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By Hammad Zaidi | May 18, 2010

On a flight home from the MIPTV television market in Cannes a few weeks ago, I was pondering how I would introduce myself and describe the world of selling independent films internationally to you. Then, before I landed in Los Angeles, the Eyjafjallajokall Volcano erupted in Iceland and instantaneously tortured millions of travel plans worldwide. Albeit tragic, the volcanic chaos gave me my answer: the selling of independent films, as we know it, has erupted like a furious volcano, leaving us with a chaotic pile of nasty ashes.

The good news is that we’re all Oscar Goodmans now and distributing independent films is our collective Steve Austin (not the wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin).  I’m talking about the “Six Million Dollar Man.” Remember? “We can do it. We have the technology.”

Simply put, it’s time to go bionic.

Hi. I’m Hammad Zaidi of Lonely Seal Releasing, and my goal here is to give you the tools you need to make your film “bionic.” While I can’t help your film take on Sasquatch, or give it X-Ray vision, I can share distribution insights and strategies so your film can be primed to outperform its competitors throughout the world. With Internet based self-distribution on the rise, and video-on-demand technology about to force DVD’s into retirement, filmmakers have a vast array of distribution options these days. But, there’s a lot more to distributing your film than creating a viral campaign and hoping your YouTube clip gets more than one million hits. That’s where I come in.

While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I do fly more than 100,000 miles per year (four times around the world) with my company to major film markets and festivals in order to distribute films, documentaries and television. In fact, as I write this entry, I’m back in Cannes for the film festival and film market. My company’s “world tour” includes two more stops per year in Cannes for MIPCOM and MIPTV, (TV markets). We also get our passports stamped at the EFM Film Market during the Berlin Film Festival, FILMART in Hong Kong, TIFFCOM in Tokyo, and the Toronto Film Festival.

As for our “domestic tour,” we’re regulars at Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW and AFM in Santa Monica, as well as a few regional gems like the Kansas City Film Fest, Temecula and Nashville. We even sponsor a few film festivals including SXSW, Slamdance, and the Dawson City International Short Film Festival way up in the Canadian Yukon just south of the Arctic Circle.

Thus, my insights here stem from my daily experiences. I promise to be candid, up front and overtly truthful.

Now that you know a bit more about where I’m coming from, let’s dive into today’s topic: film markets. Film markets are essentially “swap meets” for movies; a place where international distribution companies (also commonly referred to as sales agents), trek from every corner of the globe to meet film buyers in order to negotiate, deliberate and orchestrate film and TV sales to several countries.  Imagine a collage of cultures, languages and traditions meshed together in a convention center style atmosphere, all taking place at some of the most amazing destinations on the planet (Cannes, Hong Kong, etc). Sound flawless?

Now imagine that most international film buyers know exactly what they will – or will not buy – before they see the first frame of the film in question. Thus, getting them to consider anything outside of what they’ve been instructed to buy for their country, is not the easiest task on your to-do list. Being rejected by buyers before they even consider your film, is a lot like being shot down by your object of obsession in high school, before you get a chance to say “hi” (of course I’d know nothing about that)…

Lonely Seal Releasing Booth at the 2010 Cannes Film Market

Another key point to know about film markets is that they are not film festivals. In fact, film markets and film festivals are about as different as the Jonas Brothers are from Judas Priest. While film festivals showcase budding and established talent, support independent visions and explore unconventional story telling, film markets care about one thing and one thing only: selling product. Oddly enough, most major film markets are married to major film festivals (Cannes Film Market With the Cannes Film Festival, EFM with Berlin, AFM with AFI). It’s a cruel marriage built mainly for financial convenience, as most of the films at film markets are not the type of films that get into film festivals. The exact opposite is usually also true, as several film festival films have less of a commercial appeal needed to thrive at film markets. Thus, when you’re making your film, you should consider which route suits your film best; a critically acclaimed film festival run, or sales at various film markets with virtually no acclaim. Both routes are valid and smart; it just depends on the needs of each specific project. Of course, in rare cases, you can have both.

Regarding my personal experience at film markets, I still remember attending my first Cannes Film Market with my company in 2006. I’d been to Cannes several times prior as a producer wanting to make contacts, but my eyes were opened much wider when I attended as a film sales company. The Cannes market was so amazingly crowded, and the parties were the size of small Kansas towns. I’m not kidding. The parties were actually held on yachts, in castles and even some on nearby private islands. Simply put, it was obvious that distributors would go to any lengths to get buyers to buy their films.

I was also blown away by the sheer number of movies represented at the market. There were over 10,000 films being sold, with 9,950 of them being titles I’ve never heard of. But, some titles were selling to multiple countries. With a television sale to Germany here, and a DVD deal to Japan there, every single aisle of the market I trekked seemed to have activity. As I comprehended the impact of a healthy film market, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in Zimbabwe, Poland and Pakistan were watching indie made in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Austin. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt those indie filmmakers ever considered how their films would play outside of the USA. If they had considered international audiences, their films would have clearly been bigger, stronger, and yes more “bionic”…

Don’t worry; we’ll discuss how to cast an “international net” with your film, in a future post. For now, I hope I’ve given you a good jumping-off point into taking your film bionic. Forgive me if my information seems daunting or depressing, as it’s not meant to. In fact, you should be ecstatic that everything is in distribution is changing, because you are the change. You’re in a legion of filmmakers that will reshape the world of distribution and guide it to its next form, while the “gatekeepers” are left wondering how the hell everyone slid through their gates.

I thank you for lending me you eyes for a few minutes, and I look forward to sending your eyes more information in the near future.

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  1. Troy Bernier says:

    OK, you have my attention…

  2. Sandra Caruso says:

    I learned a lot from this Hammad. What a fasinating world. You created a lot of excitement. I felt like I was at the festivals and the parties. I’m hooked. I’ll be following your weekly articles.
    Sandra Caruso

  3. Amy R Handler says:

    As a filmmaker enmeshed in the international festival route as we speak, I find this accessible article timely and helpful. I appreciate hearing about the film market, how it works with and against festivals, and your personal experiences. I’m also beginning to think that luck plays a huge role in which films succeed. Thanks again! A

  4. Chale Nafus says:

    Wonderful article, Hammad. Great to see you sharing your experience and insight with filmmakers as they try to negotiate a path through the ever-changing sales landscape.

  5. Andy Halmay says:

    You haven’t said much as yet but you say it so entertainingly that I’ll be a keen reader whenever you feel you’ve got something to say. Never heard of Film Threat before and now am trying to figure out how to log into it continuously.

  6. Howard Suber says:

    Great piece! I especially liked your mournful but true point that the marketplaces at film festivals are oriented towards totally different audiences. You’re obviously very knowledgeable!

  7. SHAMIM ZAIDI says:


  8. Lars says:

    Very interesting and well written, waiting for the next….

  9. John says:

    Excellent article ,look forward to the next ones.

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