As the former Head of Acquisitions at MGM Studios, she has vast experience purchasing films across Europe, Middle East & Africa. Tania has also held the position of director of international sales for Carnaby International working on both theatrical and non-theatrical productions, whilst also being responsible for negotiating film distribution sales to worldwide territories.
As if that wasn’t enough, she has experience with the worldwide distribution of independent films as the Head of Sales at Arrow Entertainment and as VP of International Sales with Stealth Media Group. Business of Film Magazine named her as a Top Up & Coming Film Executive in 2015 and Screen International named her a Future Leader in 2014.
Since then, aside from producing, Tania has gone on to consult as a member of the advisory board for the London Film Academy, been a prominent panelist at major film festivals, and the guest of honour at Marche du Film Producer’s Breakfast at the Cannes Film Festival.
After her tenure as a notable female studio-head, she decided to leave mainstream commercial studios to carve out her own position in the film industry making films that particularly shine a light on injustices in the world. Tania looks for films that really catch her interest in the social realism genre as an executive producer, in the hopes of opening our eyes to the life experiences of others.
Tania Sarra also coaches independent filmmakers through every aspect of the filmmaking process, from script development to pitching a movie to major studios via Hot Sauce For Film. Her other equal and great passion is promoting and empowering women in film via her newest venture, the Global Women in Film Club which runs an invaluable remote networking opportunity for female filmmakers to connect and potentially produce movies together in future.
FF [Richard]: Welcome to Film Forums. And today, I’m joined by my co-host Aiysha Jebali and special guest Tania Sarra…
TS: I’m so excited to be doing this with you guys. Thanks so much for having me.
How to get distribution and speak the language of executives
FF [Richard]: So, you’re the creator of Hot Sauce For Film. Can you tell us what Hot Sauce is all about, why you started it, and why the name?
TS: All really good questions. I guess I’ll take a step back. My background is in film distribution, I’ve worked as a global sales agent and studio buyer for the last 12 years. I got to work with amazing big, commercial films and witness prestige indie fare.
Along the way, I started to see this gap in the market where really talented creatives with incredible stories to tell were not positioning them properly, essentially not giving the executives what they want and need to hear in order for them to be convinced of their idea. And it’s obviously a tough industry, the film industry, but it was so hard to watch these brilliant creatives fall through the cracks because they just weren’t positioning their projects properly. Even risky ideas can appeal to a film executive, you’ve just got to know what they’re looking for and how to tap into that and speak their language.
I’ve been a guest speaker at so many festivals and educational institutions, and you see their curriculum, and it’s missing film distribution. And I always say it’s not called the film business for no reason, it is a business and business takes precedent.
And so, it’s tapping into that ethos that I felt was really what these amazing creatives needed access and exposure to, and information that they could trust from a reliable source. Taking that plus my passion for wanting to tell stories that have a human impact, which can be quite difficult to convince the studio to do. I thought why not go and use all of my amazing experience and how privileged I’ve been to sit in the rooms I’ve been able to sit in, and my network, and lend it to these creatives and do it in a friendly way.
I believe knowledge is power, so I’m quite passionate about equipping creatives, filmmakers and up-and-coming executives with that knowledge so that they can have the confidence to develop their ideas and do it in a way that speaks the language executives want to hear. And in turn, promote their ongoing success and help them advance their careers.
Hot Sauce for Film: the story behind the name
All of that combined to create Hot Sauce, which I launched in October 2020 and it’s been received so well. I just feel so blessed to have the positive response that I’ve had to it. The name is a bit…it actually came from a Beyonce song, where she says, ‘I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag’. I was thinking about names for a company and what it is when you go into a meeting, it’s like that secret sauce that helps you nail that pitch, that finance deal and so forth. And as you can tell, although I’ve worked in quite corporate environments, I’m not immensely corporate and so I wanted something that was a brand or a name that was really inviting and spoke to who I am. And I’m not spicy by any means. But I do think there’s a cheekiness to it that lends well to my personality, and the experience that people have when they work with me.
FF [Richard]: I think that really comes across on your website as well. If anyone goes and visits it, it’s immediately not a stuffy, unfriendly, difficult, inaccessible place to be. It’s really visually impressive and it’s concise but informative at the same time. It does what it says on the tin.
One of the things I noticed on the site, which really stood out to me, it says you, ‘Provide access to information about the film industry you can’t find anywhere else’. That’s such a bold statement, but clearly you can back that up.
TS: Yeah, it’s crazy when you think about the filmmakers, creatives, anyone who goes to film school. I don’t have those technical skills, I can’t go and do any of that. But then they’re left holding the baby, so to speak. After they create it’s like, what do you do with it and how do you know what to do with it? Where do you go?
And so I’m trying my best, with what I’m doing, to show people where you can go and where to find that information. I also provide free 45-minute consultations for people. Again, that’s just a way to open the doors in an engaging way, and in a welcoming way. No matter where you are in your career, you’re welcome to tap into me and I’ll help as much as I can. I’m really trying to democratise the film industry in that sense, make it really accessible to everyone.
What it’s like to be Director of Acquisitions for MGM
FF [Richard]: According to your LinkedIn profile, you spearheaded all the feature film buying for MGM Studios across Europe, Middle East and Africa in recent years. Can you give us an insight into your role as a former studio exec at MGM? I think our listeners, readers and watchers will find that really interesting.
TS: Yeah. Well, when it comes to distribution, it’s interesting because I think not even my mom still knows what I do. She’s like, ‘I know what you do, but what do you do? Like, what do you actually do?’
The way I sort of break it down is that anywhere you see content, legally, that platform has to have the right to show that content. And so, there’s a whole other side of the industry where rights are bought and sold and traded for a monetary value. And my job as a buyer at MGM was to be across all the projects in the marketplace and understand what MGM’s partners needed and wanted across Europe, Middle East and Africa, territory by territory, and finding products and sourcing products that would suit those needs. At the very, very basic level.
I often bought on script and I would also buy completed films or rough-cut ones that are showing privately at a film market, before being shown to the public or doing the festival circuit, and evaluate them. Everything has value. I think film is such a creative art form but, in the business, it’s a product. So how will that product resonate with our partners and the audiences within each territory?
So, I would make those evaluations based on cast, subject matter, tone, the director involved and the quality of the content as well. Weigh that against what I know my numbers are in all those territories and go out and make deals happen and then buy product.
And then on the other side, when you want to have the rights to a movie, then there’s a whole bunch of work that goes into, not just legally, taking that product and getting it to a partner in let’s say Germany, and then having that partner show it to their audience. So, there’s a whole process of material delivery like DCP, the film materials, marketing materials, artwork. I would oversee and work with the teams within MGM, that would handle that. There’s a lot of dates and timelines, contractually, that have to be met. So it was my job to keep track of all those things to ensure that we were meeting timelines and adhering to our contractual obligations.
And then on top of that, it’s the relationships with our partners in every territory as well, what they need and keeping track of where we’re at volume wise of what we promised we’d give them. So it’s a lot, actually, that goes on behind the scenes from the inception of the start of a project to its journey to how it actually hits an audience. Even at the studio level, it’s really complex.
FF [Richard]: Wow, okay, that’s just an incredible role that you had to fulfil and a lot of pressure on your shoulders, I would have thought.
TS: You know, I never saw it as too much pressure to be honest with you. I love what I do. And I think if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter that there’s problems. I always say, what sort of problems do you want in your life and sort of the stress that comes with a job that you love and enjoy, and that pressure. To me, I never saw it that way. It was just sort of a part of the job and seeing it through.
And to be honest with you, in the film industry, people think executives are actually really tough and mean, and there are a lot of stories of that. But what makes my job most fulfilling is all the people that I get to work with. This industry is filled with such great people on the distribution side. And so, for the most part, I’m dealing with my friends, making deals with friends of mine over the last 12 years. It’s actually not as much pressure as one thinks. I think if you’re organised as an individual, it’s all right. I loved it. I love what I do, I have so much passion for it.
Helping up-and-coming filmmakers and making the film industry more accessible
FF [Aiysha]: What different services do you offer, and what’s included in that?
TS: Yeah, gosh, there’s so much that I offer. I just want to say that what I offer is for people, no matter where they are in their career. You don’t have to be a filmmaker with five films under your belt to come to me, or even two, most of the people I work with are first or second time filmmakers. It’s a real immense pleasure to meet them at that stage, because I can help them build the foundational knowledge. As they scale their career, they’re doing it in a way that is beneficial to themselves, as well as the broader film community and they’re well equipped to be able to do it with the business context.
I do everything from script consulting, to pitch deck doctoring, to distribution strategy. I provide negotiation support, I’m not a lawyer but I’ve dealt with enough agreements in my life that I can provide advice about tactical negotiation strategy. And I know all the ways to navigate clauses in a way that’s friendly to both parties but so that people are protected, so I provide a bit of guidance there.
And then I have services which are a bit more long running. Full on development guidance, essentially shepherding a project from the creative direction perspective, the early stages of development through script to pitch deck, and then they go off and make their project.
I do full EP services as well. So that’s literally from start to finish, overseeing a project from an executive producer perspective; securing finance, distribution, putting together co-production deals, overseeing finance plans, being a part of the actual physical production, keeping track of dailies, ensuring things are moving along in a way that match my initial projections of the film that we worked on in development. Then through to post and the journey that goes after that.
So there’s quite a lot I offer, and it’s all very much focused on the business side. During the process of all of the services, what’s most important to me is that I’m really imparting knowledge on the people I work with. It’s not like, ‘Hey, come, I’ll do it all for you’. I’m there holding their hand along the way. I always say that if someone never has to hire me again, then I’ve done my job right. It’s really about equipping people with the knowledge so that they have the confidence to do this on their own.
Top tips for creating a successful pitch deck
FF [Aiysha]: One of the things that you talk about a lot on your social media, and we’ve spoken about privately as well, is the importance of pitching and how to make a good pitch deck. And you gave away a fantastic free resource as a PDF to give people a little bit guidance on that.
If you were to give your top three tips, what would they be in regards to pitch decks?
TS: For pitch decks, be as concise but as detailed as possible. Think about who your audience is. If you’re pitching this to an executive, or even a financier, these are extremely busy people. And so no one has time to read a 3,4,5,6,7 page synopsis in a pitch deck. Your pitch deck is an introduction to your film. So what your pitch deck does is sell an executive on an idea enough that they’re interested to ask for the script.
It’s about creating the world without convoluting the information and making it really easy and digestible for people to walk through. That’s sort of my number one thing that I always tell people. In the free resource that you mentioned, I very much emphasise in there to keep it to one page. If you want people to absorb it the way you’re putting it on the paper, well then make it easy for them to do it, especially executives.
The amount of pitches that we receive and scripts, it’s insane. You don’t want to get lost in that, you want to make it easy for people to navigate that and actually be drawn to what you’re putting out there as opposed to like, ‘Whoa, this is overwhelming screw this, I’m going back to emails’.
The second thing I see quite consistently when it comes to pitch decks and a place where people usually get it wrong, is when they comp films. So there’s different types of comps, there’s story comps, tone and visual comps, and there’s business comps. And so it’s important to ensure that you’re being specific when you’re using comps, story comps are great.
How to comp a film
FF [Richard]: For those who don’t know, what do you mean by comps?
TS: Okay, comps are also known as comparable films. Comp is just a short form term that the industry uses. Comparable films are films which are comparable on different levels. There are comparable films from a story level, so if you’re making a movie that’s based on some sort of monster-esque figure falling in love, like Beauty and the Beast type thing, you might reference Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water (2017). As an independent film, that’s only applicable as a story comp, because I’m sure we’re not making it on the budget he had, and it’s not being done under a studio with studio marketing. It’s unrealistic to comp story against business in that sense.
In my pitch deck workshop, I actually go into quite a lot of detail about that and the seven factors of a business comp. There are things like the budget level has to be similar, the cast level has to be similar, the level of director, the anticipated form of distribution. Generally, a first-time filmmaker in independent film is likely not going to get universal main labels distribution, they might get Focus Features, the more specialty label. And that means a different level of distribution, a smaller marketing budget, and the breadth of which an audience will show up is really dependent on its exposure.
One area where people get it really wrong is how they comp their films. And it actually works in reverse for them, because it shows that you don’t really understand the industry. And as a result, what we’re looking for in a pitch deck and what executives are looking for when we meet with people, the road to making a film is a long road, it’s a two to three year process and so, we have to work together for that long. And we’re also giving a lot of money to people in order for them to work on their project. So it’s about having the comfort of knowing that the person you’re working with, one is going to be a really good, trusted and reliable partner. And two, your money is safe in their hands, and they know what they’re doing. They have a scope of understanding about the business and what’s important to an executive.
The third thing that people get wrong in a pitch deck is not identifying the format of their project, it’s actually a really big thing to be completely honest with you. There are so many different forms of media these days. And so being clear if it’s a TV series, is it limited, is it a reoccurring series, miniseries, is so important. If it’s a feature film, what’s the genre? What stage is the project in, is it development or is it script stage? Where are you at with things and being able to communicate that?
It’s very often not included properly in things. I think filmmakers do it because they’re afraid that if they don’t have enough there, that an executive will be dissuaded from having any interest in the project. But that’s not true. There might not be immediate interest, but there might be follow up interest and so you can’t really pull much over an executive’s eyes. The amount of projects that we see, we kind of know everything and we’ve seen all the tricks and so being honest and forthright with where you are in your project is actually the best thing you could do.
FF [Aiysha]: Fantastic. Thank you so much for that. It’s like a wealth of knowledge there, that’s amazing.
Hot Sauce for Film success stories
FF [Richard]: Have you had any feedback from creative students, actors, directors, writers who’ve taken your course or workshop, and then after that they secured a role or something’s happened for them in their career?
TS: It’s actually the most fulfilling part of my job, when I get emails from people that I’ve worked with. There was one producer who took my first pitch deck workshop and she had actually done a consult with me prior to it. She’s a successful working producer so she’s done a ton of pitch meetings and she’s gotten stuff off the ground on the TV side and on the feature film side. And she actually is really good at pitching. She’s pitched me before, when I worked at the studio.
She took my course and she started to learn so much about it, mostly about the comping and the business side and all of that. She had the creative side down, but not the business side, even with her experience of going through the process of selling films and distribution and so forth. You really don’t get to go behind the scenes even when you are being successful with your projects.
She took so much away from it. She had a pitch like a month later, and I got an email from her basically saying, ‘I incorporated everything that I learned from your course, they’ve picked it up right away, they’re doing this, they also want to make it into a podcast’. So many doors opened for her simply because she positioned her project properly from a business perspective. And it just made my heart smile so much because that’s all I want to do, is help people have that level of success and confidence. And she just nailed it. And there’s been another one since, that she actually hired me to help with that she was successful with.
I’ve actually had quite a few people, post working with me, come back with major broadcasters or studios picking up their projects after I helped them tweak their script and put together their pitch materials. You can see the smile on my face, it just brings me so much joy. There’s been a lot of success from the people that I’ve worked with. Which is really cool. Really cool.
FF [Richard]: Well, that’s really one of the ultimate goals, isn’t it? I mean, if everyone attended your course and got a lot out of it creatively, but actually nothing came from it from a measurable point of view, then that may not be ideal. But I wasn’t surprised to hear you say that. I suspected that would be the case. So that’s fantastic.
Global Women in Film Club: a lifeline during the pandemic
During the Covid-19 pandemic, you co-founded the Global Women in Film Club to offer women in the film industry networking opportunities. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
TS: Yeah, so that’s actually just a little side thing that I did with a couple of my girlfriends who also work in film. One is a director, the other one is a producer and an actress. It actually came about because they had a short film that they were developing and asked me to take a look at it. And I resonated so much with the material that I asked to be a part of it. The first thing that I do any time I’m looking at material is, it’s being comped in my head constantly. I can’t watch TV or watch a film without this process going on. [laughs]
It’s always important to watch comps and look at story comps, tone and visual comps. We put together a list of all these different types of comps and thought it would be good to get other people’s feedback on the genre and subject matter. And so my girlfriend was like, ‘Why don’t we start a film club?’ And we did.
It started in the second week of the pandemic, and it’s proceeded every week since. Now we’re on twice a month, just simply because as things have opened up, people’s schedules have gotten busier. We surveyed the group, and they were like, ‘Two times a month is great’. But I think we have over 100 people who come to this, women from all over the world, different disciplines. There are some people who don’t even work in film but have taken away so much from it.
I find it so inspiring, the way these amazing women talk about films and how we look at them from a technical perspective, from an idea perspective, from what they’re trying to say, and how well they do it. Sometimes it’s offensive, sometimes films get adverse reactions, sometimes we get emotional. But I think the best thing about the Global Women in Film Club is that there’s a real community. And there’s so much support and love there that every single one of those women, I’m so blessed to know them and I know that I can call on them at any time due to the friendships that we’ve built virtually thanks to zoom and technology. And that’s the best thing about it.
I’ve gotten emails from people throughout the pandemic, saying that the film club has literally been their lifeline and without it, they don’t know how they would have made it through. Without the community and the calls and the discussions and just knowing that that support is there for them. And so it’s this small thing that was just like, ‘Let’s have people watch comps and talk to us about them and basically do test screenings of comps’, that has grown into this really organic, lovely community filled with women who are just fantastic.
And the fact that people get so much out of it, it’s just remarkable. And it warms my heart. It’s something that actually, I’m quite proud of. I can’t take full responsibility for it, I do it with two other girls. And we all pull our weight because there’s weekly newsletters and those sorts of things. And we do coffee, roulette networking sessions, randomly pairing up girls, because we’re doing this in a group setting, in order to really enhance the networking perspective. It’s all been great, I’ve met so many great people.
FF [Richard]: Is it invite only, how can people join?
TS: It’s not really invite only. It’s one of those things where, if you know someone that’s cool, like a likeminded badass chick, forward this email, send her the link, tell her to sign up. So it’s open to sort of anybody.
We do keep it strictly for women, because there are films that come up that target female issues on a very sensitive level. And like I said, it has gotten emotional at times. And so just to protect the integrity and keep it a safe environment for women, not to say that men can’t participate in it, but it’s the reason why we limit it to women. There have been some really tough and difficult conversations that have triggered some women and I think we want to keep it a safe space. But it’s firstname.lastname@example.org or you can email me email@example.com with an interest in joining the club. I’d be more than happy to share the links, and forward on the newsletter so you could see what the next film is and sort of how it works. It’s really open to anybody.
What draws an executive producer to a film?
FF [Aiysha]: You mentioned that you’re heavily involved in four films at the moment. Could you just expand on that a little bit and also maybe let us know what it is that attracts you to certain films that makes you want to be involved to that degree?
TS: Yeah. So as we were talking before, I started Hot Sauce with two streams of business. One was educational with the workshops and courses, the free resources, Instagram page which gives out a ton of strategy and advice. Now, we have a newsletter and headlines of the week if you’re on our mailing list. So that was a huge focus, the educational component.
And then the other side was the one-on-one consulting, I had no intention to have a film slate. But this is the thing about life and the reason why I always tell people that I work with and anyone, just move forward. We have no idea how life is gonna ebb and flow and where things are going to go so just be open to opportunities and possibilities, whatever and wherever they may take you. And Hot Sauce has taken me to a film slate.
This all came about from the clients who hired me for one-on-one services, I suppose were impressed, and approached me to fully EP their film. That is a service I provide, but they have all come via starting with one-on-one services and then asking to have me more involved. So that’s really cool.
I have four films that I’m either executive producing or developing as a creative director, a TV series and two short films now. I talk to my friends who are other executives, and they think this is really awesome and really needed so executives are like, ‘Thank you, Tania for taking a step forward and doing this for filmmakers because it’s gonna help them so much and help us find better talent.’ And also help the film industry get better ideas out there and more diverse ideas.
But it really comes down to chemistry, to be completely honest with you. It’s really cool finding undiscovered talent and there’s so much great undiscovered talent out there. So the way I choose the projects to onboard on an EP perspective, I have to resonate with the subject matter. It has to be something that personally I believe in.
Going back to what I said previously, making a film is a long process and if you’re not passionate about it, even about the film industry, it’s a tough business. It’s a tough process. You have to really love what you’re doing. And so, on a very personal level, I have to just love what the story is trying to say and what it’s trying to do.
I’m most keen to find creatives. Listen, it’s really easy to go out there and make your cookie cutter action thriller, someone will pick it up, it’ll go straight to VOD, you’ll make some money off of it, maybe, if you do it for the right budget and go to town. And I love those movies, don’t get me wrong. I’m a very commercially oriented person, working on studio films, like 80-million-dollar Mark Wahlberg stuff was really cool. But it’s not going to change the world. And I don’t think I’m this big, holier than thou person that’s like, ‘Oh I can change the world’. But films and content have the ability to do that, and that’s the type of content that I want to support. That’s what I want to use all of my expertise and my network for. And so that’s sort of the second criteria.
And the third and the most practical is, is there a space for this in the global marketplace? Is this content people want to see and what they want to watch? Because at the end of the day, I’m not just coming on to a project for fun, if I believe in something, I’m going to make it happen. I do the comping and all the business evaluation in my head, and I’m like, ‘Okay, who’s gonna buy this where?’ And I do all those sorts of calculations. I always think of it like Tom Cruise when he’s moving all those things around in Minority Report (2002). That’s what goes on in my mind when I’m looking at a project. And if that all lines up and I feel that there’s really something there, big or small, it doesn’t have to have massive distribution, but there has to be a space for it somewhere. If it ticks all those three boxes, then I’m like, ‘Let’s do this, make this happen. Let’s get to work’.
To be honest, that’s the reality. I think when you’re working at a studio, or for a company, that your personal opinion is not the first one. It has to be what is best for the company and what we do, and what content we focus on and what our partners want. But that’s the great thing about starting your own business, you’re your own boss, you just make your own decisions. I get to choose the things that I actually really like personally. That combined with material that I resonate with, and its ability to penetrate the global marketplace successfully would be the three things I really look for.
And as I said, big or small, it doesn’t matter if it’s English language or not. I have one film that’s a Mexican horror film, another one that’s an Italian film, the other ones are English language. But it doesn’t matter about language, especially these days. The international films, finally people are starting to see them for what they are, because there are so many good foreign language films out there. Slowly but surely, people are getting more used to watching them, thanks to honestly Netflix, Money Heist, stuff like that. All of a sudden, people are like, ‘Okay, I don’t mind stuff that’s not done in the English language’. And I think it’s been a real positive. I think it will continue to grow.
Presenters: Richard Williams & Aiysha Jebali
Transcription & Editor: Keren Davies
Artwork & Headline & Second Print Editor: Richard Williams
Video Editor: Ivan D’Avoine
Second Video Editor & Visual Effects: Richard Williams
Audio Podcast Editor: Danny Morrison
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.