Why is the American Film Market jumping into the festival business?

Its Nov. 9 panels — Creating a Successful Festival Strategy (with FilmNation’s Glen Basner, Cinetic Media’s John Sloss and Bold Films’ Gary Michael Walters) and Navigating the Festival Circuit (with Content Media’s Judith Baugin, Myriad’s Audrey Delaney, Mongrel Intl.’s Charlotte Mickie and producer Ron Najor) — may seem like an odd fit for AFM’s buyers and sellers, but they could shed light on the arena’s growing importance.

“We’re not doing the Festival Conference because we’re trying to encourage producers to submit to fests — in some ways, to the contrary,” says AFM chief Jonathan Wolf. “(The conference) isn’t saying that you shouldn’t go to festivals, but it also isn’t selling them as the pearly white staircase that will take you to heaven. It’s about people understanding if a specific festival is right to use as a tool in their particular circumstance.”

FilmNation CEO Basner says the way his production/finance/sales shingle utilizes festivals has evolved. “In years past, we would use a festival premiere to secure distribution internationally — i.e., for sales,” Basner says. “Given that (overseas) territories now tend to release films closer to (the) U.S. (date) and other major territory release dates” — often within two to three months — “and that our business is predominantly pre-sales, our festival strategy now focuses more on launching a film into distribution.”

Analyzing the global marketing impact of fall festival and awards season was a big factor in how Basner sold the drama “Room,” pictured, after A24 nabbed U.S. rights from UTA and set an October release date. “We knew that if we pre-sold it from a promo reel in Cannes, we’d be able to secure the right overseas release dates and benefit from all the press we were going to get from the fall festivals and U.S. release,” he says. “Waiting ultimately would have hindered the international release.”

Overseas financiers are also examining the importance of fests, as they discover they don’t have to choose between either pre-sales or a fest auction. With the renewed popularity of backstop deals, more films are being pre-sold to distribs with P&A commitments and the option for sellers to take them back (minus a penalty fee) if a strong fest debut increases their sales value.

“There are a lot of movies from (smaller) indie foreign finance companies that don’t really know the U.S. market well, and this lets them take some risk off the table,” notes Gersh film finance and distribution head Jay Cohen.

Understanding what makes fests work is also helping sellers improve their buyer screenings. When Gersh premieres the Billie Joe Armstrong-toplined musical dramedy “Geezer” at AFM, “we’re going to make the AFM screening feel like a festival, with about 125 fans of the star at the 200-seat theater,” Cohen says. “Buyers generally aren’t the happiest people where they’re just sitting by themselves.”

The idea of adding fest symposiums, Wolf says, came from attendee surveys. The Nov. 6-10 Festival Conference (for all attendees) is expected to attract around 600 guests. The Nov. 7-10 closed-door Festival Focus series (by and for fest professionals) is part of AFM’s recent move “from a one-size-fits-all badge to programs that target narrower groups,” Wolf says. Programs are hosted by festival execs from Fantasia (Mitch Davis), Seattle (Carl Spence), Edinburgh (Mark Adams) and Nashville (Ted Crockett).

“We’ve always felt that the AFM presents tremendous value to those who work in the festival world,” Wolf says. “Most films they get come from companies that are here.”

And Nashville Film Festival exec director Crockett sees his sector as an invaluable asset to Hollywood that’s just waiting to be tapped. “Sundance just accepted a film shot on an iPhone, but who’s going to be the gatekeeper for all of these projects?” he asks. “I think film festivals will, for all of this content that isn’t part of traditional models.”