ISA of the Day: Brian O’Shea of The Exchange

By July 14, 2014No Comments

Our International Sales Agent (ISA) of the Day coverage resumed for this year’s Cannes Film Festival. We feature successful, upcoming, innovative and trailblazing agents from around the world (during and after the festival) and cover the latest trends in sales and distribution. Beyond the numbers and deals, this segment will also share inspirational and unique stories of how these individuals have evolved and paved their way in the industry, and what they envision for the new waves in global cinema.   

The Exchange is an international sales and finance company based in Los Angeles and was created by Brian O’Shea who has nearly twenty years of experience in the film industry. The Exchange has an impressive record, and has acquired, financed, produced and/or sold over 140 films (with budgets spanning from five to 90 million) just over the past two years.

Recent success includes the June release of “Obvious Child” and”Supremacy” with Danny Glover, which was picked up for U.S. Distribution following this year’s L.A. Film Festival. The Exchange recently acquired worldwide rights to “Ithaca”, which will be Meg Ryan’s directorial debut and is being executive produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman.

CEO of The Exchange Brian O’Shea talks about an evolving industry, his unexpected entry into sales and distribution, and what inspires him to stay in it.

What is The Exchange focused on?

I’ve been doing this for 19 years. We started this company three years ago, and I own it myself. There are nine of us. The slate is very eclectic, and we’re very filmmaker driven. We also focus on American films that have domestic theatrical releases. It’s not to say anything less of direct video films or TV movies. There’s a business there too, but it’s not what I focus on. I focus on the film markets and festivals. That’s where I need to have the product to be consistent with what my business model is.

What are some recently successful films from The Exchange?

I did “The Spectacular Now”. It wasn’t a big budget, or a manipulative film. It was an honest, authentic slice of life, and it worked both domestically and internationally. We just released “Obvious Child” internationally, and the response to that film has been outstanding.  Those are two very strong filmmakers that have something to say through art, and they said it authentically. Both of these films came out of Sundance.
What changes are you noticing in the film business?

The financial model is changing to support more quality films, as opposed to simply marketing, and there’s a reason for that – it’s the Internet. It’s this transactional, new technology that is allowing for opinions to matter more than the physical experience of walking through a store and seeing box art. It’s the reviews, the over arching word of mouth that comes through the Internet, that allows a business man like myself to focus on sales and moving quality films that matter.

Technology is bringing about a new age of stronger, more authentic filmmaking. The glitz and the glamour of the 80’s and 90’s, and the over saturation of CGI during the 2000’s, have actually dulled the senses. Now, what people are responding to is truth, and strong voices.

You can choose your own information, and you’re not manipulated through advertising or posters. Your phone allows you to find anything at any time in the world from an information standpoint. If a friend tells you, “Wow, “Obvious Child” is really good”, you can Google “Obvious Child” and there will be reviews, tweets and Facebook posts about it. These things can be bought and manipulated, don’t get me wrong… but they’re focused on that review and the consensus of whether it’s good or bad. I think it’s good, and it’s why filmmaking is getting better.

Sundance and Cannes were both strong this year. I think the films were good, and it’s bringing about a market need for strong voices and good filmmaking. Selling a film that only has a famous actor doesn’t work as easily as it did in the past.
Please talk about your entry into the film business.

I’m from Lubbock Texas, and went to college in Worcester Mass. I knew I wanted to be in the arts in some capacity, but I didn’t have it in me to be in front of the camera. I knew that for various reasons that I needed to be behind the camera. That was always on my mind in college.

I went to NY after college and worked as a page at the NBC page program. I went on to be an extras casting director for a woman named Joy Todd, and then I realized how hard it was to live in NY with no money, so I followed my father’s footsteps and went to law school. I then decided to go to Los Angeles and be an entertainment lawyer, which seemed ridiculous at the time. I went there, passed the bar, and started working for Roger Corman. I was in the entertainment business! I was a lawyer and making movies. It was so exciting! I felt great, but I wasn’t really good at it, because I wasn’t very detail oriented. I was doing things like closing deals without paper, but Roger liked me and said, “You’re going to stop being a lawyer, and now you’re going to do sales for me.” That was 19 Cannes Festivals ago, and I’ve never missed one since.
What keeps you going in the industry?

The people in the business keep me in it. It’s conversations like this. My job is to talk about art, about a group of people, to understand how hard it is to make a movie, and to see it come out the other side. It feels good to be a part of the process, and to experience the end product. It’s really difficult, but the people I work with are fantastic. They’re from many different cultures. We share story ideas, and it’s great to spend time with people from the international film community. Even if you don’t share the same language, you can still connect with them when you both see one film and react to it the same way – it’s a bonding experience.

These festivals feel like a high school reunion. In general, people are great, and I always love coming back to see them to see how their lives have changed. Some people just have tremendous success. Some people start as being an assistant, or being an executive, and then move on to start their own company. It’s exciting to see them succeed, and it’s good for business too. When other people succeed and make money in the independent film distribution space, they put the money back into the system to make more films. They have a machine that they have to feed; it’s changing because of the Internet, but everyone is trying to feed the machine.

For example, so many movies have been bought because of the incredible success of the “Lord of the Rings”. I’m sure the success of the “Hunger Games” has supported many buyers in their various forays into different sales companies to buy movies. They made money on “Hunger Games”, and therefore they’re reinvesting it into other companies. In general, it just puts more money back into the system. That’s why you always want to see your competitors do well with good movies, because then it just comes back into the system.
Please talk about the landscape of distributors for those who are new to this world or aren’t working in it.

There’s a finite list of distributors, and it’s changing because of the collapse of video. In our business, there are business-to-business transactions, and we talk to local distributors in various territories about a transaction. The local distributor then looks to the distribution to the consumer. In each territory, whether it’s France, Italy, Germany, Spain, they all have different focuses, whether it’s TV or Theatrical. Within each country, there are different numbers and types of buyers, because each place is developing and contracting. For example, there are many buyers in the USA, because there are many different opportunities for films. It can sound overwhelming to someone who’s not in sales, but a knowledgeable sales agent can quickly narrow it down to the right buyers for a film.

A big budget picture is only going to six to eight buyers. If you’re looking for a smaller budget film, you cross off looking for the studios like Warner Bros, Paramount and so forth. If it’s not a big theatrical film, maybe it’s something for A24, Fox Searchlight, or Sony Classics that might have a smaller theatrical release or go straight to video; then you don’t think of any of the studios, but just their video divisions. This is when you don’t worry about Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics, and focus more on companies like Image. It gets complicated, because the video companies (like Radius, Image, Magnolia, and IFC) are using theatrical platforms to profile the pictures, primarily for video and VOD distribution. There are numerous buyers, but you just have to know, based on the product you have, which group to focus on. And then you never know what can happen, but you just have certain companies that you really focus on, depending on what type of film you have.

Learn more about The Exchange slate here.

Collaborative and transparent, The Exchange is a leading international sales and finance company committed to creating strong relationships between filmmakers, film financiers and distributors through the exchange of product, information and commerce. Created by veteran sales executive Brian O’Shea, the company specializes in high quality, commercial films that appeal to North American audiences and the ever-evolving global film market. In less than two years, The Exchange has acquired, financed, produced and/or sold over 140 films ranging in budgets from $5 million to $90 million, including studio films from Disney, Sony, Fox, and Universal. Such films include Universal’s 2 GUNS, starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg (sold in collaboration with the exclusive sales agent, Foresight Unlimited); 2013 Sundance Award Winner THE SPECTACULAR NOW starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley; THE LAST FIVE YEARS, starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan and directed by Richard LaGravenese; HIGHER GROUND, starring and directed by Vera Farmiga; and YOUNG ONES, starring Nicholas Hoult, Michael Shannon, Elle Fanning and Kodi Smit-McPhee.