AFM gears up amid fest-packed fall

Sellers prepare for Santa Monica-based event

Fall is getting crowded for pic purveyors.

A raft of film festivals gaining varying degrees of importance coupled with an industrywide trend of more frequent travel to visit overseas partners is making the American Film Market just one of many stops on the late-year industry calendar.

Despite an insistence on the part of Toronto fest organizers not to create a formal market component, the early September gathering has become yet another place to do business. It’s quickly followed by the IFP Market in New York for smaller indie works-in-progress; then October’s Pusan festival and Asian Film Market in South Korea; TV confab Mipcom in Cannes; and Rome’s fledgling fest and arthouse market Business Street.

And these are just a few of the destinations luring film industry execs.

“I’m going to see my buyers three times in less than three months,” stresses Edward Noeltner, prexy, CMG. He staged a buyer screening of Vietnamese-language drama “The Owl and the Sparrow” in Toronto and sold it to six territories. He’ll attend Mipcom and Rome, too, before setting up shop at AFM later this month.

Shebnem Askin, prexy, 2929 Intl., says she wants Toronto to remain a place for people to watch movies, but is excited about the new prospects brought by Rome. “I’m a true believer in fewer markets,” she notes, adding, “Somehow I welcome the idea of being in a Rome-like situation where the buyer is in a city he wants to be and has fewer appointments. We are in the business of preselling, so it’s better to meet in a more relaxed environment. I would much rather do Rome and Cannes. And if there was an AFM in February, I’d do it.”

Others, including toppers at Summit and New Line, insist AFM is well situated in late October/early November.

Says New Line’s COO and prexy of worldwide distribution and marketing, Rolf Mittweg: “I’m a two-market man. And six months between Cannes and AFM is fine.” He supplements the two markets with “frequent visits to the territories.”

“The few buyers that went to Toronto said there was nothing to buy,” Mittweg adds. “This will fizzle out — and so will Rome and Venice. The goal should be that the market supplies a range of product that’s attractive for all distributors around the world. The specialty films will always sell, providing they have something interesting to offer.”

Summit Intl. topper Patrick Wachsberger says he won’t be attending Rome or Tokyo (also in October) or other fests between now and the AFM. “Frankly, it’s better to see those (territories’ distributors) at other times. I’ll go (to Asia) after AFM.”

Wachsberger notes that, in the last year or so, buyers also have visited Los Angeles much more frequently. “Before they’d only come at markets, or once in between. They’re coming very, very often now.”

Clearly, though, it’s up to the individual seller and buyer to set his or her own market and travel agenda.

Says veteran sales agent Robbie Little, president of the Little Film Co., “You can have only one market a year if you want: You just go to one!”

As both buyers and sellers trudge through fall and look ahead to the sold-out 28th edition of AFM (Oct. 31-Nov. 7), concerns surrounding the Santa Monica-based mart seem focused on putting it in the spotlight again.

“AFM really needs to energize itself. It should be re-establishing itself as the prime source of indie product,” CMG’s Noeltner says. “Sure there’s a lot of money, but there ain’t a buzz about the market. AFM needs to work harder to bring an excitement to the market like we had 20 years ago.”

AFM’s organizers at the Independent Film and Television Alliance, meanwhile, are attempting to create a buzz around the films being shown to buyers for the very first time. Jonathan Wolf, IFTA’s exec VP and AFM’s managing director, is mounting a big effort to entice more industry “world premieres” at the market.

“We noticed that ‘world premieres’ and ‘market premieres’ demonstrated different levels of buyer attention,” he explains.

Market premieres — those films not seen at other bona fide marts but that have unspooled at film festivals before — “lose a sense of urgency for buyers,” Wolf notes.

Earlier this month AFM announced that out of the 522 feature films set to show at AFM so far, 106 are world premieres and 364 are market premieres.

“With the ‘world premieres’ we’re trying to focus sellers on the benefits of screening at a market,” Wolf adds.

Wolf concedes that showing a film for the first time at a major festival seems preferable to most sellers, but if a title has any chance of getting lost at that fest, a market screening could serve the seller better. “The growth of film festivals has not been healthy for films selling to international buyers,” he adds.

But Little counters, “My first choice, as a seller, is to always show the film to a buyer in the format it was created for and with as big an audience as possible. It’s important for buyers to see films that way. At the moment, AFM can’t offer that as the other festival/markets can.”