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Sydney Speaks Legalese (sort of!)

Photo of Jared Feldschreiber By Jared Feldschreiber | SydneysBuzz March 4, 2014 at 10:19AM

Lawyer Herald interviewed me. This is an interview I myself am proud of. Hope you like it too:
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Lawyer Herald's Jared Feldschreiber interviewed me.  This is an interview I am proud of.  Hope you like it too:

Sydney Levine at the EFM
Sydney Levine at the EFM

It may be easy to dismiss the film industry as a glitzy and glamor show of millionaires living on an island all to themselves. The international scope of the film business world, however, should not be so easily overlooked. There, one can find a kinetic industry with savvy and passionate wheelers-and-dealers who are very well-versed in areas like acquisition, distribution and producing.

Take for instance the annual American Film Market, which is held every November in Santa Monica. Over 8,000 industry leaders from over 70 countries converge to discuss the "art of the deal," providing the necessary business steps to get films financed and distributed. Those who attend AFM include executives, agents, attorneys, directors, distributors, festival directors, financiers and film commissioners.

Sydney Levine is a seasoned business professional of the screen trade. Carrying nearly 40 years of film business acumen, Ms. Levine has also shown a generosity of spirit, in that she routinely encourages filmmakers and national organizations to achieve their goals of financing, making and selling their films worldwide. She also continues to provide various services to distributors, international sales agents and festival programmers. She also leads seminars and workshops worldwide.

In 1975, Ms. Levine became the first woman to work with international film distribution which she did at 20th Century Fox International. She later became an Acquisitions Executive for Lorimar during the early days of the video industry, and later was Vice President of Acquisitions for Republic Pictures.

In 1988, Ms. Levine founded FilmFinders, the industry's premier database, which tracked worldwide films for acquisition executives. Twenty years later, FilmFinders and its sister company Withoutabox were acquired by International Movie Database (IMDB).

Ms. Levine continues to steadfastly work as an exemplar of film business. Her blog SydneysBuzz, featured on IndieWire, is "the perfect mesh of the film industry where festival, markets and data meet and merge."

Sydney Levine
Sydney Levine

Here, in an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Lawyer Herald by Jared Feldschreiber, Sydney Levine has provided her insights, which speak to the multifaceted dynamism of the film business world.

Lawyer Herald : Describe your ascent within film business, with particular emphasis of the acquisition, distribution, producing and the selling. What were your primary responsibilities in the beginning of your career?

Sydney Levine : After my early years in the film business in L.A., I was hired to acquire films - first shorts, then great international art-house features for Lorimar Home Video, the largest independent video company when video was at its height working with such theatrical distributors as Orion Pictures Classics (now Sony Pictures Classics). Responsibilities at Lorimar and later Republic Pictures included tracking all new films, screening those most likely to fit my company's profile, working within the company to create sales projections, negotiating within and with the outside rights owner, creating the deal memo, and then working with our company's attorney to be sure key points were included in the contract.

LH: Fast forward twenty years when you created FilmFinders, the industry's premier database for acquisition executives. What did that venture entail?

SL: When video reached its maturity - or rather hit a wall - I created the first database in the business which tracked every new film, info on story, director, writer, producer, cast and contacts, international rights availabilities for all 60 territories. Most international sales agents and distributors around the world subscribed to it and it kept my company thriving from 1988 to 2006 for 20 years until we merged with Withoutabox and sold the new entity to IMDb, an Amazon company.

LH : What are the financial 'risks' associated with film distribution? Give the breakdown of 'all things considered' when turning a piece of art, such as film, into a viable financial product?

SL : This is a lecture or a consulting question I answer all the time. When national economies have problems, which they invariably do, money that was seen as "normal" suddenly disappears. Film, when it is an art (sometimes it is purely entertainment), is still a "popular" art or a "commercial" art. It must be seen, people must pay for seeing it so that the rights owner can recoup the cost of the "product", make a profit, which gives the producer, director or the writer the reputation to continue to make more movies.

LH : How does an aspiring film artist bridge the gap between his vision and the realities of commercialism?

SL : The gap is between creativity and commerce. Distribution is commerce. "If it doesn't spread it's dead," to quote my favorite transmedia guru, Henry Jenkins. The artist must keep in mind the end user/ audience from the moment she or he conceives of the idea through completion and must find the middlemen/ women who understand the end-user mentality and so want to be a part of the commercial side of the movie.

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LH: Give a breakdown to the legal ramifications of international film.

SL : All I can say is that all rights - from music, synchronization, scripts, even a poster or piece of art in the film must have legal clearance BEFORE the film is seen by the public.

LH: What legal hurdles do you face constantly as a film distributor?

SL: Collecting money.

LH: Film icon Francis Coppola said in a 2009 interview that "in the early days... they didn't know how to make movies. They had an image and it moved and the audience loved it... The cinema language happened by experimentation by people not knowing what to do. But unfortunately, after 15-20 years, it became a commercial industry. People made money in the cinema, and then they began to say to the pioneers, 'Don't experiment. We want to make money. We don't want to take chances.'

In light of these remarks, what are the inherent differences and perhaps mistrust between a film's financier/ distributor and the film artist?

SL: The business is an art in itself which outside business people cannot understand. It is very volatile when artists and business people mix. Coppola is full of it because true filmmakers are still artists today and they are still working at creating the world through moving pictures. The major studios are running another sort of "business" where their bottom line is rarely the film itself but all the accoutrements, ancillary merchandising, games, amusement parks, real estate business which uses a big vehicle called a Motion Picture as the locomotive to pull the rest. The studios are not in the business of making art, though occasionally a work of art does get made, but rarely. Art does not make enough money for them.

LH : What kinds of things do you perform with buyers and sellers abroad?

SL: I still work with buyers, sellers and more importantly the market during Cannes and Berlin, where I work with them on their database (Cinando, which I gave to Jerome Paillard, the director of the Cannes Marche, when he started that job) and I make sure buyers from North and South America and now Asia (except for China) are updating their acquisitions and qualifying for the markets in Cannes and Berlin.

LH: How important is legal representation for those working in film business?

SL: A producer, however experienced in deal making, should never undertake to negotiate a deal without a lawyer speaking for her or him, and every lawyer, no matter how experienced, needs to know the particular desires of his or her client in order to translate the wishes into legal terms.


LH: What are you planning on doing leading up to the Oscars?

SL: Go to the German pre-Oscar party at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, going to Spirit Awards of Film Independent and the IFC after-party in Santa Monica California.

LH: On the subject of the Oscars, what does it mean when people speak of its 'politics?' How does this cliche apply during awards season? What sort of cajoling, persuading or influence do studios or publicists have in shaping who will win?

SL : Politics is the art of persuading people, manipulating the right one at the right time. It helps if you are "one of the guys" of course, but that is not the point of politics. Knowing what critics to approach before the Academy Awards for instance, is an issue because it feeds into the perception of the Academy members when they look at films.

Col Needham (Founder and CEO of IMDb), Sydney Levine (SydneysBuzz) and Jérôme Paillard (Cannes Marché du Film Executive Director) Credit: SydneysBuzz.com
Col Needham (Founder and CEO of IMDb), Sydney Levine (SydneysBuzz) and Jérôme Paillard (Cannes Marché du Film Executive Director) Credit: SydneysBuzz.com

Some like particular kinds of films and even particular critics, and others do not like those, so you need to know which publicist to choose, and the publicist must know which critics to invite to which screenings and why that is the case, which of course, depends on which films one is handling.

LH: Can the voting be deduced into a kind of 'cronyism,' to borrow another term in politics?

SL: Knowing what sort of "inducements" are legal, knowing what Academy members to invite (when in theory you don't have any real list of members), this is politics. Lots of stuff called politics goes into an Academy Awards' campaign and it is not "cronyism" which wins. Sometimes people think politics is cronyism and it is to a degree, but there are lots of members of the Academy. Some vote early on, some vote later.  (To readers, this interview was done before the Oscars.  Looking back at the Oscars, I wonder if The Wolf Of Wall Street was shut out because the company behind it - Red Granite - was such an outsider.  But that does not answer why American Hustle also failed to reap any recognition.)

LH: What are you working on right now and where are you?

SL: I am writing a book with the backing of El Patronato de Guadalajara on Iberoamerican Film Financing. I am teaching International Film Marketing, Sales and Distribution at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. I am also blogging for IndieWire and ImdbPro, working with the Cannes and European Film Markets.  I am currently in Berlin. My partner, Peter Belsito is consulting with film producers, festivals and countries on strategies for entering the market.

LH: What adjectives (or expletives) would you use to describe the marriage of film and business?

SL: Volatile, risky, sometimes impossible, sometimes very difficult.

*This interview was originally published in LawyerHerald.com

This article is related to: Sydney Levine , SydneysBuzz, Cinando , Cannes Film Festival, Cannes Market, Berlin International Film Festival, EFM (European Film Market, International Film Market, International Film Business, International Film Festival, International Sales Agent, Academy Awards, Oscar Academy Award, Lawyer Herald , FilmFinders

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