- Friday, Jul. 20, 2001
The scene: a wrestling match. The site: a dingy theater-in-the-round. The crowd is roaring, and the combatants make their entrances: The Rat, a man in a dirty rat suit, and Dr. Pongadoo, a bearded, incoherent gentleman with armpits that are lethal weapons. The camerawork is typical of the pro wrestling genre: long shots alternating with in-your-face, hand-held moments. But this is a match with a difference: As the battle rages, 5,000 liters of strawberry jam are poured on the combatants from above.
A Monty Python sketch? No, but close: It's a recent British commercial called "Rat vs. Pongadoo," out of Saatchi & Saatchi London, for Burton's Biscuits' Jammie Dodgers, a jam-filled cookie. There's a twist to the story behind the spot's creation—Likemind, a London production house, may have produced the spot, but Joe Schaak of Minneapolis-based Twist directed the ad, plus others in a campaign for the snack food.
The co-production deal between Likemind and Twist is not a one-of-a-kind affair, either. It is part of a growing trend among U.S.-based production houses to seek out international partners for reciprocal representation deals and/or production support agreements. Bicoastal Coppos Films has hooked up with Errecerre, a production company with offices in Barcelona and Madrid. Bicoastal Reactor Films, part of the Stoney Road family of commercial production houses headed up by Michael Romersa, has teamed with The Gang Films, Saint Cloud, France; and bicoastal Anonymous Content has linked with London-based production house Gorgeous.
Last year, Palomar Pictures, Los Angeles, entered into an arrangement with Godman, London. In one of the most recently announced reciprocal agreements, Nonfiction Spots and Longform, Santa Monica, and Paris-based Dissidents have entered into a co-production pact whereby Nonfiction directors will gain representation and production support in France, while Dissidents directors will be marketed and supported stateside by Nonfiction. Both production houses represent documentary filmmakers in the commercial arena. Per most of the deals, a U.S. company gains a production foothold in another country. At the same time, each company garners representation in its counterpart's area for either its entire roster, or for select directors. In some cases, the overseas shop gains a stateside production foothold, and U.S. representation for select helmers.
There are many reasons for entering into a reciprocal agreement—one being that it increases the pool of work a director has to choose from. "My goal is to keep my directors as busy as possible," explains Jim Geib, president/executive producer at Twist, who notes that he has other co-production deals in place with Film Construction, New Zealand, and Rave, a Canadian operation. The former is a reciprocal production support agreement, with Twist representing several Film Construction directors stateside. These helmers include David Green, Perry Bradley and Noah Marshall. The arrangement with Rave is for representation in Canada of Twist's directors, including Schaak, and for Rich Michell, a director/cameraman. Per the Likemind deal, the London company represents Twist's two helmers in the U.K. Michell has already directed a few projects under the Rave agreement: five spots, including "Watermelon Spike," for Top Food and Drug, out of Young & Rubicam, Vancouver, B.C. (Jeff Jones of Rave Films helmed the talent portion of those spots); and "Holiday Town" for Counter Attack, a drunk-driving awareness program, out of Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver.
With competition for work increasing, and more productions taking place outside of the U.S., the trend makes sense. "International production seems more and more in vogue. You can move anywhere you need to go," says Michael Romersa, president of Stoney Road, which also has set up partnership deals with No Guns Pictures, which has offices in Los Angeles and Barcelona, and Group Films, Barcelona and Madrid. Additionally, Stoney Road recently entered into an agreement to set up a U.S. office of London production house Great Guns. The new bicoastal office of Great Guns opened with three U.S.-based directors: Tim Ward, Jim Manera and Kevin Bourland. The firm will also represent several of Great Guns' U.K.-based helmers in the U.S., including Luke Forsythe, Johnny Maginn and Michael Fueter, as well as the directing duos of Who (Liam Kan and Grant Hodgson) and Daddy (Jake Knowles and Jeff Ford).
Romersa says that the movement toward international partnerships has its roots, in part, in last year's six-month-long strike by SAG and AFTRA against advertisers. During that time, productions went abroad in order to complete jobs. "During the strike, a lot of clients and agents became familiar with international production and found that, in many cases, their needs could be served by out-of-country production," he notes. "The dollar is strong. [Foreign] crews are better trained than in the past, and the locations are incredible. Agencies see [shooting overseas] as a real possibility."
Just as importantly, international co-productions allow companies to take advantage of each other's strengths while keeping costs down. One advantage is that there is no overhead, as there would be if a U.S. production house set up its own international branch office. "You can play to your strengths," explains Dave Morrison, co-head of the commercial division at Anonymous. "Trying to run a business from three hundred thousand miles away is a losing proposition unless you want to build an infrastructure, which is expensive. Gorgeous [Anonymous' partner] could have built a 'Gorgeous USA.' But they'd rather focus on the work, not on managing a U.S. company. The same goes both ways. After all, how many time zones do you want to cover on a day-to-day basis?"
Per the Anonymous/Gorgeous arrangement, Anonymous represents Gorgeous directors Frank Budgen, Chris Palmer, Peter Thwaites and Tom Carty in the U.S. Additionally, the London-based company gains access to Anonymous' production network. Gorgeous has already seen its Anonymous affiliation bear fruit: Budgen recently completed work on three Nike spots—"Tag," "Shade Runner" and "Racing Tchaikovsky"—via Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore. Director Palmer has also worked under the new arrangement, having helmed Rexall Sundown Osteo Bi-Flex's "Car," out of Crispin Porter+Bogusky, Miami.
A U.S. company linking with a firm in another country can greatly help the stateside shop in producing spots abroad because the locals are more familiar with locations, fees and customs. "We don't really know Spain," notes Joanne Ferraro, East Coast managing director/head of sales at Coppos Films. "If we did a job there, we'd have to partner with a local company anyway. Setting up this partnership with Errecerre is a good way to get our feet wet there, and also lets us partner with someone we trust. As they secure work for us, we get to know that market better, and they get to know us and our market better, as well."
"I don't know the [business] culture in France. I don't speak the language fluently," Romersa echoes. "I could end up spending too much money on offices and then could hire two or three of the least-respected people there. Having the co-production deal is a much faster ramp-up. I mean, the chances of my opening up an office in Paris and then finding talented French directors on my own is pretty slim."
The reciprocal arrangements, in which the U.S. companies will have their directors represented overseas, and the U.S. firms will represent the overseas directors in the American market, allow both to offer a broader range of talent and locations, as well.
"I find myself looking at a number of projects from different locations, which allows me to compete on many levels," observes Geib. "We have more options. We were looking at doing a couple of jobs in New Zealand because when it's winter here, it's summer there. They also have every type of terrain all in a very condensed area."
The deals usually involve a splitting of fees, depending on what work is done. For example, on the eight Jammie Dodgers spots, Twist received both director's and loan-out fees. "If we generate the job," Geib explains, "we'll pay them a production services fee, which can be around ten percent of the project."
Arrangements between stateside and overseas production houses open the door to international agencies for many directors. "If we had not had the connection with Likemind," says Geib, "we probably would not have gotten the Jammie Dodgers spots. And even if we had, we would have had to scramble to find overseas production services."
There are some minor downsides to the deals—in some cases there is a language barrier, and some directors' styles do not play well here, and vice versa—but U.S. production house reps say they choose their deals carefully, looking for philosophical compatibility, a director's specific skill, and the markets they want to penetrate.
"I saw a need to develop some international relationships," recounts Romersa. "While I was in Cannes [for the Cannes International Advertising Festival] last year, I met with Jean Villier, the managing director at The Gang Films. We got along well, and shared similar philosophies. He liked [Reactor director] Steve Chase's work. They also had a number of directors interested in feature productions and liked our contacts. We wanted to represent two of their directors—Rachel and Fabrice Carazo—a husband-and-wife-team. Their spots, while they had an international feel, were not distinctly germane to one country." Romersa reports that he has two feature film offers under consideration for the Carazos through Pan Optic, a management company that is a part of the Stoney Road family. In addition to representing the Carazos, Reactor will rep director Sebastien Chantral in the U.S. Meanwhile, Reactor director Steve Chase gains representation in France through Gang Films (as does director Steve Beck who just joined Reactor—see separate story, p. 1). The companies will provide production support for one another in their respective countries.
"We chose Errecerre because they have a similar philosophy and structure as us. They're more boutique-y, like us," explains Ferraro of Coppos, "and they have terrific directors we're looking at for work here. One of them is Daniel Benmayor. I feel we could secure work for him. He's twenty-eight years old, and went to New York University's film school, speaks perfect English and understands film culture. You can't have directors with an international cultural barrier; dialogue-heavy spots will not help. The clients want visual pieces." Under their arrangement, Errecerre will represent all of the Coppos directors, and vice versa for the Errecerre helmers. Benmayor is currently single-bidding on an international project from FCB New York for an undisclosed client; the job would be shot partly in Spain.
"We try to keep focused on who our sales reps can sell," says Geib. "I am very much a believer in not muddying the choices we offer; we try not to have spillover in the same genre. Overall, what I look for is to match the styles of our company with the tone and texture of the personalities at the other companies."
"We have been approached by a number of European companies worldwide, but we realize there are pitfalls," adds Michael Appel, VP/executive producer at Coppos. "Sometimes they do not seem to be a good fit. They have directors that compete with our directors and that doesn't help them."
Those involved see only positives in the trend, which creates more work for everyone. "This is about getting the best possible opportunities for our directors," observes Ferraro. "You have to be open to finding the best work around the world."
"Sure, I'm concerned about runaway production," Geib acknowledges. "But my first responsibility is to survive as a company. If we can survive and flourish, that's good for everyone. And that means keeping as many options open as possible. What I tell clients is that I live in Minneapolis, but I don't work here. I work all over the world."