Fifteen Season Of Sun & Sums

In the great American tradition of organized dissent, the American Film Market arrived on the scene in 1981. It was to be an antidote to the costly prospect of doing business at the premier markets in Milan and Cannes.

The reckoning was that two markets were enough. But 15 years – and numerous attempts to unseat competitive events – later, that tenacious quest has proved fruitless. Rather, the American Film Marketing Association has taken on its own steely identity, proving that three film markets are viable and even necessary.

The terrain for indie sales agents always has been comprised of rocky hubris. When the first outing was unveiled at the Westwood Marquis, 34 companies presented their wares from the hotel suites. Only nine of those standard bearers are still operating.

AFM 1995, running Feb. 23 to Mar. 3, has grown to a membership of 102 companies. The ragtag composition of exploitation outlets, mom and pop operations and cutting-edge companies of a decade ago, while still eclectic today, is more refined and upscale. They have to be to compete with the majors and leading national producers. Only the shrewdest, most up-to-date and savvy players can hope to survive the Darwinian marketplace.

Out of the ashes of World War II, such entrepreneurs as Dino de Laurentiis, Alexandre Salkind, Carlo Ponti and Harry Allan Towers realized that in order to compete with the establishment, they had to build a better mousetrap.

They developed the art of presales, offering tempting packages with stars as a means of securing production financing. Such ancillaries as video, cable and satellite weren’t remotely in the equation.

In the ’70s, the European equation was adopted by such U.S. companies as Manson and Lorimar and the early American exponents included Mark Damon, Walter Manley, Robbie Little and Mario Kassar. De Laurentiis and others had moved shop to Los Angeles and the notion arose that it was more economic to have the buyers come to the sellers’ turf.

A U.S. film market had been attempted in 1972 by Bobby Meyers, then-head of National General Pictures, and now with Village Road Show. But it failed to ignite. By the end of the decade there was enormous hostility stateside which was perceived as French arrogance and sky-high operating costs at Cannes.

“We thought, ‘Why should we spend all that money there and keep being taken advantage of?'” recalls Michael Goldman, AFMA’s third president, who is about to revive the Manson company name with a new interactive venture.

Meyers, having moved on to Lorimar Intl., revived the idea of a market by joining forces with Melvin Simon for screenings at the La Costa resort. When he corralled a group of key international buyers for the event, other film-sales agents set up L.A. screenings. And that attracted more buyers.

The prospect of a film market, at last, seemed propitious. So, Meyers got the ball rolling by contacting several of the key companies. In addition to pooling their resources, Tim Kittleson was hired as the market director and within a few months it became a reality.

“We wanted to combine the glamour of Hollywood with the efficiency of Milan,” recalls Meyers. “The market helped formalize the independent industry.”

The first-time event attracted 1,200 buyers and $60 million worth of business reportedly was transacted. Out of today’s membership, only ABC, Arista, Australia Film, Carolco, Golden, Hemdale, J&M, Overseas and Goldwyn remain from the original membership, while the original RKO and Polygram members have returned in different guises.

The buyers attending increased to 1,900 during the mid’ 80s video boom and have stayed fairly level since, al though in tighter times, companies send fewer representatives. AFMA also progressed from a closed shop by admitting non-members and foreign companies as sellers, resulting in more than 200 exhibitors in recent years.

Few of the original companies were selling the big-budget pictures that are offered by some of AFMA’s members today, and even fewer were the actual producers. “In those days, foreign sales as a percentage of what you could expect to earn on a film was 10% to 15%, not 50% to 60% like now,” Goldman says.

As the foreign video business began to take off, so did the market, which moved to the Westwood Plaza in 1982, the Sunset Hyatt in 1983 and to the Beverly Hilton in 1986, before settling at the Loews Santa Monica in 1991. The market was thriving, the elevators were packed, the bar booming and the search for a parking place became a blood-sport.

But the annoyance of navigating the crowded market was alleviated by the anything-goes mentality. Product was often selling to a foreign video distributor with neither script nor cast in sight.

Antidote to clutter

Though the AFM was conceived as an antidote to the hype, cost and clutter of Cannes, it quickly developed its own circus persona. Officially, displays outside of offices were taboo and wild promotional stunts were discouraged. Nonetheless, beach babes were de rigeur and along with Troma’s “Toxie” mascot, they pressed gifts and screening information into the palms of anyone passing the gauntlet of the otherwise sedate lobby.

Members even agreed to refrain from throwing parties or events for the out-of-town buyers – AFMA was solely in charge of recreational activities. But that came to an end in 1990 when the kick-off extravaganza, held in a hangar at the Santa Monica airport, ended up with a half million dollar tab. The cost of the bash was disproportionate to the level of the sales-floor activity.

The organization, convinced it could not unseat Cannes, turned attention to Mifed in Milan. A second 1991 AFM was held in the fall in direct competition with the more established event. It succeeded in stirring up bad blood and demonstrating that the two markets had different gestalts and each had a palpable reason to exist.

Crucial to AFM’s development was the key membership decision in 1983 to create a bona fide trade association. Jonas Rosenfield was hired as the first AFMA executive director.

“Everybody assumed the majors spoke for the entire industry,” Rosenfield says. “One of our functions was to bring order where there was chaos. It was a wilderness at the time.”

In addition to the film market, the association began to work collectively in crucial business areas. A standardized contract was created and an international arbitration board established to handle contract disputes.

Later, a fact book was compiled with information on business procedures in 40 territories, and a Credit Watch and collections program put in place to deal with potential international deadbeats. AFMA stepped in as an active representative for U.S. indies with foreign governments and an active participant in the fight against international piracy.

“The importance of the association’s lobbying is already exceeding the importance of the market,” Goldman says.

Last year the association set up AFMA Europe – the territory represents about 60% of member business – to concentrate on protecting independents’ interests. Satellite minimarkets also have been put in place in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America.

In addition to its international activities, AFMA reached out to the Hollywood community with market sidebars beginning in the mid-’80s. Forum sessions during AFM have tackled such hot issues as GATT and artists’ rights. This year, a pre-market seminar will address how to sell satellite rights.

Another past sidebar, Location Expo, attracted substantial attendance for international film commissions promoting regional filming and facilities. It’s been replaced in 1995 with Post/LA at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the first show completely devoted to postproduction and special effects.

An AFMA survey demonstrated that more member business is getting done outside of the markets, begging the question: Is the market still a viable concept?

“It’s here to stay,” says Trimark chairman Mark Amin. He concedes that Trimark uses the market more to screen and discuss finished and upcoming product than for production and financing of pre-sales. “The AFM is still our favorite film market. The screening facilities are the best, the access and set-up are superior and you can do a lot more cost-effectively.”

Tim Kittleson predicts that the market “will evolve to become more informational.”

Many larger companies use the market primarily to conduct marketing meetings and launch promotional campaigns, since increasingly product is pre-sold in multipicture deals or ongoing strategic relationships.

While it was recently voted to allow membership to television companies, the effects of the expansion are yet to be determined. It’s felt that these companies’ primary AFMA interest has little to do with the market, but rather the work being done to protect and monitor interests abroad.

“One common goal is making European independent distributors strong,” says AFMA chair Pamela Pickering. “What attracts people to AFMA is its ability to do things that cannot be done individually. Things like lobbying the European Union, negotiating with producer’s groups, cable retransmission royalties, satellite copyright protection, new technologies – these are the important and crucial activities for members.”

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