Agents seek homes for small films

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When sales agent Andrew Herwitz brought "Live-In Maid" to the Sundance Film Festival three years ago, he hoped to land a quick sale, with the promise of the Spanish-language movie's arriving in theaters a few months down the road. But as often turns out with the festival's slighter movies, Sundance was just the start of Herwitz's odyssey with the film.

Some Sundance festivals spark pricey sales, like the Sundance record $10.5-million deal for "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006. But as this year's festival is proving -- not a single dramatic movie found a theatrical release over the first three days -- dozens of Sundance movies can go home with no buyer at all, and many others fetch only a few hundred thousand dollars -- if that much.

The movies that tend to sell for seven figures and more are usually star-laden comedies with obvious marketing hooks, but even this year's "What Just Happened?" with Robert De Niro and "Sunshine Cleaning" with Amy Adams have so far failed to launch a buying frenzy.

Not surprisingly, it's much harder to find a home for films like "Live-In Maid," a low-budget drama about an Argentine family's having to let go its longtime domestic help. But Sundance is overflowing with similarly tricky movies, and the sales agents handling them are sometimes required to go to unusual lengths to bring them to moviegoers.

Even with a Sundance Special Jury Prize under its belt, "Live-In Maid" was unable to find a distributor after months of effort by Herwitz. Unwavering in his determination to get the movie seen, Herwitz and his Film Sales Co. decided to release "Live-In Maid" themselves, having never released a movie before. Herwitz spent about $50,000 on its release, and the film grossed some $250,000. "For a small release, it did incredibly well," Herwitz says.

But it didn't end there. Herwitz put together a team to remake the movie in English, with Rodrigo Garcia ("Nine Lives") penciled in to direct. "I think the remake of the film could be quite a big studio film," Herwitz says.

Hollywood's big talent agencies -- and one renowned New York lawyer -- orchestrate the majority of Sundance's expensive deals. But a band of sales agents like Herwitz toil in relative obscurity at the same time, working like a show business dating service that pairs out-of-the-ordinary movies with often little-known buyers.

Even though these smaller sellers are as driven by sales commissions as their heavyweight brethren, Hollywood distributors say they can be more personally committed to the films they represent, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for a deal.

"The smaller people will chase us," says Tom Ortenberg of Lionsgate Films. "They'll make sure we have seen every press reaction to a film, or offer to set up a special screening if one of our team hasn't seen it -- even if there's just one glimmer of hope."

Adds Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions is a frequent Sundance buyer: "As opposed to some others, they will continue to work the movies until they get sold."

Every so often, these under-the-radar vendors hit a home run.

At last year's festival, Herwitz sold "Waitress" to Fox Searchlight for $4 million. In 2004, sales agent Rona Wallace sold "Open Water" to Lionsgate for $2.2 million. Before he joined the law firm Greenberg Traurig, attorney Steven Beer helped sell 1999's "Tumbleweeds" to since-defunct Fine Line Features for $5 million.

"They're working out of the house sometimes," Bob Berney of Picturehouse says of the smaller sellers. "But on one pretty good sale, they're in good shape."

Just as the independent film world is split between studio-owned machines such as Fox Searchlight on one end and tiny, essentially mom-and-pop outfits like Strand Releasing on the other, sales agents are quickly dividing between the behemoths and the boutiques.

New York lawyer John Sloss' Cinetic Media arrived in Park City this year with no fewer than 19 films for sale. The Creative Artists Agency is representing 15 movies looking for a distribution deal, and the William Morris Agency has nine movies on the block.

The smaller sellers usually come to town with a half dozen titles or less, and many of those films will be shown in Sundance programming categories -- world documentary, New Frontier -- that rarely generate multimillion deals.

The talent agencies often represent movies made by or starring prominent clients (CAA is selling "The Wackness," whose financiers are represented by the agency) and use festivals as a starting point in establishing a career. After Endeavor sold Seth Gordon's documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," the talent agency put together a deal for Gordon to direct Vince Vaughn in "Four Christmases."

The second tier of sales agents may be equally interested in building careers but are usually operating with filmmakers and casts who may not break out that easily.

"I gravitate toward independent film," says lawyer Beer. "It's much more satisfying and personally interesting." What will be equally interesting is how Beer finds customers for some of his titles this year.

His Sundance slate of four films includes "Be Like Others," a documentary about Iranian homophobia and transgender operations, and the partially experimental "Reversion," a movie Sundance programmers describe as "a somewhat-astringent glance at human existence." Beer is also selling a documentary in the Slamdance festival called "My Mother's Garden," a look at a family's hoarding compulsion.

"The films I take to Park City typically have something distinctive and special -- and are not always commercial. Most of these films will not find a conventional theatrical release," Beer says. "But there are buyers in the marketplace for virtually every film at Sundance. It just requires extra work -- it's like a puzzle. It may take weeks, if not months, to sell a film."

The smaller sellers' sales pitch is that volume dealers such as Cinetic and CAA can't give every film equal attention and will abandon titles not generating sufficient buyer interest, an opinion some distributors say can be accurate.

"There is no way on Earth that John Sloss, as good a salesman as he is, can sell 19 movies at the same time," says Arianna Bocco, IFC Entertainment's vice president for acquisitions and production. "And we are not going to spend $10 million on a movie, so we want to have an honest dialogue with a sales agent about what's right for us."

IFC is more likely to steer clear of "What Just Happened?" (being sold by CAA and Cinetic) and toward the kinds of movies that Josh Braun has brought to the mountain resort town. Braun's Submarine Entertainment has nine movies at Sundance and one at Slamdance; all but three of them are documentaries. In 2004's festival, Braun arrived with -- and sold -- an array of prominent non-fiction films, including "Super Size Me" and "Control Room." But the market for docs has since cooled.

"We work on the films that excite us, and those tend to be documentaries," Braun says. "Maybe it's pretentious, but we tend to look at our slate as curated. We're not always coming at it from, 'How much money can we make?' "

The money can indeed work out to dollars on the hour, especially with movies that take a year to sell, and then for substantially less than a million dollars. While some sales agents try to collect a retainer, almost all work on commission, typically charging between 5% and 10% of a film's sales price.

So when Wallace's one-person outfit sold "Open Water," it brought in a windfall. "What I've learned to resist are the amazing little movies where I won't make a dime," says Wallace, who isn't selling anything at this year's Sundance. "So I try not to fall in love."

Some sellers target narrow segments of buyers. Collective Films' Shaun Redick has three Sundance and two Slamdance movies, and is interested to find out if companies such as AOL and Facebook will begin distributing filmed entertainment over the Internet.

Among the three movies Herwitz is representing at this year's festival are "An American Soldier," a documentary about an Army recruiter, and "Alone in Four Walls," a German documentary about Russian juvenile delinquents.

"By design, I have kept the company small -- we have four employees -- so I am not burdened with huge overhead which would force me to take on films that I don't really want to take on," Herwitz says. "One strategy is to go with 20 movies and sell as many as you can and move on. I don't have that luxury. Everything has to sell."

Sloss discounts complaints that his strategy is to throw as many titles out there and pray that some of them stick. He may be bringing 19 films, but he is also bringing 19 colleagues.

"None of the companies have that kind of ratio," says Sloss, who brokered the record-setting "Little Miss Sunshine" deal. "Sundance is a war, and the buyers treat it as a war. You need the same kind of strategy and intelligence. The buyers dedicate a lot of resources to it, and so do we."

Talent agents, he said, "have to take on movies they don't believe in because they don't have a choice; they have to serve their clients. Ours is entirely a meritocracy."

And it's not all about high commissions, Sloss says, noting they are selling the experimental film "Momma's Man." "We may not make a dime on it," Sloss says, "but we just had to rep it."

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