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That ’80s show

AFM founders mull the mart's birth and its evolution

According to the American Film Market’s first prexy, Bobby Meyers, it all started with an early ’80s article in Variety in which the writer presented a litany of complaints about Cannes’ film market as expressed by Hollywood’s independent sales agents. At the top of the list were the high prices and the arrogance of the townspeople.

Meyers, who had been head of international at Lorimar and had moved over to Filmways Pictures Intl. by that time, wasn’t necessarily unhappy with the French confab, he says, “But, you know, a number of people were.”

“It all really started as a reaction to Cannes,” remembers Mark Damon, who was with the Producers Sales Organization then. “American pictures were the only ones doing any real business at both Mifed and Cannes. And we were going to these European markets, spending a lot of money and not being treated all that well.”

The response — whether to the article or to the complaints — was an L.A. luncheon that saw eight of the town’s top foreign sales agents plant the seeds for what was to become the American Film Market, the first formal confab on U.S. soil.

“We saw what Lorimar had done with its La Costa events,” explains Michael Ryan, head of IAC Films, who was with J&M Film Sales in 1981. “And that got us to thinking what we could do.”

The La Costa events gathered top international distributors to be wined and dined, and worn out on the tennis courts. (The spa near San Diego was owned by Lorimar topper Merv Adelson, Meyers’ former boss.) These buyers would check out available product and closed deals. Afterward, they inevitably headed up to Hollywood to meet with other sales agents and producers.

“We figured they were coming here, anyway,” Meyers recalls, “and it only made sense to have a market in Hollywood.”

As sensible as it may seem in retrospect, it was still considered a gamble at the time, especially for smaller companies. The American Film Marketing Assn. (AFMA) was formed and members anted up $25,000 each to underwrite the event — a significant sum back in the day. Pulling it off was monumental. More than 20 years later, kudos still go to Buddy Goldberg, Tim Kittleson and Meyers, the org’s first topper.

Meyers remembers that role somewhat ruefully. “We said if we were going to have an association, we were going to need a president,” he says. “So, it was ‘Let’s draw straws and the loser gets to be president.’ ”

In the end, however, no one was really a loser. What amounted to a $25,000 bet from each company paid off handsomely. “The first AFM far exceeded any expectations we had,” says Ryan.

AFMA originally comprised some 38 companies with some 34 sellers of English-language product ultimately taking office space at the first mart. Buyers from around the world flocked to the Westwood Marquis for meetings and dropped in at local movie houses for screenings. In the end, more than 1,200 registrants showed up, including 500-plus buyers from overseas distribution companies.

“I think we saw that there was safety and opportunity in numbers,” reminisces Steve Bickel, who attended the first AFM with Serendipity Pictures and will be there this year with Aura Entertainment.

Participating sales agents did make an effort to protect their bets on the new organization, however. There was something of a gentleman’s agreement among the U.S. sellers to keep a very low profile at the European markets, specifically at Cannes. The companies agreed not to screen there, not to advertise and not to throw any lavish parties. The idea was to send a message that buyers looking for American indie product would have to travel to Hollywood to get it.

“I think that agreement lasted for about a year,” Meyers says, wryly. “In the end, independents have to sell their pictures.”

That part of the AFM equation, at least, has not changed. Independents are still out to sell their product. Just about everything else about the market is different, however.

Says Bickel, “There was a much smaller band of foreign sales agents who were responsible for quite a bit of revenue. Sales were easier because there were fewer people. It was less complex. We actually sold theatrical rights.”

“In those days,” says Meyers, “we were able to sell films for money up front, and that evolved into pre-selling. This was before video and DVD, and there wasn’t really any international TV business at all.”

AFM, of course, has had to transform itself to accommodate changes in the international market. Although longtime observers note a decrease in the crowds wandering the Loews halls, Ryan — current chairman of IFTA, formerly AFMA — attributes much of that to the increased number of screenings.

“People are either in meetings or at screenings,” he claims. “There’re no real pre-sales these days so you don’t find those people wandering around the hallways. Most of these films today can’t be pre-sold.”

The AFM also has gone beyond a strictly industry event and now invites the public to select screenings. And this year the market has officially linked with the AFI Fest so that the U.S. now has a formal market in conjunction with a film festival. These moves have largely garnered praise from industryites.

“Having public screenings and teaming up with AFI Fest is a really good thing,” says Robbie Little, who attended the first AFM with Overseas Filmgroup and returns this year as head of the Little Film Co. “I’m a believer that it’s good to have your film show to a full audience instead of a room of just buyers. … As an organization, we have tried to respond to the changing needs of buyers and sellers.”

Whether the AFM ever truly produced the result it intended — cutting costs for U.S. sales agents — is still a question, however. Bob Rehme, who just finished a stint as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and was running Avco Embassy at the time of AFM’s inception, signed off on that company’s participation in the event.

“It never really cut costs,” he says, “as more and more markets have continued to appear and the companies are attending.”

The AFM, however, did serve to internationalize Hollywood in a way that its founders most likely did not foresee.

As Bickel puts it, “Back then, we were the American Film Market. Now, so many of our members are international.”

And, thus, this year the org behind the AFM dropped the word “American” and was renamed the Independent Film and Television Alliance.

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