Mifed promises changes to battle AFM switch

The American Film Market may have parked its tanks outside the gates of the Fiera Milano, but Mifed won’t go down without a fight.

Fiera Milano Intl., the new company that took over the 43-year-old Milan bazaar in January, is promising massive investment to repel AFMA’s attempt to invade its November timeslot.

“It will be open war between Milan and Los Angeles,” predicts Mifed director Carlo Bassi. “Mifed’s dates will not move an inch, and it will be a massacre. The market will decide the winner.”

The AFMA board has voted (“almost unanimously,” per one source) to stage two markets in 2004 — its traditional event Feb. 25-March 3, and a new one Nov. 3-10. From 2005 onward, the February date will be abandoned, leaving just one AFM in early November.

Mifed is scheduled for Nov. 9-13 in 2004. But if AFMA’s 150 member companies choose Santa Monica over Milan, then it’s hard to see how Mifed can survive.

“I assume the most important sales agents will go to the AFM, so it means death to Milan,” says San Fu Maltha of Dutch distrib A-Film.

“It will be a frontal crash and we will see who will be able to resist longer,” Bassi says. “The point is mainly economic: What will the AFM do, for example, if we decide to invite all the buyers and pay for their expenses? Fiera Milano Intl., which owns and organizes several other markets in Milan, has done that already for other fairs.”

FMI is 53% owned by Fiera Milano (the recently floated company that owns the exhibition site), and 47% by Reed Exhibitions, a sister company of Variety.

Bassi and his two deep-pocketed shareholders have spent the past year working on a 15-year development plan for Mifed, knowing full well that the AFM might move its dates.

“The old times when Mifed was run on a day-by-day strategy are over,” Bassi says. “We have developed a long-term strategy with our shareholders, which are both strong, publicly listed companies.”

Innovations will include upgraded screening facilities (run by American and British engineers), a new catering service (“with Italian cuisine, the best in the world”) and a new hospitality package. Mifed also is busy forging alliances with the Venice Film Festival, Rome studio Cinecitta, the Italia Cinema promotion agency and Italy’s Foreign Ministry. “Mifed is no longer isolated in Italy,” Bassi says.

Sellers and buyers could be forgiven for thinking they’ve heard it all before. Every year Mifed promises to do better, and every year the event stays pretty much the same — except for the sort of unwelcome tinkering that led to last year’s complete redesign of the floor plan, which left delegates baffled.

“Yet again this year they are changing the layout,” says sales veteran and AFMA board member Michael Ryan of London-based IAC. “Once again, 50% of AFMA members have no idea where they will be.”

Venice fest director Moritz de Hadeln confirms he has had “vague” discussions with Mifed’s organizers about ways to introduce a stronger market at Venice in September. But it’s hard to see how that would benefit the Milan market in November. “Venice is definitely not the place to make Mifed,” de Hadeln says.

Mifed had a golden chance to secure its long-term future in 2002, when the sales community banded together to kill off the London Screenings. But the Italian organizers — a Milanese company called Rassegne that is no longer involved — failed to respond with the improvements sales toppers were looking for.

Nonetheless, the decision to shift the AFM was motivated not by hostility toward Mifed but by a widespread wish to rationalize the sales calendar, reducing the number of major markets from three to two — Cannes in May and Santa Monica in November.

But if AFMA has an Achilles heel, it could be the burdensome cost of running two Santa Monica markets in the transitional year of 2004, at a time when its members are desperate to cut costs. Faced with the well-financed blandishments of Mifed, AFMA members are going to need nerves of steel to hold firm.

“Are we so sure they will want to go twice a year to L.A.?” Bassi asks. “We know that Asian companies and the ones coming from emerging markets already prefer Milan to L.A., not to mention the European ones.”

He concedes that an AFMA boycott of Mifed would be “a serious problem.” But, he adds, “We know each company, in all sectors, decides according to its own interest rather than following automatically what its trade organization says. I doubt AFMA members will be an exception to this rule.”

Let the battle commence.

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