Conversation with Aleksandra Abykova (m-appeal)

During 31st Warsaw Film Festival we talked to Aleksandra Abykova representing Berlin-based sales agent m-appeal. Aleksandra took part in CentEast Market which consisted of Eastern European work-in-progress presentations and screenings of completed Polish films.

Could you introduce your company for a start?

Our company was founded in 2008. We are a sales agent for art house cinema. We have films from all over the world with special interest in the region of Latin America, East Europe and recently South East Asia. We also have a great focus on LGBT cinema. Movies concerning queer subjects constitute 1/3 of our line–up. Right now there are 6 people working in m-appeal so we are a midsize company.  We take up to 10 or 12 titles per year. We work mostly with first features because we love to work with young filmmakers, discover new talents all over the world. We want to nurture them, give them opportunity to be seen and to launch their filmmakers career. Usually we also would like to stay in touch with the filmmaker that we discovered for the next work establishing ongoing relationship, making him our “auteur”.

We like art house, auteur cinema, everything that is new, innovative, has an interesting topic or story, speaks to us somehow. It’s always based on our own preferences but of course we also need to see if the movie can work commercially. If we see that the movie is maybe a bit conventional  but it can work for audiences worldwide and we like it somehow we would still work with it. On the other hand if the movie that we like a lot is very difficult and we are aware of its low commercial potential we would still take it because it’s something that inspires us. So the important thing is that the decision is individual for each film.

What are the other qualities that you look for?

The visual style is very important. We try to avoid the TV style movies or something that is made just for a small TV screen or laptop. It should be a piece made for cinemas, for big screen. We prefer visuals that have a kind of a cinematic language. Of course we also want to see something new and innovative but it doesn’t happen that often so  it’s not the most important thing. In terms of stories we are interested in contemporary plotlines – things that concern people nowadays or if it’s not a current topic it should resonate with the wider audience worldwide. Mostly urban stories I would say but not necessarily.

Did you find those qualities in works-in-progress projects presented at CentEast 2015?

Yes, definitely. In terms of stories and the visual style these projects were very well selected. They corresponded to what we look for in cinema. Their quality was very good. The question is if they have commercial potential and can be sold worldwide but it’s hard to say right now. We contacted ourselves a couple of producers and the couple of producers contacted us. So in the end we met almost everyone. We will see the whole films after we go back to our offices. Not all of them are ready yet so we’ll keep in touch with the producers and see later on what the end result is.

Did you see any completed films from Warsaw Screenings?

We saw these films before the market. We are usually in touch with Polish producers so we often see the movies even before they are finished always trying to be updated with the Polish works. We saw a lot of films presented at Warsaw Screenings during summer. We were considering couple of titles but in the end we passed.

In your catalogue from Polish titles you have only The Christening and Tricks – both not the newest Polish productions.

We are very selective because we take only 10 to 12 movies per year. But we try to watch everything that is out there covering the whole worldwide film production. So it happened that we haven’t had anything from Poland recently but it doesn’t mean that we’re not interested. We always keep watching everything from Poland and hopefully we will pick something up after CentEast that presented very promising projects.

Do you read and answer every e-mail that is sent to you?

We read all of them. If we see that we get a mass e-mail sent for example to everyone at a big market and we know that there are 500 other people in CC we often skip those replies. But usually if we get a personal e-mail saying “I would like you to see our film” with some information attached we try to get back to that person. Sometimes we don’t do it immediately and the response can be delayed but we try to avoid that kind of situations.

In the first e-mail it’s better to introduce yourself and send some basic information about the film than to give us a link. Sometimes it’s clear from the treatment that we are not interested so we can say “No” immediately.

At which stage should be the film to introduce it to you?

We work with films at all possible stages. We even co-produced two films last year so we were there from the beginning. But actually the best moment is the rough cut stage – we see the finished product and we know what to do with it. Projects that the sales agent are involved in from the beginning often give totally different outcome than expected. Of course we like to give our feedback and be involved as early as possible but it requires a lot more work from our side and we do not always have the capacities. That’s why we do it only with selected projects. From our point of view watching films at rough cut stage is more efficient.

Are you interested in documentaries and animations as well?

We don’t deal with animations and we usually don’t pick up documentaries. We sometimes take LGTB documentaries with queer topics because we already have the slate for LGBT cinema in our line-up so it’s just something that adds to that. But if we took for example an environmental or sports documentary we wouldn’t know what to do with it because it’s a completely different market and we don’t have the capacities to reach it.

How does the selection process in your company look like?

It’s quite simple, quite democratic. Of course the managing director has the last word. But sometimes if Maren doesn’t like the film but everyone else do like it the film also has some chances. Usually we don’t have this problem – we have different tastes but we still have the same understanding of cinema. So in the end it’s not that we have to fight over a film. Even if we don’t have the same opinions we share the idea of what is going to work and what is not going to work.

Do you discuss your strategy with the producer?

We discuss the sales strategy with the producer at the very beginning. The producers are aware of how we work and everything is also reflected in the contract. After signing it basically we travel, go to markets and try to sell the film as best as possible. Our priority is to sell theatrical rights because for an art house movie the most important  thing is to be shown in theatres around the world. But it doesn’t always work and it also gets more difficult because of the market changes. There’s a lot of new media. Sometimes we can get only TV or VoD deals. If we see after one or two years of work that we’ve exploited or explored all the possibilities for theatrical release we use other release windows.

For how long do you sign the contract with the producer?

For 10 years.

Is the director active with the promotion of the film important to you somehow?

Yes, of course it makes a difference. There are two aspects. The first one is festivals. It’s good if the director travels – at least to big festivals with the premiere status, takes part in Q&As, gives interviews. Then there is another part when the movie finds distribution in a certain country. It’s very good if the distributor has a help or support of the director who for example gives interviews to local newspapers, radio.  In every country it’s individual so we just put the director and the local distributor in touch and we make sure that they communicate and the promotion process goes smoothly.

Is it difficult to sell Polish film in Germany?

Yes, definitely. But in Germany it’s generally very difficult to sell anything that is not mainstream. The tendency in all countries is the same. Distributors prefer to buy films either with big names or set in big festivals such as Cannes or Berlin and everything else they try to avoid somehow. But sometimes we sell a small movie to theatrical distribution in art house cinemas in Germany or France or UK and then we’re really happy with our work.