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AFM Puts Emphasis on Exclusive, Efficient Marketplace as Business Evolves

Last year’s American Film Market boasted a 6% increase in attendance and an 18% boost in exhibitor participation over 2016, despite widespread concern from exhibitors about projects being swept off the table in worldwide pickups from Netflix, more year-round deals made outside the market and emptier hallways seen at the Loews Santa Monica. In response to what they can control, AFM’s producers at the Independent Film & Television Alliance are adapting the event to keep buyers and sellers as happy as possible.

AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf says those empty floors were a byproduct of too many badge checks due to overcrowding from the public.

“For the last 36 years, anyone could come into the lobby,” he says. “But beginning this year, all of the hotel will be AFM space and credentials will be checked before entering it. Now our most valued participants, the buyers, will be able to freely walk through the hotel without being asked to flash their badge every minute. We think it’ll make the experience much more enjoyable and professional for the participants.”

And much as the pool was restricted to AFM guests a few years ago, this new policy will create even more areas for them to network and do business. It’s something one of Europe’s biggest producers and distributors, Constantin Film CEO Martin Moszkowicz, says keeps AFM essential despite industry changes.

“We’re moving from the traditional presale model for our own movies” — the longtime focus of AFM — going “from pre-selling a couple of markets for our higher-budgeted/over-$50 million movies into equity-based financing, sometimes with partners, sometimes by ourselves,” he says. “A lot of midsize market movies that were also our bread and butter have pretty much disappeared over the last couple of years. The very few interesting projects, of course, everyone jumps on them and there’s a good chance that you’ll have to overpay to actually get them because there is so much competition for those.”

He adds that that “there aren’t that many buyers anymore, and especially when it comes to higher-budgeted movies, there’s a lot of fear out there. We can’t really sell an expensive movie as easily as we used to, or at all. And if you can’t, then you’re losing a lot of the upside, because the one advantage of the presale model was that you could sell for more than the films were probably worth.”

Yet AFM “is still the second-most important market after Cannes, so we’ll all be there with our acquisition teams,” Moszkowicz says. “Not everything we do is accountable in sales and how many titles that you bought. A lot of it is which partnerships you form. It’s a get-together for so many different parts of the industry — broadcasters, OTT platforms, U.S. producer/distributor/sales companies.

“It’s important to have a platform like AFM for people from all around the world to come together and exchange information, ideas, form new partnerships and see how your competitors and colleagues in other countries are doing. Even with all our modern communication, coming together in person is still a hugely important thing. We have meetings in 30-minute slots with people from virtually all over the world. We learn how their markets are working, what problems they have and gain a huge overview of the international movie world within a week. You could not get that in any other way, so I would not want to miss it for a second.”

To this end, AFM is adding a third venue to expand its talks for everyone from producers and writers to film commissions and financiers. There are conferences on blockchain financing, diversity, how guilds can work with low-budget films and looks at the industry from a global perspective.

“The same way you can’t create a band when all the members live in different cities, these issues need to be talked about face to face,” Wolf says. “Trust is built face to face. And moving away from the previous focus on presales, as we see the marketplace move slowly toward more finished films, our education is focused on that as well.”

While Toronto doesn’t have an official market as AFM offers, an increase in dealmaking there may offer a bit of a challenge.

“AFM is incredibly important because it’s here [in L.A.], but we were all just in Toronto just six weeks ago,” says Sierra/Affinity president of sales and distribution Jonathan Kier. “It’s more if you’re coming from Tokyo or Beijing, or one of the places that’s further and doesn’t have five flights a day to L.A. I’ve started to hear some buyers say for the first time that they’re going to come, but they want to come another weekend, so now I want to ask others.”

As with other sales execs, Kier is relieved that some market uncertainty has been resolved.

“Last year people didn’t know what the impact of [the] Netflixes and Amazons of the world was going to be. Now we know what they are, as their buying patterns have become more established. It’s not, ‘Is Netflix going to buy everything?’ anymore. They don’t. ‘What do I do with rights that I thought were going to be available but now two days later, they’re not?’ That has not been the case. They are now a regular player in the market like everyone else.”

“We have a constant stream of traffic in our three offices, but aside from people coming down the corridors for destination meetings, you don’t have the corridors heaving with people the way they used to. Everyone’s more surgical and efficient in their approach to the market,” says Mister Smith Entertainment CEO David Garrett, who sold select rights for his drama “Polar” to Netflix last year at AFM.

But he doesn’t see Toronto as having the same impact. “I go every year, but I don’t have a sales office. Half the buyers aren’t there, so you don’t want to be launching a new film, and the ones that do go want to watch movies.”

And Wolf argues that AFM offers far more than face time. “Markets create auction environments,” he says “It’s very important for producers and distributors to get the highest price they can for themselves. If you just are sending out emails in the middle of the year, there’s no sense of urgency. The buyer has no way to see if he or she is the first to get the email in their country or the 10th. And so, from a sales company’s standpoint, to achieve the highest price possible, you want to say, ‘We’re not accepting offers until everybody’s on site’ to create that fervor and excitement.”

In response to calls for more year-round industry interaction, Independent Film & Television Alliance president and CEO Jean Prewitt has created My IFTA, a private online community launched for members this year that allows them to make contacts, and ask and get answers to key questions facing the industry.

So what films are creating the most excitement now? Bold Films CEO Gary Michael Walters is a panelist at the Nov. 4 conference called Producing Studio Films With Independent Budgets, which pretty much sums up his company’s new approach.

“In some respects, it’s easier to make two $30 million movies than six $10 million movies. There’s only so many ‘Nightcrawlers’ and ‘Drives’ out there,” he says, referencing some of his past lower-budget hits.

As far as content, Walters now subscribes to “the ‘Mary Poppins’ principle: You need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I think we’ll be sprinkling more accessible things onto our projects — maybe more action components, more commercial genres, more scope. And it feels like a lot of the heavier dramas are really gravitating to television, so we are probably going to be leaning into beefing up that TV strategy.”

FilmNation founder Glen Basner’s key strategy is adapting to filmmakers’ needs.

“We’ve built a platform that allows them to work with us in different ways: Do they want us to just sell their movie? Do they want us to finance their movie?” he says. “Maintaining that flexibility and taking a bespoke approach to each and every film has been a big part of what’s allowed us to attract the best films to bring to market and help us drive our success in presales.”

Just don’t tell him that AFM isn’t as essential as it once was now that more business is happening 365 days a year.

“I think that’s bull,” he says. “Distributors prepare, they have their budgets, they’re ready to make decisions and they facilitate transactions at markets in a way that you cannot do outside of one. So, when I hear people say that, I agree that we have to be working all year round — we can’t just send an email with a script attached and show up and wait for them to come. But the markets are vital, and AFM is a key part of that.”

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