How Agencies Became So Vital To The Indie Film Ecosystem — Deadline Disruptors

Graham Smith

When the major talent agencies—CAA, WMA & Endeavor (now WME) and UTA—started indie film departments, the idea was to help big clients get their passion—some called them vanity—projects made. That seems like a million years ago. These departments have become such prolific generators that they have become the life blood of independent films, especially the mid-budget segment of films for grown-ups that studios orphaned as they covet global tent poles and micro-budget genre movies.

An entire ecosystem now swims around these agencies as they marry financiers to scripts and packages, building movies from the ground floor and selling them to distributors at script stage, when partially shot, or after they’ve been finished.

While these departments are competitive, they often broker the deals in tandem when clients from multiple agencies are involved. They are a lifeline to foreign sales companies and distributors that don’t develop, and are shut out of studio-generated product. These companies now have a rougher road, with the product hungry likes of Netflix and Amazon Studios paying big money for world rights. While every Hollywood studio wants its logo on Oscar films, developing and paying for those pictures is another matter. It is often up to these agencies to find the money, and replace funds that fall through, in all of the films that competed this past Oscar season.

“Without the work that CAA, WME and UTA does, I don’t think that business exists,” says Roeg Sutherland, head of the CAA Film Finance and Sales Group. “The middle would be dead. Studios are obviously not in that business; even if they’re still acquiring domestic rights to those movies, they’re not financing them.”

Roeg Sutherland

For the first time in a dozen years, Roeg Sutherland is leading CAA’s Film Finance and Sales Group without wingman Micah Green, who formed a company with financier Dan Friedkin. Sutherland, whose division set a personal best $56 million in 2016 Cannes deals, has movies in the blood. He’s the son of actor Donald Sutherland and brother of Kiefer, but Roeg found his place constructing films way before they shoot.

He has led the packaging and financing of films including Birdman, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker and Black Swan. He makes big deals, mindfully matching films with the right distributors and preserving the health of the fragile indie ecosystem that crashed in 2008.

Fox Searchlight

His current concerns: nurturing foreign distributors in a time of voracious streaming service appetites for world rights, and showing patience to allow China to find its natural place in the ecosystem after a hasty deal surge and pullback. The region will still be an important part of financing equations for indie films, he feels.

“There’ll be major deals at Cannes, some from Chinese sources with money that has left the country and has been verified,” Sutherland says. “Our entire business has been the Wild West, but that means great opportunity, in everything from the digital space to the financing of television, in the same way that film has been financed. There is an opportunity to get into local production. There is more money out there than there is IP in the world right now.”

Fox Searchlight

That doesn’t mean the game is any easier.

“You look at films like Jackie or Hacksaw Ridge, which go out under a studio logo, but people truly work long and hard to get these movies done,” Sutherland says.  “Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, The Revenant, The Imitation Game and Lost City Of Z and Ad Astra too.”

An easier time was had on George Clooney’s Suburbicon—slightly. “The market responded strongly in Berlin, but studios aren’t making these films, and what we end up doing is packaging the entire film, raising the financing, and then going back to the studios again. Then it’s a hot ticket in Berlin, and we were really able to do something with it. And we’re looking to make the right deal for companies so investors feel incentivized to keep investing in our business.”

Sutherland says that has long been a core component of his department. “We started representing financiers [partly] because we wanted to build a healthy ecosystem when the studios started making less movies,” he says. “I think that still very much lives on in all the deals we make. We want everybody to feel good about it, and not put so much pressure on any given party that it could lead to failure for everybody involved.”

The division puts 50 films in production annually, with budgets ranging from $300,000 to $100 million. “When you throw in third-party sales, we probably make about 90 to 95 films a year,” he notes.

Graham Smith

Graham Taylor & Chris Rice 
WME Global

WME Global head Graham Taylor and his core team members, Mark Ankner, Liesl Copland and Alexis Garcia (now focused on China), have been fixtures at Cannes and other festivals for years, brokering massive deals for packages and finished films.

That continues, but Taylor, who was head of Endeavor’s department and took the reins of WME Global after the agencies merged, says one of the biggest changes in the core business has been the blurring of the lines between film and television.

Graham Smith

So while WME Global, in one way or another, helped facilitate Best Picture nominations for such films as Fences, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, and Hell or High Water, the uptick in TV activity from artists best known in the feature world has boosted the division’s business and become a greater concentration.

“We wanted to build in television what we’d built in film, and ultimately we see it all now just simply as content, period,” Taylor says. “It can be two hours, three or eight. From that perspective, our group now raises money and greenlights 75 to 100 movies, TV shows and documentaries a year. We’re not just funding movies, we’re building companies, and we’ve effectively become a studio, in the level of content that we pump out. And we represent more content financiers than before.”

Sundance Channel

Chris Rice, who leads the agency’s efforts in international television, will be at Cannes brokering deals for Top of the Lake and its seven-episode second season, written by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion.

“That is an example of a whole wave of content that’s now being made that is author-driven and doesn’t fit a two-and-a-half hour film format,” Rice says. “We put together six hours of The Night Manager with director Susanne Bier, and The Young Pope, with Paolo Sorrentino writing and directing the whole thing, and shooting it like a movie. The world has changed.

Big Little Lies HBO
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

“What’s the difference between seeing Big Little Lies on HBO or HBO Go, versus a Netflix original movie that lives on that platform? It has shaken up the way TV shows can be made, and it is a more interesting business to be in because of the opportunity in finance and ownership,” he continues.

“Part of what Graham and I have built on the television side is about creating this platform where our actors, directors, writers and producers can actually own, control and operate television shows around the world. IMG is going to be a big part of that; we’ve got a few hundred sales guys in 25 countries, the best platform outside the studios of getting the TV shows sold into every single window, in every single global territory.”

Graham Smith

Rena Ronson 

When UTA Independent head Rena Ronson looks back at her origins selling indie movies at WMA, she marvels how different the job is now: she’s gone from selling the vehicles to working under the hood with filmmakers building vehicles that include radically different Best Picture nominees Room and Hidden Figures.

“Ten years ago, many studios had independent divisions,” she says. “You had a better chance at getting these films made at studios. Hidden Figures ended up a studio film, but the cross-departmental work within the agency was vital, starting in our book department.”

Hopper Stone

The team helped arrange a development deal with financier Levantine, “And when it came back to us, we brought in Ted Melfi, who made St. Vincent with Chernin Entertainment, and that led to Fox,” Ronson explains. “It was flipped to a studio because that was the right place for it. That film has grossed over $230 million, but it started with an idea, and sometimes the biggest thing is not letting that die.”

Room was different. “We could have sold the rights to Emma Donoghue’s book; we had multiple offers for studio option deals,” she says. “But here was a way [for] Lenny Abrahamson and Element and our client Emma to do something different. Emma got to be a producer and have ownership of the film, and they made the film exactly the way they wanted to. People want to participate in the backend and the upside.”

The department served a similar role on the big Sundance sales title The Big Sick, the Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon comedy which required nurturing when it left Universal. “We sat with Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel. They had an incredible script, but it wasn’t a typical star-driven film,” Ronson says. “We shared it with a few sales agents to see what it would be worth internationally. That led us to FilmNation’s Glen Basner, who said, ‘I love it, and I want to make it.’ And then it became about doing it for a price, and FilmNation doing minimal presales. He was able to bank and fund the rest.”

Amazon Studios

Eyeing the landscape, Ronson notes that while Netflix and Amazon have shaken up the foreign sales landscape, their appetite for documentaries has created a new and potentially lucrative sandbox. “There has been a big surge in the documentary world, and we largely have them to thank for that,” she says. “This mixes into the TV and film worlds, because many of these documentaries are translating to docu-series and narrative remakes for film and television. That’s something we did with Hot Girls, originally a feature documentary that was turned into an episodic at Netflix. We are also setting up limited or full run series in the same way we’ve done independent films, and there has been a definite crossover of our TV and independent film departments. There are so many opportunities.”

By Ronson’s estimate, the commerce has certainly been good for her department, which now has around 10 employees. “Our hands touched around 87 films last year, in various capacities that range from early stage development to financing, packaging, and selling distribution rights.”

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