UTA’s Bec Smith on working as an agent in LA
Bec Smith (Photo: Dennys Ilic)
Agent Bec Smith – one of IF’s original editors – has enjoyed a steep climb in the industry since she landed in the US in 2007. This year marks her tenth with United Talent Agency, where she represents a client base of 50 writers and directors, a third of which are Australian.
Despite being based out of LA, agent Bec Smith’s role at United Talent Agency still sees her represent a host of Aussie writers and directors. Among them is fellow IF alumni David Michôd, as well as Luke Davies, Garth Davis, Ariel Kleiman, Ben Young and Julius Avery.
As well as her role as in an agent in UTA’s motion picture literary department, as part of the company’s independent film group Smith also focuses on packaging, financing and selling indie films. Some have included The Circle, The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now, The Rover, Son of a Gun, In a World, Don’t Think Twice, Margin Call and Adventureland.
“Agenting in the USA is quite different to agenting in other parts of the world. You get to almost act in a producorial role. You are involved in raising money, distribution rights and travel the world attending festivals and markets,” she tells IF.
Smith is also a frequent speaker and panelist at film festivals including Cannes, Sundance and SXSW, and a mentor through Women in Film.
However, Smith’s entry into industry has humble, Sydney-based beginnings. A trained journalist, she first cut her teeth as a volunteer for IF back in 1998, before later becoming the magazine’s editor.
“I was interested in working in film. I wasn’t sure as what. I thought I wanted to be a writer, maybe even a director, but I didn’t know the first thing about it,” she says.
“[IF] became a passport for asking dumb questions of smart people who knew what they were doing. In a way it was my university; my film school.
“As the years went by I came to understand more about how the industry worked. I spoke to people whose films succeeded and people whose films failed. I learned a lot. All of my relationships in the Australian industry were probably initially forged there and grew out from there. Also a number of my international relationships were formed there too – with directors, financiers and producers – because I covered festivals. ”
During the IF years, Smith began working on Animal Kingdom with her ‘office manager’ and later assistant editor, David Michôd.
Smith ultimately EP’d Animal Kingdom, which took out the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic World Cinema Jury Prize, scored an Oscar nomination for Jackie Weaver and had some 38 wins across festivals around the world.
The gestation of the movie took eight years and many, many, many knock backs. Smith sold the film – which has since has gone on told be packaged and sold as an American TV series – while acting as Michôd’s agent at UTA.
“The win at Sundance was one of the great moments in our careers” says Smith.
“So many things can go wrong. Animal Kingdom ended up exactly in line with what David originally had in mind. It was a spine-tingling moment seeing David receive the success he deserved.”
After six years with IF, Smith worked for The Hollywood Reporter before finally switching teams into the industry, heading development for the Sydney office of Working Title Films.
Around two years later she chose to take a leap of faith and head to the States. With the help of the “Aussie Mafia” and the contacts she’d built, Smith scored a job with UTA.
Chatting to IF from LA, Smith takes us through the lay of the land at the moment.
When you joined UTA what was the brief?
Head out to the major festivals from Cannes to Telluride, watch films and spot talent. Meet and find new talent: writers, directors, producers and actors. Meet all the companies and individuals involved in putting money into film. In other words, become an expert in film financing. Understand what people with money were looking for and work hard to get our clients’ films financed.
Has the brief changed in the past 10 years?
The brief is very similar, but the world has changed now we have Netflix and Amazon. Those platforms did not exist in the way they do now. The ‘slosh’ of private money has continued to be there but the players have changed; companies have come and gone. Television has taken the gaze of a lot of artists who previously wouldn’t have considered doing television. It’s a very exciting medium to directors now and it really wasn’t 10 years ago.
Festivals are still important; there are spots on the journey that weren’t there 10 years ago. China we also spend more time with now.
Was it a conscious decision to agent writers and directors?
I would say that my whole working history has been centered around writing: journalist to magazine editor to development executive. I love ideas and I love writing. I tend to be drawn to people who also love it. I do work with actors but most of the time they are actors who write or direct.
We have a brain drain of Australian directors and writers heading to the USA. How do you feel about your clients returning home for a project, even if the money isn’t as attractive?
Your home is always going to be your home and for most of the artists I work with it’s an important source of inspiration.
I’m fully supportive of artists continuing to tell stories [in Australia]. The only thing is if the powers that be, the government or financiers, can afford to step-up and give those artists a bigger canvas. It’s amazing the Australian Government is giving artists support now. The co-production treaties are allowing co-productions like Lion to happen. Agents are always going to try to get the most money they can get for their client… But in the end, artists make their own decisions.
Have the economics, the packaging, the noise in the market changed since you’ve been in LA? Is it harder to sell films now than it was 10 years ago?
It used to be the case where we never ever had trouble finding a home for a film. Now, even though arguably there are more distributors, the marketplace disruption caused by the likes of Netflix and Amazon means it is harder to sell certain films. There are so many films available for viewing on those platforms. They are getting pickier than they were and then it’s much, much harder for a film to break through theatrically than it used to be. We used to go to the movies once a week and most people don’t do that these days.
Many of the directors we advise at the agency who absolutely want a theatrical release for their movie can’t remember when they actually paid to go see a movie themselves.
It’s just a fact that people are watching movies at home more often and what they tend to see at the movies are event/blockbuster movies. But then, when Lion, a small movie, broke through – it’s marvelous.
So how do you position a golden script; that smaller independent film?
Through festivals, although it is harder these days with some festivals contracting to show less films. There are also more films being made and a ton more competition.
For agents, relationships can be helpful with asking programmers at a certain level to see films and why we love them. But judging no one can influence. Agents don’t have that kind of sway. Any agent who tells you they can get your film into a festival is not being truthful. Those festivals are very staunchly independent and rightly so
If an independent film is picked up, what influence do you/the filmmakers have on the marketing of the film?
I have never had that much success as an agent and I believe it’s a truism for agents: we don’t have influence over the marketing of films. The studio or medium which invested the money and purchased the rights to the film is in charge. Do they sometimes do a crappy job? Absolutely. We’ve all felt the pain. Then I’ve seen incredibly savvy plans. A lot of people might feel they can get a say over marketing.
For the huge majority of filmmakers, they have no say in marketing.
Is that frustrating?
Hugely frustrating. It’s tougher, the market is cluttered. We need the marketing people to be on their game to get the audience.
What else is changing?
There is definitely been shrinking of the window between theatrical and DVD. Piracy is such a big threat to revenue streams. I think studios and consumers want their entertainment when and how they want it.
I did see an interesting swing about five, six years ago via VOD; it was easier to do theatrical and VOD around the same time. But audiences started to see through [and doubt] the quality. Day-on-date became synonymous with “the movie is crap”. Then reviewers stopped seeing and reviewing them. Then actors started to also find it hard when doing publicity saying “the movie is out in theatres tomorrow, or you can stream it from your lounge on the same day.”
One third of your clients are from Australia. Are you looking to add to that client base?
Of course, I look to Australia all the time. It’s my country. I go in about twice a year. It may be a set visit or to see family but I still go in a little early. I haven’t been to the festivals for a long time. But I would love to.
Where do you want to be in 10 years?
I still want to be helping great artists make great work. It’s possible I will end up in a role where my own creative instincts are exercised a bit more. I think that as an agent it’s hard to indulge that side of things. You don’t have time. Maybe in the future it would be possible for agents to be involved in that side. The landscape is changing all the time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article originally appeared in IF’s 20th anniversary edition (#177 June-July).