INDUSTRY INSIGHTS: Look Who's Rising to Fill the Void Left by Studios: Foreign Sales Companies

By Liza Foreman, The Wrap

As studios have shed their housekeeping deals, emptied their lots of some of the biggest names in production and cut back on almost any film that doesn't smack of tentpole, an unexpected new player is picking up the slack.

Foreign sales companies are jumping in not just to sell but to finance -- and sometimes produce -- projects outside the studio system, among them: Exclusive Media Group, FilmNation, IM Global and Millennium Films.

A slew of newbies have signed up as well, leading more producers to work outside of the studios.

Consider the announcement from the American Film Market in October that 50 new exhibiting companies, many sales entities, were taking part in the annual film bazaar, showing just how much the independent sales companies are growing in the wake of these changes.

“There has been a sea change in producer and financiers' attitudes in working with non-studios,” Chris McGurk (left), MGM’s former vice chairman and now CEO and chairman of Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., told TheWrap.

"We are seeing growth here as the studios cut back on the housekeeping deals," added Jonathan Wolf, who works closely with many of these companies, as the Independent Film & Television Alliance’s executive vice president and the AFM’s managing director. "Entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill that void. They are stepping up to finance more high-profile films, which the studios are not doing.”

Many of these sales companies have long been in the business of leveraging financing from international distributors in order to get films made. But the dizzying number of features that they are now handling, and the caliber of these projects, from the level of the cast to the size of the budget, shows just how they are changing, and how they are making the most of these opportunities.

Take the example of IM Global, led by CEO Stuart Ford. The foreign sales company, half-owned by India-based Reliance Entertainment, has financed movies for a total of $250 million in recent years, including the just-released Wayans comedy "A Haunted House," and other upcoming films slated for wide release including "Bullet to the Head," "Dead Man Down," "Paranoia" and "Walking with Dinosaurs."

Or consider FilmNation, a four-year-old sales, financing and production company run by veteran international film executive Glen Basner. “The studios are making fewer and fewer films that aren't blockbusters," Basner (below) told TheWrap. "We are creating an increasing number of high-profile projects in the independent marketplace.”

In 2012, Film Nation handled sales for “Mirror, Mirror,” with Julia Roberts, Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” and “Looper,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Launched as a full-service film company in 2008, FilmNation anticipates the films it is handling as a sales partner will end up grossing more $400 million in 2012 in the territories they control, which varies by film and often does not include the U.S.