American Film Market 2011: Preview

Delegates at the AFM had better enjoy the ocean while they can. Moves are afoot to switch the indie market from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles in 2013.

The Independent Film & TV Alliance confirmed over the summer that it’s negotiating a move to the L.A. Live entertainment complex in a bid to reduce costs for buyers and sellers, improve screening facilities, give the AFM more room to grow and bring it closer to Hollywood.

But no deal has yet been done, and in the meantime it’s business as usual at the Loews, with AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf steadfastly refusing to comment further on plans, or even to discuss the industry reaction to the proposed move.

This year’s biggest innovation is the launch of an expanded slate of conferences at the nearby Fairmont Miramar Hotel, and more informal “industry conversations” at the Loews itself.

The five half-day conferences, from Nov. 4-8, will deal with finance, pitching, marketing, production and distribution. The 14 conversation events, free to AFM delegates, will be more informal, featuring a selection of industry experts holding forth on a wide range of subjects.

“It’s an attempt to add value for those who travel to the AFM from outside Los Angeles, and for people who aren’t buying and selling,” Wolf says. Previously the AFM hosted events organized by the likes of BAFTA, the WGA and Women in Film, but Wolf says the effect was rather “random,” and delegates were increasingly asking for “a more curated learning experience.”

The AFM’s long-established finance conference costs $95, and attracts many Hollywood attendees who don’t come to the market itself. The other four conferences, which are new, cost $100 for a combined ticket, or $75 per event, and Wolf expects them to be largely attended by AFM delegates. The line-up for the free conversation events won’t be announced until a few days before the market to allow maximum flexibility in booking speakers.

Wolf says seller registrations are running level with last year, but buyers are up 10%, with notable growth from Asia. The number of films being screened is also holding steady at about 400, but a big shift in technology is causing headaches. In response to seller demand, only 19% of screenings will use 35mm film, the rest will be digital.

Of the 21 commercial screens employed by the AFM, only five will be 35mm (down from 13 last year), and 16 will be digital only (up from eight last year). But if digital projection was supposed to make life easier and cheaper for everyone, Wolf says it hasn’t worked out that way.

“It’s more difficult, more expensive, more complicated in every way.”

The problems include making sure that all involved — sales agents, producers, labs, cinemas and the AFM team — are working with compatible technical standards. Antipiracy measures add an extra complication — “in some cases they are non-existent, in some they are draconian,” Wolf says. He cites a snafu last year when a print was protected with a timecoded key, and because the screening was delayed by two hours, the key locked just as the film was about to start.

It takes two hours for a theater’s digital server to ingest a two-hour film, rather than the five minutes it takes to put a 35mm print in a projector. But the servers in commercial theaters aren’t large enough to hold more than a couple of films at once. That demands a complicated and relentless schedule of uploading and erasing, “crossing our fingers that it doesn’t crash and you have to reload, or that you don’t erase the wrong one,” Wolf says.

“It’s the same problem for all festivals and markets, because we all use commercial cinemas,” he says. “I haven’t heard of one major event in the past 12 months — Rome, Cannes, Toronto — that hasn’t lost screenings because of digital, and this issue isn’t going away soon.”

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