Outgoing director helped streamline once-unruly biz

“There’s a battle brewing,” says outgoing American Film Marketing Assn. president Jonas Rosenfield. No, it’s not the indies vs. the majors, although the struggle for screens remains an ongoing theme in the independent film sector.

The new battle involves an attempt by European royalty collection agencies to position themselves as rights-management clearinghouses for film, TV and music product.

Rosenfield believes this function is best left to individual producers. “The management and control of rights in the electronic world is the greatest challenge facing the audiovisual industry today,” he says.

But that challenge — one of many indies must confront today — may not be as daunting as the task Rosenfield faced 15 years ago when the former Columbia and 20th Century marketing exec agreed to head a new organization called AFMA.

“It was a ragtag bunch,” Rosenfield recalls of the 34 independent film companies that had banded together around the original intention of providing a low-cost alternative to the market at the Cannes Film Festival. “Everybody was always arguing about this and that.”

Nevertheless, the American Film Market was a success. This year, more than 100 selling companies and about 1,700 buyers attended the 17th AFM, which has found a home at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

AFMA itself, with 130 companies on its roster, has become a full-fledged trade association that has lobbied in Washington on behalf of its members and conducted international trade talks under the aegis of the U.S. government.

The org’s biggest achievement under Rosenfield was to bring a large degree of order to what had always been a wild and woolly business frontier, populated by pirates, pretenders and scam artists. The AFMA contract has become the standard deal document used for selling film rights. AFMA’s arbitration service, now open to non-AFMA members, has handled more than 500 cases involving more than $90 million in claims.

As a trade association, AFMA was able to make the first comprehensive study of indie sales and revenues. Those statistics gained a blanket export license for members who otherwise would have to apply individually.

Among many successful initiatives launched by AFMA, Rosenfield says his only major disappointment involved the failure of Congress to ratify a World Intellectual Property Organization treaty to develop a central audiovisual registry. AFMA’s prexy says, however, that the campaign gave independent film a high profile in the international trade arena for the first time under the auspices of the U.S. State Dept.

Now AFMA has reached a plateau, Rosenfield says. “I felt that at the time I came into AFMA, the independent business was in a process of birth based primarily on video, which was made into a commercial product by the indies. We’re in a different business now.”

The rise of the studio blockbuster and the distribution hegemony of the majors are threats to non-studio producers and distribs. But in Rosenfield’s view, there is promise, too.

“As far as I am concerned, the indies’ existence is based on a need for product. People are going to get bored by big spectacle movies. The studios really are not geared to the making of films in the same way that indies are, unencumbered by massive debt and debilitating bureaucracy. Those things make the studios a conservative source of films.”

While AFMA searches for a new president, Rosenfield sees changes ahead for the org. He would like to see an expansion of AFMA’s role in facilitating finance for indie film production. AFMA is affiliated with 18 financial institutions.

Some of the initiatives being considered include tracking and providing international box office statistics on non-studio-distribbed films to members, creating an electronic membership sales survey on CD-ROM, and organizing screenings immediately prior to the AFM. In addition, AFMA is querying members on the desirability of the organization taking a role in the increasingly important London Screenings, which take place prior to Mifed.

As for the battle to keep film rights management in the hands of film producers, Rosenfield says AFMA reps will be on hand at the World Intellectual Property Organization trade conference in September in Geneva to argue the case.

“It’s important to all copyright owners,” he says, “the studios as well as the independents.”

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