not going to reply to a blind query because that's just not our company policy. And a lot of companies don't reply to blind queries just as a policy for safety and to make sure that there's a level of care that's going into how we are doing our business.
Tanya Musgrave (14:41):
Oh, good to know.
Ross Putman (14:41):
That doesn't mean you can't access people. In terms of the IMDB Pro of it, look at similar films and look at who their sales agent was. If you go to the company information on IMDB Pro, oftentimes it will tell you who is the domestic sales agent, who is the international sales agent. And the sales agent does that on IMDB Pro so if a distributor happens to look up the movie, they know who to call. So, if you say, "Oh, you know what? There was a little indie that I really loved that is in some ways similar to my film." Why don't you take a look at who sold the film? Maybe it's a boutique sales agency, maybe it's a major agency. Then once you're at that point, how do you reach out to these places?
Ross Putman (15:23):
Well, what I tended to do when I was a producer before I had any high level relationships with sales agents, was I would look at who the kind of lower person on the ladder was at the place. So, who's the coordinator? Or who is the assistant to the head of acquisitions? And when you see those names, you think, you know what? I have their email, or you get good internet sleuthing. Seriously, so much of this is just getting good ... Maybe their email's not on IMDB Pro, go to Googling. You're going to find it like 75% of the time.
Tanya Musgrave (15:56):
Ross Putman (15:57):
Yes. Or reach out to someone who worked with them. Follow the train and say, "Oh, that person made a little movie," maybe I'll just say, "What was your experience like?" But once you find that name of the person that you want to reach out to, write them a brief query letter. Say, "Hey, I'm a filmmaker, my film just got into X film festival and we are looking for a domestic sales agent. Would you be interested in screening the film?" You're not really hurting anything by sending that email.
Ross Putman (16:20):
And probably the assistant or the coordinator who's trying to prove themselves at that agency or at that place might say, "You know what? Yeah, let me take a look at the first ... Let me watch 20 minutes of it." If I think it's promising, then I might watch the whole thing. And if I think it's really good, then I might refer it to my bosses. Because if I can bring in business to where I work ... This is hypothetically for a younger person at one of these companies. They might say, "You know what? I can be a value add to my own agency and bring in something cool."
Ross Putman (16:47):
Cold outreach is normal for plenty of these places. Although I would say, I'm sure your audience has heard of CAA and WME and UTA. Verve is a big agency as well, although we're not on the size of number of bodies as those places. But look, they're going to be a little less likely on your first film that's not at a major festival to say, "We can take this on." Because they already have a lot of clients they represent whose films they need to focus on. Right? So it's say we have our clients' films, we have 10 of them right now that we need to do a great job on because we have already engaged in a relationship with those people. It's not personal. Right? It's about doing our job the best we can for our clients. That does not mean you cannot find the right partner.
Ross Putman (17:32):
And I'll finish by saying just spend the time on IMDB Pro. Start to look at those names of who sold. Also in press releases on Deadline and Variety, they'll always say at the end of the press release who sold the film, who represented the film on behalf of the filmmakers. [inaudible 00:17:49] it'll say, "Verve represented the ... It was negotiated between X distributor and Verve on behalf of the filmmakers." Then you can say, "Oh, Verve. Okay, I know that name now." Just start to get that information in your head so when you are ready, these aren't completely new bits of information.
Tanya Musgrave (18:06):
When you were mentioning film festivals, I mean, yeah, a lot of film festivals it's just kind of about networking and meeting people and that kind of stuff. But I remember people saying, "Oh yeah, this company would just literally set up a whole entire hotel room as kind of their suite and office," and all that stuff. And I was just like, well, are you supposed to figure out what office that is? Are you supposed to go and like knock on the door and just like, "Here, have a parfait. Look at my movie." Is it literally just about meeting people?
Ross Putman (18:35):
It can always seem daunting to network. I mean look, I've been in those suites at the festivals and it's usually just to have a quick meeting with somebody. You're not going to be in there unless you already have a relationship with that company.
Tanya Musgrave (18:46):
Ross Putman (18:46):
Because they have those suites to entertain local buyers or distributors. That's what those ... When a sales company has a suite at the hotel at Toronto, that's because they're having meetings with buyers. They're bringing in people that they're going to sell product to, and they want to have a comfortable place to have a meeting. So, I think start networking in whatever way you can. And what I mean by that, because it can seem daunting, is when I was an assistant and I was not in independent film at all, I knew I wanted to make independent film. So, I started going to Sundance every year on my own dime. And I would just take time off and I would save up as much money as I could and I would stay with a bunch of friends. I would go and I would just get into whatever event I could get into by spamming all the emails and asking if friends had heard anything and whatever.
Ross Putman (19:31):
That started 11 years ago in my life and now I've had two films premiere at the festival. I met my lawyer there, I met my manager there as a writer, in my previous life as a writer as well. And just kind of made momentum just by showing up. That's not to say you have to go to Sundance, but you're going to meet some people who are going to help along the way. Whatever events in LA or New York or wherever you can get into, try to go to them. Don't worry about being a young filmmaker. Just say as much. Be like, "I'm a new filmmaker working on a feature. I'm just curious to learn more." And as long as you're not asking for something from people right then and there, people are always happy to share their wisdom with you and their thoughts because it feels good to be flattered like that. Like, "Oh wow, what you do is so cool."
Tanya Musgrave (20:17):
"Give me your wisdom."
Ross Putman (20:18):
It's like, "Well it isn't, but now that you say it's cool." So yeah, I mean, I think networking doesn't have to be this big, scary thing. And it can lead to meeting people who might really help you in your next project.
Tanya Musgrave (20:30):
All right. We got to buckle up because we have some listener questions from our Insta and Facebook stories and Twitter.
Ross Putman (20:36):
I love it.
Tanya Musgrave (20:36):
If you want to ask your questions to feature guests, our handle on Insta and Twitter is @Colabincpodcast. All right. What is the most you should spend making a feature that doesn't have stars in it, if you hope to break even?
Ross Putman (20:51):
That is an awesome question and I have an incredibly nebulous answer. We work in a unique business, which is that we work in a business that is the intersection of art and commerce. So, how do you value art? And the problem with art is that its value is incredibly intangible. And then we use a phrase a lot that I'm sure is super annoying to most people, but it's execution dependent. So, if you have a great script but the movie is not a good execution of that script, it's going to be worth less than a really good execution of that script. Just because quality still does matter, even though sometimes the bar seems low.
Ross Putman (21:25):
If you're making a film with no major stars, it comes down to the risk that you're taking. If you are, yourself, independently wealthy and want to spend all of your money making a film and you don't care if you see a dime of it back, that is your prerogative. Right? And you can do what you want to do. More likely than not, you are not just getting a million dollars from your rich uncle and you're kind of scraping together whatever you can from a Kickstarter or from family members or from your own savings account. My first film as a producer cost $4,000. We shot it over a year and a half and we never ... We screened it once, and only screened it to raise money to make another film, which we then did.
Ross Putman (22:05):
But don't worry about the number being a real movie number. Right? Lena Dunham's first film cost $60,000, Tiny Furniture, and it launched her whole career. Right? Or Shane Carruth's first film, Primer, cost $9,000 and he is now respected as an Autour. Chris Nolan's first movie, Following, I think he made for under $100,000. And that launched Chris Nolan. What I would say is try to do it as economically as possible. Because then you have much more freedom in your mind to make the film you want to make. You're not worried about, "Oh my God, I'm spending all this money." If you can scrape together $50,000 and shoot a whole feature with it, even if it's going to be really tough and low-budget and you have to work around your limitations, it's better to do that than get the $500,000 and have the pressure on you to make something that's going to live up to that number in your head.
Ross Putman (22:57):
I guess that's my way of saying don't let the money hold you back, make something regardless. Because the director of my $4,000 movie who has now directed four films and gone to Sundance and won awards at Sundance, said to me when we first started making that $4,000 movie. He said, "Well, worst case scenario we made a movie." Just keep it tight, don't spend more than you feel comfortable spending. And if that means you have to get creative, get creative. And then think of the sale as icing on the cake. I think if you're thinking of your first film as something that has to turn a profit, it's going to be really frustrating when it doesn't.
Ross Putman (23:32):
As opposed to hey, your first film was a way to establish your voice and who you are as a filmmaker. So, try to do it with as little risk as you possibly can, so that way you can actually establish your voice without worrying about am I going to fuck this up for a lot of people? I think that's my way of saying don't worry about the number, get what you can, make it work for what you can and don't overextend yourself on your first film.
Tanya Musgrave (23:56):
Yeah. No, that's great. That's great. What is the most common mistake you see people making with their feature films that make them unsellable?
Ross Putman (24:05):
There's no way to say, "Here's the one thing that filmmakers do incorrectly." Also, art is subjective, not objective. Just the biggest advice I would say is be willing to collaborate and listen to collaborators. Being a director does not mean being a dictator. And I think that some people get into the idea of being a director because they think that that's the person who is in charge. They want the glory of being Paul Thomas Anderson. What you have to think about is there's the flip side of that, which is that if something goes wrong, you get blamed for it. Right? So, it's like, "Oh, this didn't work. Well, that's got to be the ..." The directors seem to want all the credit for this. Filmmaking is a wildly collaborative art. And the best filmmakers that I've worked with know how to collaborate.
Tanya Musgrave (24:46):
Everybody knows that story is king, but what does that really mean in practical terms when it comes to acquiring distribution?
Ross Putman (24:54):
I mean, story is king is a ... This is not intended as a criticism of your listener. But I think that's a hype phrase that I hear from people that are trying to teach seminars on screenwriting. It's kind of a meaningless phrase. Okay? I hate to say it. What does that mean? What does, "Story is king," mean? I don't know, is the story good? There are movies that I think all of us like, where the story isn't amazing, but the characters are wildly memorable. Here's a good example, I love Zoolander. But people don't love Zoolander because of the plot about killing the Malaysian Prime Minister. Okay? They love Zoolander because Derek Zoolander and Hansel and Will Ferrell and all these characters are so wildly memorable and funny that you just want to be around them.
Ross Putman (25:39):
To me, story is king, let's put it a different way. What is the strength of your project? Some projects' strength is their concept. Right? What's a good example of that? The Quiet Place. Right? Yes, it has Emily Blunt in it. But they sell that movie on concept, right? Which is this is the premise, you can't make a noise, otherwise they will hear you and it's going to be bad. Right? And they convey that premise throughout the marketing campaign for it. So, when you see the trailers, you get what the crux of the film is going to be. The crux of the trailer is not what is Emily Blunt's story? The crux of the trailer is here is the premise of this world and here is why it is terrifying. In the case of a film like The Quiet Place, they are going to lean into concept.
Ross Putman (26:25):
I think that leads to the general division line between movies that are more concept-driven and movies that are the fabled, quote unquote, character-driven. And I think in a weird way, Zoolander is a little more character-driven. It's maybe a bad example because it is about this male model assassin. But I think that you have to look at what the strength of your project is. If your project is based on a script that you wrote and you know it's not going to be concept-driven, which is that you don't have a big hook to it. It's more like here are a bunch of characters and I've tried to put them into either funny or dramatic situations and there's a story to it and that story is delicate and powerful. Then, what you need to focus on is not probably going to be selling your film on concept, but it's going to be selling your film on quality. And then even more so on a film like that it's usually performance.
Ross Putman (27:17):
It's like when people saw Winter's Bone and got exposed to Jennifer Lawrence for the first time. Right? Winter's Bone is not a concept-driven movie. I'm not here talking about that as, "Here's the big hook of Winter's Bone." It's more like, "Oh my God, the performances of John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence," and Jennifer Lawrence gets nominated for an Oscar and becomes one of the biggest movie stars in the world off of a incredibly impressive performance. So, that could be what you're selling your film on is, "Hey, we have a discovery here, and they are incredible."
Ross Putman (27:48):
I think it's about as you're putting your film together, adjudicating where your strengths lie. And if your strength happens to be concept, great. Doesn't mean you should skimp on everything else. But if your strength is going to be either your tone or your characters or your dialogue, then focus on making that the best version of itself. And then you'd probably center that when you're selling your film. And your sales agent, like me, or whoever you work with, is going to talk with you about what they think the strengths of your film are when it's finished. Of like, "Hey, here's our angle. Here is our sell on this." Which is saying we think this is an incredible showpiece for a young actor who's going to be a movie star. So, maybe that's how we're going to pitch it to distributors. As opposed to, "Hey, you know what? This is just a great ... It follows and it has a great horror movie at the core of it and we're going to sell it on that."
Ross Putman (28:43):
I think it's just about being able to take a look at your own work and have clear eyes as to what the strength of the project's going to be. And separate that from sometimes what is you're most excited. What are you most excited about might not be what is the most exciting thing to sell it on. So, just having the wherewithal to understand that and then take a hard look at your project.
Tanya Musgrave (29:04):
Yeah, hence collaboration. Yay!
Ross Putman (29:07):
Tanya Musgrave (29:07):
Let's see here, next question. How does a film having subtitles or being in a foreign language affect sales?
Ross Putman (29:13):
Foreign language films, whether they are shot internationally or shot in the United States face the uphill battle of the general idea that American audiences are lazy. I don't necessarily buy that, but I would say that movies that color outside the simplest lines sometimes do struggle a little bit, unless they color outside those lines in an amazing way. I had trouble with a film that we shot in 4:3 as opposed to 16:9.
Tanya Musgrave (29:36):
Ross Putman (29:37):
It's a little trendy right now. But I produced the film that was shot 4:3 very purposefully, and looks incredible. And it was composed for 4:3, so it uses that format to make itself beautiful. But there were some distributors that struggle with that format because they worry the audiences aren't going to buy it as often because it's weird to them. Right? So, you're always going to come up against those things. In terms of foreign language films, look, I think that if you are genuinely making a film in another country and trying to sell it in the US, unless you're a prestige established filmmaker or you've made something just truly transcendent that had a major festival debut, it's difficult.
Ross Putman (30:16):
In this country foreign language films are not going to usually get the deals that domestic films are going to get. Usually if you made a film in the Spanish language, the good news is that you have a lot of territories around the world where you're going to probably have more interest in your film because those countries are native Spanish speakers. That's my way of saying plenty of foreign language and subtitle films every year get released and get solid distribution deals or work with good companies. But it's just a different game in this marketplace because English language content is still what drives the conversation here because that's the language that most of this country shares universally. It just means that a distributor thinks they can reach the largest possible audience with something that's in English.
Tanya Musgrave (31:00):
What sort of leverage do filmmakers have during negotiations?
Ross Putman (31:04):
I mean, that's wildly different from project to project. Right? If you premiere at Sundance and five companies are interested, guess what? You have a wild amount of leverage that's going to be fun to play with because you have people chasing you. On the other hand, if you don't go to a major film festival and you're just trying to get distributors to buy it, you're only going to have leverage if there is strong interest or if you're able to work with your agent to strategize properly.
Ross Putman (31:28):
Part of our job is to hopefully create leverage. Creating leverage can look like a lot of different things. If one company expresses interest in your film and says, "Hey, we're pretty interested in this, we're going to be coming in with an offer." Then you want to make sure you can see if you can find another company that's interested or someone else to express interest. So, now you have, even if it's just two sticks to rub together, you can do that now. Right? And it's not about lying or cheating your way through this. It's just about saying look, if someone's interested and they see the upside, probably someone else will too. Our job is just to pound the pavement, find those partners and do it.
Ross Putman (32:03):
In a vacuum impossible to say how much leverage you have, the best leverage you can get for yourself is two things. One is make something as good as you can possibly make it, which is in your control, as much as it can be. And just, if you're not satisfied with something and you want to do re-shoots or you can tweak it a little longer or whatever. It's not about being obsessive, but just make the best thing you can. And then the second thing is the big of leverage that people forget, is the power to say no. Even if you think of yourself as just lucky to be here, try not to think of yourself like that. Try not to think, "Well, I finally made a film and I finally got a sales agent and I'm just lucky to have anybody paying attention to me." Don't think like that because this is the first step hopefully in a long career where they're going to be lucky to work with you.
Ross Putman (32:52):
But if you don't like a deal you're getting offered, the only leverage you have is to say no. To basically say to the other side, "Well, if you really want it and you're not willing to give me better terms, I'm going to say no, even if that means that maybe I don't have a deal here and maybe I will have to self-release my movie or maybe I will have to do something else." And just because a company with a name on the door has expressed interest in your project, if the deal is really bad and it's not going to make you happy, it might be worth considering how can I say no? Because then maybe saying no will result in you being able to leverage something better out of the scenario. That's a hard lesson to learn and it is one that I'm always working on for myself. But no is the leverage that you have.
Tanya Musgrave (33:35):
That's great advice. Because we've been talking about even just basic stuff on working in the industry and saying no and having boundaries and stuff like that. But in a professional situation, I mean, I've found that it actually garners a lot more respect too. Because they're like, "Oh. Oh, I can't walk all over this person. Hey."
Ross Putman (33:53):
This is a unprompted bit of advice related to this. Given that I've worn a lot of hats in this business in the 10 years since I graduated from graduate school. I have been a writer, I've been an assistant, an executive, a producer and now an agent. I also have some ... I directed a short once, I've touched a lot of different parts of this in some way, shape or form. Here is the hardest thing to always remind yourself to do, is just don't be desperate. Even if you are desperate, which when you're a young filmmaker who's just been able to scrape together a little money and make something and you're hopeful that this is going to be your future, it is really hard not to feel desperate sometimes. But nobody wants to work with desperate people. And when you appear to be desperate, that's a way that people can take advantage of you because they feel like they have all the leverage. Right?
Ross Putman (34:42):
Saying no can be empowering just because it is the power you have it makes you feel less desperate. Even though you might say, "Oh God, I really need a distribution deal." Okay, if you made a good movie and a company is interested in it, you're going to find the way. But just don't worry about this one project as though it's the end of the world. If you've already made movie, you're on your path. That's just another way of saying be confident in yourself and don't think that you're lucky that other people are appreciative of the film you made. You made a film, you and your team. They didn't. You already have that power, so you don't need to be as desperate as you think you need to be.
Ross Putman (35:22):
But on the other hand, that doesn't mean that you can just say no to every deal that isn't perfect. There are going to be deals that come along where you just say, "Look, this is the best I think I'm going to do. I'm getting plenty of what I want out of this." And that means like a release and maybe it goes to some theaters and maybe it means I'm going to be able to stream it on a streaming platform, whatever. And you have that offer and you just weigh the pros and cons and say I might not get everything I want, but are the things that I'm getting meaningful enough to me and my team or to my investors or to whomever, that we can say yes?
Tanya Musgrave (35:55):
At what point in the filmmaking process are sales discussions happening?
Ross Putman (35:59):
It depends on the project. I think for more established filmmakers, it starts earlier. With our filmmakers that we work with at Verve, oftentimes there'll be a project that is just a script and they want to direct it and they've made a few films before and they're a filmmaker that the industry knows. They say, "Hey, I want to make this." Well great, we should be talking sales from the beginning because we have to build that into the strategy of how we're going to construct the film. So, if we're saying, "Okay, well the end goal here is to sell this to a streaming company," your approach to how you put it all together may be different than if you say, "No, we want this to go to a festival and go to a limited theatrical run and hopefully get nominated for an independent spirit award." That might be a different way that we would structure the film, not just in terms of which companies we go to, but also maybe it changes how we talk about the budget or what number you should be aiming for.
Ross Putman (36:54):
I think if you have the ability engage early, even if it's just consulting. There's certain people that I might read a script and a client says, "I want to direct this and we're putting it together and I just want to get your thoughts," and I might give my thoughts. And then I might not hear from them for six months and then they'll say, "Great, we're ready to do X and we could use your help." If you have the ability to consult early, great. But for most emerging filmmakers, that's not going to be the case because you're going to have to show something to somebody for them to say, "Oh, I get who you are and I get the value of this project." Because like I said, our job is first and foremost to provide great service for our clients. And if you're not a client yet, then it's difficult for us to prioritize that. Simply because my job is to make sure the clients are getting the service they need.
Tanya Musgrave (37:40):
For instance, they need to see something, are you talking something maybe in the rough cut stage? Because I know that the New York Times op docs, they want to come in at the rough cut stage so they can help finesse it in the way that would be marketable to them as well. Or do you want to see kind of finished cut, this is it. "Look at, here I am!" That kind of thing.
Ross Putman (38:02):
The good news is that there's incredible fellowships, work in progress organizations and labs that exist through Sundance or through Film Independent or through IFP or through the American Film Festival Work in Progress, and many, many others. That if you have something that's partially finished or in process or a cut that's not all the way there yet or whatever, you can apply to those programs. And those programs, if you're selected, do provide access to people like what I do or professionals that are going to be able to guide you on the next steps.
Tanya Musgrave (38:34):
Ross Putman (38:35):
Sundance as the editing labs, where if you are in the middle of your edit you can apply to those and maybe they would select you and you would work with a mentor to continue the edit. Right? Things like that. But since most of your audiences is people that are earlier stages of their careers as filmmakers and getting started, maybe they're directing their first feature or their second feature, or trying to get it off the ground, or whatever that is, you're going to get the most traction if you put together the best quality version of what you have. But if you're worried about, "Hey, what if we want to make changes?" Then don't worry about finishing. Don't worry about like color correction and sound mix and all that until you show it to people.
Ross Putman (39:12):
So, maybe you have a cut that you'd like to soft lock and you're like, "Okay, this is soft locked," but you haven't colored or sound mixed it yet. Sales agents and representatives watch unfinished cuts all the time. So, we know that what it looks like to watch something that hasn't been color corrected yet. It's not like we're going to say, "Why is the color like that?" If you want to show a cut that you feel really good about to and it still has time to go and you haven't finished all the VFX or you haven't finished whatever, that's cool. That's not a problem. So maybe at that stage you reach out.
Ross Putman (39:47):
I mean, plenty of festival ... I mean, I've gotten into festivals with unfinished cut. You want to be as close as you can be so that they see what the movie is supposed to be. But I'd say 50% of the films that I've sent to festivals have not been color corrected, not been sound mixed. Because you either don't have time or you're like, "Well, if we get rejected by everybody, we might want to change the cut." So, why would we finish it? I mean, look, if you're a giant filmmaker and have Meryl Streep in your movie, they're already on board. They know they can sell it off Meryl Streep. Right? As an emerging filmmaker you're still selling quality. So, just try to put together the best quality you can. And then when you feel comfortable with the cut, then at least you know you're getting a fair shake on what you made, not what it could be.
Tanya Musgrave (40:26):
Gotcha. Besides the obvious, recognizable talent, what are some things that attract a sale or make a particular film look good on its resume?
Ross Putman (40:36):
There's a lot of different ways to come at it. One way is to work with a high profile executive producer. For example, we had a client who just sold a film that was a beautiful micro-budget film that they made just by scraping together all the resources they could. It did not have any major stars in it. It went on the festival circuit, but was never at one of the gigantic festivals like Sundance or Cannes. The film, regardless, was still beautiful and very, very well done. This filmmaker was paired up with a production company of an A-list actor who has an interest in the message of the film. And then they were willing to lend their name as an executive producer to the film. Now all of a sudden you have this Oscar-winning executive producer that you could use in the marketing.
Ross Putman (41:21):
Then the film got a few offers and was able to land a solid distribution deal and it's going to be streaming on a major streaming platform. That was a great win for our filmmaker, and it was mostly possible because they had been able to impress the company of a powerful executive. Another way is just if you made something truly paradigm-shifting. Paranormal Activity doesn't have any super famous people in it, but it was just an incredibly well executed new version of something. So, that was a paradigm shift in the sense that it kind of relaunched Found Footage. And Blair Witch obviously was before that, but Paranormal Activity kind of relaunched that genre into a wave of those types of projects.
Ross Putman (42:02):
I did a film called First Girl I Loved, which was at Sundance Film Festival 2016. It was a high school lesbian drama that we pulled together for peanuts. My friend is the filmmaker and he did a fantastic job directing it, and we got a couple notable people in it, but no one super famous. The biggest being Pamela [Adlon 00:42:22], who at the time had not made Better Things yet, Tim [Highdecker 00:42:26] from Tim and Eric, and a couple other people here and there. But we didn't have anybody who you could sell a movie off of at that time. But we partnered with ... because the message of the film was about accepting yourself and who you are, we partnered with the It Gets Better Foundation. It Gets Better is a nonprofit dedicated to helping queer youth feel confident about who they are and believe that even if things feel tough right now, it gets better.
Ross Putman (42:52):
By partnering with them, now we had a nonprofit partner that it helps them raise money and they can put their name on something really high quality. We can then say, "Oh, we have kind of an angle here on our movie of how we can tell people, 'Hey, to our core audience of women that might be questioning or thinking about their sexuality or their identity, we're working with this great nonprofit that you might've heard of.'" So, it was awesome to work with them. Because they also helped us understand the ways in which our film could be the most effective it could be.
Tanya Musgrave (43:24):
What are some common deals made for, say a few of these budget points? You don't have to go too, too in depth. But just bullet points of like 100K, 500K, one million, five million.
Ross Putman (43:35):
Usually when you're doing a distribution deal, you do what's called a short form agreement first, which is just the top line bullet points. And then you do a big, long contract. Because it's a contract, you have to have all the clauses in it and everything. And you will need a lawyer. The good news is that there's plenty of entertainment lawyers. And if you're selling a movie, it's not all that expensive to hire one. Essentially what you're going to negotiate is if there's an advance attached to the movie, that's what's called an MG, minimum guarantee. That is effectively an advance of money that is paid to you in exchange for the rights to your film. And then that distributor's going to recoup that money out of the sale of the film to the general public.
Ross Putman (44:10):
Most filmmakers want to get some sort of money, although there are deals that are either revenue shares or there's a thing called a zero MG deal, which maybe there's no money up front, but there are bonuses or there's ways to make money. That's kind of the top line thing that most people think about. And then you also want to think about the term of the license. Because this is, with very few exceptions, a distribution deal is not a distributor buying your movie. We say buying as a colloquial term. But they're not buying the rights to it. You still own the intellectual property, you still own the copyright. What they're doing is licensing it for a long period of time so it does feel like they bought it. Because during that license period, they're the only ones that can exploit the project for commercial reasons.
Ross Putman (44:55):
So, you want to get that term usually into a place that you're comfortable with. Sometimes that varies depending on the distributor. Sometimes it can be 20 years, 15 years, 10 years. Whatever that is, you try to get the best you can. So, that term is important. Territory is important. That means what part of the world they're going to have these rights in. So, maybe that's US and Canada, maybe that's worldwide, maybe it's US, Canada and England because they have a relationship there, or whatever. Right? Territory is something to think about. Because the more territories you give up, the fewer you have to sell. Right?
Ross Putman (45:28):
And then you're thinking about distribution fee. What that is, is that your distributor is going to take a fee for their service. Right? They're a business just like your movie is a business. So, they have to make themselves some sort of hopefully profit if they're buying your film, otherwise they cease to exist. They're not a public service. If they're releasing your film, they take what's called a distribution fee, which is a percentage of the earnings of the film. Of course you want to negotiate that number so that it's something you're comfortable with.
Ross Putman (45:56):
And then there's the idea of creative control. I would say that for most filmmakers, even established ones, that's going to be what's called meaningful consultation. Which means that they do need to talk to you and show you and get your input. But ultimately that distributor is going to have the final say of what the poster or trailer looks like most of the time for young filmmakers. Not because they want to ruin your dreams, but because they want to be able to market the movie in the way they think is most effective to get it to sell. Because if they don't turn a profit on the movie, they've now lost money and they're in trouble. That's all a way of saying those are kind of the top line things that you're going to be most focused on in a distribution deal.
Tanya Musgrave (46:33):
Gotcha. Is it common for filmmakers to receive a percentage of future profits when making a sale? Or is it usually a lump sum, done deal?
Ross Putman (46:40):
Usually the way a deal is structured is that you hopefully get money up front, which is an advance. Then what the distributor does, is they recoup that advance. So let's say they give you, I'm just going to use tiny numbers to make it easy. If they pay you $1,000 for your movie, now they're out $1,000. Right? So, in order to turn a profit for their company, they need to get that $1,000 back. So, once they release the movie, they're going to recoup the $1,000 and they're going to then want to make a profit on top of that. But usually the way it's structured is that once the company's recouped its advance and once they have recouped their marketing expenses, which is another place to just keep in mind that you want to make sure that number is not unlimited in your contract. So they can't just say we spent $1,000 to pay you and $1 million on marketing.
Ross Putman (47:28):
You just need to make sure that once they've recouped their advance and recouped their marketing expenses, and there's other things in here that you'd want to get into with your lawyer and with whoever you're doing the contract with. But at that point, then you get into what's called back end. We all have heard of that. And that means that once the distributor is in the black on their spend and they're making money on it now, then you should get money on top of the advance. So, that is how that works. So, that's future earning. So, if you wind up making the next massive hit and you don't realize it at the time and you sell your movie for peanuts but then it becomes a phenomenon for some reason, which is amazing if that happens, you're going to share in the upside of the project with your distributor and you're going to get what's called overages, which pay out back to the film and then you're making extra money.
Ross Putman (48:17):
Another way just to think about that also is derivative productions. If you make a film and then you actually create a TV show based on the film. Right? If you made the film, your contract should include derivative production langue so that you also get paid even if you don't create that show, you still have to get paid by the creators. Maybe they say, "We just want the rights, we don't want to work with you." You'd say, "Okay, pay me." And then if they pay you, they can go off and make your show. There's other ways to profit from the success of a film, but the simplest way is just getting into back end on your deal, which means that the film performed well with commercial audiences.
Tanya Musgrave (48:54):
Gotcha. Will they really read my script and how can I get the agency to put my script on the top of their list?
Ross Putman (49:00):
Here is a fact I'm going to say to so many people and it's going to feel weird. You don't need an agent. Okay, what do I mean by that? Of course you need an agent, right? At the point in your career when you're asking that question, what I mean is that the agent is not the thing that's going to help you right now. So, I think that people have a hard time sometimes understanding what an agent does or what an agent does or what a manager does. And usually most writers are going to start with a manager, or most filmmakers are going to start with a manager. And the reason I say that is because an agent's job is to get you the best deal and do the commerce part of your life. That's saying, "Oh hey, this company wants to work with me," it's our job to hopefully get their interest and then maximize your deal with that party. Right?
Ross Putman (49:45):
But we can only sell things that we can sell. So, if you are the most wildly talented person on the planet but have made absolutely nothing, how are we supposed to show people that you are talented. Right? So, you've written something, what you need is a manager first almost all the time. Because what a manager is going to do is represent a lot fewer clients, and they are going to be a lot more plugged into helping guide your career. You might've written something beautiful, but it needs notes. Manager's going to be there to help you with that. They're going to represent maybe 10 to 12 clients, whereas an agent might have 30, 40 clients. Right? And that's because the agent's job is really just to get in there and maximize opportunity and get you paid and get you a great deal. That's not to say they don't guide your career, that's not to say they can't give you advice or notes. They can and we do. But the manager is going to be your day to day person.
Ross Putman (50:33):
So, how do you get to the top of a pile of a manager or how do you get representation at all? Well, it's important to think about do you need representation, right? If you're just trying to make your first film and you're raising money from friends and family to do it, having an agent or manager isn't going to accomplish all that much for you right now. You need to go make that film first. Then once you've made it, submit it to festivals. If you're at a festival managers are going to start to find you. If you make a great short and it's a Vimeo staff pick, you might start to hear from people. Because they say, "I watched this, I love it, I want to talk to you and hear who you are as a person and start to figure that out." How do you get an agent or manager? Networking, making things with people. The thing that you can control.
Ross Putman (51:12):
We made that $4,000 movie because that was a thing we could control, me and my partners when I was in film school. And it was like, okay, we can just go out and make this. I'll put in $1,333 and you'll put in $1,333. We saved up enough money to do it and went out and made a $4,000 movie. And we met people through that process who then went on to do other things. And then when your friend asks you, "Could you boom mic my short?" "You know what? Sure, I'll boom mic your short." Right? Now you met the producer of the short, maybe that producer knows somebody. Right? You start to expand your network just by making and doing things and saying yes to helping people or doing favors for people when you can use them. So then when you actually have something ready and you've now collaborated with a bunch of people.
Ross Putman (51:56):
I have a script in my inbox that was referred through The Key Grip, first real film I produced which was like a $200,000 movie. Well, you know what? That person got their script to me. So, if you have the ability to just make those connections, do things, whatever, then when you have a piece of material ready the cream will rise. And if you wrote something great, someone's definitely going to recommend it because it makes them look good. So, all of a sudden now your chain of people that can help is better. There's also competitions, although those feel so powerless. Right? Because once you enter a competition you feel like, "Well, I can't do anything now to affect the outcome of this." So, that's an anxious place for a writer to be.
Ross Putman (52:35):
I think it's just about expand your connections, meet people. And look, at the end of the day if you think you've put enough work together that you can be really confident about it and you're still not getting that attention, then target a few managers that seem like they're not the mega managers in this business, but maybe they work with a filmmaker you think is interesting or whatever. And then you can write query letters to managers. And just keep them short and sweet. The longer it is, the worse it is. And just keep it really short to say, "I'm a filmmaker, here's why I think it's relevant that you pay attention to me. I've won this award at this festival and I made the short film that was a Vimeo staff pick and I have decided to seek representation and I was curious if you'd be interested in looking. And thank you for your time."
Ross Putman (53:19):
At the end of the day, those people's information is on IMDB too. So, don't let it stop you from making things. Because making things is what's going to eventually lead to people really paying attention.
Tanya Musgrave (53:30):
Nice, nice. Best advice for developing a 100K budget to be able to sell it?
Ross Putman (53:36):
Have multiple budgets. If you're setting out to make a movie, like when I set out to make my first real, real film, we wound up making it for $200,000. But we at first were like, "Well, what's the least we can make it for?" And we basically said, "Well, if we had to make it for $60,000, we could. It would just mean this, this and this." Right? And that means we can't have this and we can't have that. So, we actually wound up putting together a $60,000 budget, like $120,000 budget and then a $200,000 budget. And for a while it looked like we were only going to make the $120,000 version of it. But then we wound up, by getting ready to make that version of it, attracting more investors that said, "Oh actually, if we put in money, that'll even help you more." So, we wound up making it for $200,000. Come up with a number that you bare bones could make it for that's less than the number you're asking for, so that way you're not tied to, "We can only make it under one circumstance."
Tanya Musgrave (54:30):
Nice, nice. That wraps up all of our listener questions. Thank you so much for your time and advice. Man, you're like a born teacher, this is amazing.
Ross Putman (54:42):
You know what? I got up a half-hour before we did this podcast, so I'm really glad that I can even do it.
Tanya Musgrave (54:49):
We will take it. We will take it in your sleep deprived state. I'm so sorry if it was too early.
Ross Putman (54:54):
No. I would just leave your audience with like, look, the people that are going to help you with the things that I do or we do or what agencies in general do, are going to be there when you need them. But don't let it stop you from getting up in the morning and saying, "Well, I'm just going to make things." The thing that I hate to say to people because it seems so ... It's not meant to be patronizing. You have an incredible camera in your pocket. Okay? You actually have a film ... You have almost a filmmaking camera in your pocket, and for some people it is a filmmaking camera. So, don't let anything stop you from trying things, making things and doing things. Because that's the only way you're going to get to the point where you then feel comfortable to make the bigger things and take the bigger steps and attract the attention.
Tanya Musgrave (55:32):
Ross Putman (55:32):
And don't worry about it taking time, there's very few people for who, it happens immediately.
Tanya Musgrave (55:36):
If you enjoyed this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at media.colabinc.org. If you have comments or know of someone who'd be a great guest on our show, send in your suggestions to Tanya@colabinc.org. Ross, thank you so much again for your time. Be well and God bless, we'll see you next time on There to Here.