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The Great E-Scape : Films Transit Weighs the Future of the Middle Man

By Tamara Krinsky

Films Transit International, the respected documentary international sales company, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The company has made a name for itself marketing and releasing high-profile theatrical and television documentaries that focus on arts, culture, societal issues and politics. Timely and distinct, their titles include, among others, Cowboy del Amour; Manufacturing Dissent; My Country, My Country; China Blue; The Corporation; American Hardcore; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Crumb and The Celluloid Closet.

Documentary chatted with Films Transit founder Jan Rofekamp by phone from Hot Docs in Toronto about the past, present and future of the documentary sales business.


You've been doing this for 25 years. What are the biggest changes you've seen over that time?

Jan Rofekamp: There have been three major changes. The first was the birth of the cable landscape, the thematic channels, in the mid-'80s. The specialty channels suddenly created a huge growing market for documentaries aside from the traditional public broadcasters. The second major change to the business started in the '90s, and had to do with the infrastructural power of events such as IDFA and Hot Docs. Even though IDFA is 19 years old, it only started to become really important in its eighth or ninth year. In the '90s, that whole circuit became really important as a platform for independent producers to move around in. What I would call the whole documentary infrastructure, which gives opportunities to filmmakers to meet clients has taken a real flight.
For us, the first step meant we got a lot of new clients: the specialty channels. The second step meant that the people who buy films became much more accessible because of this travel circuit. It means that some independent producers, although they like to work with sales agents, started to not need us anymore because they were smart enough to move around the circuit and find the buyers themselves. So in a certain sense, we found competition from our own people. The third major event is the Internet as a tool for independent filmmakers to get their work shown. That is the most important one because it's going to completely change the landscape.


As a sales agent, how do you make the Internet your friend, so to speak, instead of something that takes away business?

That is a big question that I'm currently struggling with: whether middle persons like myself will still be needed. I think that the middle people have a larger view of things and are still needed to teach filmmakers and help filmmakers maneuver through the landscape. But the classic broadcast forms will change into download and stream forms, and many filmmakers can actually do it themselves. What really worries me are the financial and business aspects of this new world. The infrastructure is completely accessible now. The broadband costs a few years ago were still quite prohibitive, but they are going down with lightening speed. 


How does this factor into your sales business?

In the past, you would sell broadcast rights to Germany, which are the rights to transmit a film over an entire country with 68 million people on the major channels. The filmmaker gets a sizeable fee for this--20,000-50,000 euros--and I could then make a decent commission. In the future, these sales will probably still exist on public broadcast channels, but it will change for the rest of them. For example, German television will buy the rights to transmit, stream and download a film. It will be what we call a percentage deal, like a revenue-sharing deal, but the result will be a tiny amount of money per download transaction.
This means, if you have something very non-commercial, very few people will download it. So you become dependent on the market, instead of one purchase price to one signal. I'm a little scared that sales agents will not be able to make enough money out of this new business model to be able to survive.


Why do people pay so little for these downloads?

There is a whole new interpretation about non-exclusivity. In the future, if you do non-exclusive deals with several people, they're going to pay very little.


With online video, there seems to be a whole new mantra in the film world of "Get your film out to as many places as possible; let it be seen."

That's a very nice idea, "let it be seen," but very few people actually pay for seeing something. And if they do, it's going to be very, very small. If a filmmaker has something very good and reaches 600,000 people on the Internet who all pay 25 cents, it's decent revenue for that particular filmmaker. But if that's done through a distributor who maybe takes away 30 to 40 percent of that revenue, it becomes less interesting.


Have you come up with solutions?  

I'm going to continue what I'm doing. The sales of documentaries will still be a feasible affair for next couple of years and the public broadcast structures will continue to exist for a little while. But I also think that the competition for the smaller amount of sales is going be very high, so I have to be very careful about what kind of films I pick up.


How do you choose the particular kinds of films you do?

It has to do with personal interest; social, political and cultural relevance; and how topical the issue is. And it has to do with a "filmmaker's signature" on a film. I'm interested in a wide range of things, but it has to have a little more impact.


At this point, what are fastest growing markets for the films you represent?

The Internet is the fastest growing market, but that has to do with the number of people out in this market, not with the financial revenues. There's also a question of how long physical discs will be on the market. The collector's item discs will remain, but the single-movie DVDs will disappear and then there'll be Internet stuff.


And it's not about geography anymore, or to which territory you sell.

Totally not. So what we are doing is talking to a certain number of companies on the Internet. We'll do some test cases, give them some films. I want to see how it works, what the business models are, what money goes back to the filmmakers.
It's obvious that beyond the barriers of the traditional markets are millions of eyeballs interested in all kinds of subjects. And there was never a way to jump over those barriers. Now we have a way, and that makes me positive about the future. It doesn't make me positive about my business, but it makes me positive about the future of the instigation of independent filmmakers and the distribution of their own work.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.