Steady AFMA ready for market move

American Film Market
Who:7,000 intl. buyers, sellers, filmmakers, industryites
What: America’s largest market for indie film
When: Feb. 25- March 3
Where: Loews Hotel, Santa Monica, Calif.

The indie film sector may be suffering through a rocky patch, but AFMA seems to be experiencing the best of times. The not-for-profit trade org’s revenue is stable, its cash-cow American Film Market is completely sold-out and past dissident members have become avid supporters.

Org most recently sent shockwaves through the international sales biz by announcing a shift of its 24-year-old sales bazaar in Santa Monica, Calif., from late February to a permanent autumn date, where it collides with the 71-year-old Mifed market in Milan, Italy. So, this year only, AFMA will mount two film markets, with the second running Nov. 3-10 (Mifed is skedded for Oct. 31-Nov. 4). In 2005 and thereafter, it’ll be a November affair.

Meanwhile, exhibition space for AFM’s final winter confab (Feb. 25-March 3) is completely sold-out for just the third time in the event’s history, according to Jonathan Wolf, managing director of the market and exec veep of AFMA.

AFMA toppers maintain the market’s shift to late in the year is motivated by a need to move out of a cluttered February film calendar — which now includes the Oscar ceremony — and also to hook up with the American Film Institute Fest (Nov. 4-14). The two events will remain separate, but will cooperate under a long-term deal in scheduling, registration, marketing and sponsorships. AFMA prexy-CEO Jean Prewitt says member films will benefit from exposure at the fest, whose international focus makes the link a good fit.

AFMA members who voted to shift the mart to November clearly hope it will knock off Mifed, thus shrinking the number of major global film markets from three to two. The third, and most secure, one runs in conjunction with the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“Two markets a year is more than sufficient,” says Rolf Mittweg, prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution at New Line, an AFMA member. He feels that AFM’s use of commercial cinemas in the Santa Monica area for buyer screenings is a significant advantage over the multipurpose rooms at Mifed’s Fiera convention center.

But Mifed won’t go quietly, predict some. Already, confab’s execs are going on the offensive, freezing exhibition prices at 2003 levels and offering discounts of up to 20% for early sign-ups, according to Mifed sales director Carole Dana. An incentive program to subsidize buyers is planned.

Mifed’s actions could trigger something of a fee war. A March announcement is due from AFMA regarding incentives for its November event. But Dana feels some buyers will go to both, since their dates don’t completely overlap.

Of course, a few will remember that in 1991 AFMA mounted an autumn market opposite Mifed but it was a bust. Curiously, AFMA’s current chairman, U.K. film executive Michael Ryan, was led the European film sellers who rallied behind Mifed in that showdown.

Ryan, director and shareholder of London-based IAC Films, says AFMA was wrong to try to control two markets at that time. Mifed also has promised improvements that never materialized. “I think we’ve done the right thing now.”

In August, Ryan became AFMA’s first chairman not based in California. Seven of AFMA’s 27 permanent board members hail from outside the U.S., another indication AFMA is expanding.

AFM’s sold-out market this year is in sharp contrast to problems experienced by other audiovisual content-oriented trade groups relying on income from markets, such as the Video Software Dealers Assn. (homevideo) and the National Assn. of Television Program Executives (TV program syndication). As major studios downsized at VSDA’s trade show, revenue dove from $8 million in 1997 to just $3.5 million by 2000. Attendance at NATPE fell from a dot-com inflated peak of 20,000 attendees in 2001 to 7,100 in 2003.

But even as the indie film sector shrunk amid the recession, AFMA has held steady. Revenue at the trade group was roughly unchanged at $7.8 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, with a $193,000 operating surplus. AFM avoided the misfortunes experienced by other markets largely because it is controlled by the same companies — 134 strong, including some of the biz’s largest players, including New Line and Miramax — that are also AFM’s main exhibitors.

The other confabs are run by content buyers of those respective industries and are not major trade show exhibitors: TV broadcasters for NATPE and videostore operators for VSDA. Prewitt adds that screening new product is a key element of film markets, unlike TV and video events.

AFMA also provides year-round business services, which are particularly useful to medium and small companies without big infrastructures. These services include secondary audiovisual royalty collection, dispute arbitration, marketplace information, information on production subsidies, government lobbying and monitoring foreign rights registries for member properties.

A decade ago, some smaller AFMA members pushed to slash org overhead so prices to exhibit at the market could be cut, but the full-service approach is now widely embraced. Troma Entertainment president Lloyd Kaufman, a leader of that movement, is today a satisfied AFMA board member: “Everything is moving in the right direction,” he says.

The trade group originally was known as the American Film Marketing Assn., but adopted the four-letter acronym AFMA as its only designation chiefly because its membership is no longer solely American. Ryan vows his administration will soon come up with a new name.

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