AFI fellows put in market time

Experience combines classroom, industry in a real-life setting

Lurking in the hotel rooms at this year’s American Film Market will be about 20 interns observing every marketing campaign, curious buyer and closing handshake.

They’re second-year students in American Film Institute’s producer program, tossed into the busy event to experience the international dealmaking process up close. As a curriculum requirement, the internship combines the classroom and industry in a real-life setting.

Referred to as “fellows” by the AFI, these students are hardly naive freshmen. Jonathan Wolf, program co-creator and AFM chief, says the average age of a first-year student is 28. Most enroll at the AFI after graduating other schools and spending time in the workforce.

Wolf says their maturity and knowledge of the business world increases their value to production companies. He estimates that 30 companies attending AFM applied for an intern this year, though AFI can only offer about 20 students.

The fellows’ most desired company placements are the bigger names at AFM, such as Lions Gate and Icon, which court buyers from decked-out hotel suites.

But Susan Baerwald, AFI’s internship coordinator, warns that being placed at a big company doesn’t always mean students will get a front-row seat. “More than likely you’ll be dealing with the assistant of the assistant to somebody,” she notes.

Baerwald says the smaller companies are more apt to discuss the selling process with their interns and encourage interaction with buyers. “Often they don’t have as much product, but you can learn more of the details of the job and have a hands-on approach.”

As for the fellows, their AFM experiences have been varied.

Madelon Smith was taken under the wing of Worldwide Film Entertainment to observe and interact with buyers. “For me the thing was outstanding because Worldwide has been around for a long time and they now have a very focused market,” she says.

Smith says the boutique distrib gave her an idea of what sells to international territories. She has applied the knowledge as a producer and currently has four projects in development. “I hope it’ll help me be at least as smart as the next guy, if not smarter.”

Austin Wakefield assumed the role of handyman on the eve of the event, assembling Crystal Sky’s suite until 2 a.m. “Crystal Sky is small enough that it almost has a mom-and-pop kind of feel — everybody is doing everything,” he says. The company made the night more enjoyable by ordering pizza and beer.

For Gabriel Reiter, getting an overview of the product at AFM was especially interesting. “There were a lot of very small companies selling very bad films,” he says, mentioning there were titles like “Alien Kama Sutra.” The AFM made him realize the scope and volume of U.S. films seeking distribution each year.

Baerwald says the best way fellows can learn from their week at AFM is to keep their ears open and their mouths closed. “Interning is a lot like undercover work. You just stay aware of everything, even if it’s not in your domain.”

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