Competish from AFM endangers Milan fest's future

MILAN — It ain’t over yet, but the fat lady is loosening up her vocal chords for Mifed.

The organizers of the Milan film market spent much of the just-concluded 70th edition (Nov. 8-13) in a rear-guard propaganda battle against the decision by the American Film Market to move to November from 2004 onwards.

Their efforts, including the offer of financial incentives, probably will be enough to ensure a minority of mostly European sellers and buyers will be back in the Fiera Milano this time next year.

But with the major sellers of American movies committed to AFM’s move away from its traditional February date, Mifed is likely at best to morph into a niche market for Euro arthouse movies, at worst to slide inelegantly toward oblivion.

AFMA chairman Michael Ryan estimates there’s a 70/30 split among sellers in favor of the fall AFM.

If true, that’s a bigger pro-Mifed minority than seemed to exist before the market started, but still short of the volume of support the Milan event needs to survive.

The tricky question for AFMA, however, is whether its majority is big enough to cover the cost of running two markets in the next transitional year. Money is AFMA’s weakness and Mifed’s strongest card, and the heavily subsidized Italian org is planning to play it for all it’s worth.

Mifed director Carlo Bassi unveiled a package of 20% discounts for sellers willing to commit to its 2004 edition by February, and also promised massive travel and accommodation subsidies.

But even he admitted such sweeteners would not be enough to ensure Mifed’s survival.

“We are going to be spending all this money to woo clients, but what really needs to improve is the whole concept of film markets,” the Mifed chief said, adding that he has been in talks with AFMA and Berlin toppers to try to work out a “common strategy” instead of fighting each other.

But AFMA members have already decided the way to do that is to reduce the number of markets.

“You don’t need more than two markets. The marketplace dictates the number of markets you need,” says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands, one of the prime movers behind the AFM shift.

Asked about the effect of Mifed’s promise to pay for 200 top buyers to attend next year’s event, he replied, “The buyers will go where the sellers go. Mifed should try paying for sellers to come, pay for our flights and our shipping costs. But even then we wouldn’t come.”

“Cost is not the issue,” says Dutch distrib San Fu Maltha of A-Film. “They’ve had enough warnings, but to throw money at it now is too late. The small things matter, like not being able to get a decent meal in the Fiera, the layout of the halls, the lack of any decent hotels nearby, the lack of decent screening facilities, the fact the staff don’t speak English, the fact that the airport always loses your luggage, and Mifed can’t even organize enough taxis.”

Even the Italians are not exactly wholehearted in their support of Mifed.

“Mifed is not acting like a market. They are acting like a cut-rate bed-and-breakfast,” says Paola Corvino, head of Rome’s IntraMovies, who despite her criticism said she will be in Milan next year.

Medusa, Italy’s most powerful film company, refused to comment on rumors that it has already decided not to take a stand at next year’s Mifed.

What’s certain is that a lot of companies are going to face some costly choices in 2004.

“Sellers are going to be here (in Milan) or there (in Santa Monica), but buyers will have to be in both places,” says Guy Shani of Israel’s Shani Films. “It’s going to be a disaster. The small sellers won’t know what to do, so they’ll decide at the last minute and so everything will cost them more.”

Per one New Line exec, “There was a 1% chance when we came this year that we might come back, but now I would say there’s a minus 100% chance.”

That reflects the widely held view among attendees that once again, Mifed boasted about improvements that it failed to deliver.

New Line screened footage of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to its distribs, but was dismayed to discover it had been out of focus throughout.

Alliance Atlantis topper Victor Loewy is among the most vitriolic in his criticism. “You have to compare what they promise and what they deliver,” he says. “They just lie.”

His list of complaints includes Mifed’s failure to enforce the smoking ban it introduced to improve the poor air quality in the Fiera; the physical layout of the market, which gets more complex every time the organizers say they are going to make it easier; and the fact that Mifed’s 10% discount card isn’t recognized in the shops and cafes where it’s supposed to apply.

Avi Lerner of Nu Image, a 30-year Mifed veteran, says, “Enough is enough. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with Mifed. But two markets is all we need.”

Yet among Brit sellers, there’s an unexpected degree of ambivalence.

“We need three markets,” says Capitol Films co-topper Jane Barclay.

She says attending the AFM is dramatically more expensive than going to Mifed, and that therefore the transitional year of 2004, when AFM will take place for the last time in February and the first time in November, will put a financial strain upon sellers.

Angus Finney, CEO of Renaissance Films, says, “I’ll definitely go to the AFM in February. Then, if there are going to be enough European and Asian buyers in Mifed, I’ll come here and not do the AFM in November. But after that, when there won’t be a February AFM any more, who knows? One thing for certain is that Berlin (in February) is going to become hugely important.”

The idea that Mifed might evolve into a market for Euro arthouse films does not exactly square with the rough-and-ready nature of the screening facilities. (Mifed’s organizers have, however, vowed to rebuild the Fiera’s 28 screening rooms by 2005.)

Bassi also says Mifed will be making moves to attract more Asian and Latin American buyers and sellers, and wants to expand into TV product.

Mifed certainly won’t disappear without a fight.

But the org’s problems were summed up by the banner displayed in one of the market halls, which read, “See you to 71st Mifed.”

The sentiment is clear, but Mifed has never quite managed to master the language of the business it is supposed to serve.

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