Why some US sales agents are getting into direct distribution

June 19, 2024

Faced with collapsing windows and an expanding array of digital releasing options, sales agents are moving into US distribution to better serve their filmmaker partners.

Unlike mini-majors Lionsgate, Miramax and STX, whose distribution and sales arms have co-existed for years, companies such as XYZ Films and Highland Film Group developed their sales, production and finance operations first. They see US distribution as complementary and a way to offer a full suite of services.

In June, XYZ Films announced it had hired former Drafthouse Films and Neon COO James Shapiro to head its new US distribution division. The company run by Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer and Aram Tertzakian launched 13 years ago as a production entity and built a reputation for championing elevated international genre fare like Gareth Evans’ The Raid, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, and Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. The trio grew their sales business and recently moved into financing through a $100m production fund established with Finland’s IPR.VC. US distribution was the logical next step.

“As we’ve evolved with the needs of our filmmakers, distribution has always been on the roadmap,” says Bolotin. “We wanted a closer relationship with our filmmakers in a way that would allow us to deliver their movies to the consumer in the most efficient way possible. To be there from development through to distribution was always the goal.”

The expansion comes as the pandemic and the rise of streamers have accelerated the collapse of theatrical windows in the US to the point where the exclusive runway has been cut by almost 50% in the past 18 months, from 75 days to 45. Being able to move fast on a US release has become more important than ever. As XYZ Films’ president of international sales and distribution Tatyana Joffe says: “Having control of the windowing, and working collectively with our key international partners to create marketing campaigns, will greatly contribute to our global release strategy in capturing broader audiences, which will ultimately ensure better performance worldwide.”

With the two divisions working hand-in-glove, Bolotin says the company will be able to weigh up the benefits of multi-territory acquisitions and global acquisitions more efficiently, and craft exclusive theatrical, day-and-date and straight-to-digital releases on in-house and third-party titles. The first film to go will be Something In The Dirt, which is in post and expected to debut in 2022.

Arthouse genre sales agent Yellow Veil Pictures has also opened a US distribution shop and will kick off with the release of Frida Kempff’s Swedish genre title Knocking, followed by Mattie Do’s Laotian title The Long Walk. Co-founder Joe Yanick says the expansion is a natural progression for the bicoastal company, which launched in 2018. Releases will be handled on a case-by-case basis. “We can set all dating to be the most optimal for worldwide partners,” he says. “It gives us immediate insight into where things need to go, how fast things need to move.”

Highland Film Group launched The Avenue, headed by JJ Caruth, in September 2020 and recently opened Pierce Brosnan heist thriller Misfits in US cinemas, followed by TVoD rollout several days later. Highland’s international partners are releasing the film around the same time. “We saw that shift in consumer behaviour [with] people looking for content at home,” says Caruth. “The value of Highland having a domestic distributor for our international partners is that I can provide them with a full suite of marketing assets. We can really be a full-service partner.”

Patrick Ewald, CEO of Epic Pictures, expanded from sales, production and financing into US distribution in 2013 and has released films such as The Wave. Ewald says a day-and-date release with the US works well in English-speaking territories and notes being able to co-ordinate territory releases can mitigate piracy in regions such as Latin America.

“For films we produce, if it makes sense for us to do a deal with a US or a multi-territory distributor, we will sell it,” notes Ewald. “If not, then we know we can distribute ourselves. There’s a benefit to that — as we’re investing in more content, it’s an insurance policy to know that if we don’t get the number we need, we can still release it ourselves and recover some of that investment.”

Jeremy Kay: ScreenDaily