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The 41st American Film Market was the first AFM to take place online, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the the world of independent film has kept its chin up amid daunting challenges.

“I would say it’s a comfortable mixture of cautious but buoyant,” said David Garrett, CEO of Mister Smith Entertainment.

AFM opened on the morning of Nov. 9 on a surprisingly upbeat note as drugmaker Pfizer revealed early data from its coronavirus vaccine that showed it is more than 90% effective — good news that offered promise of a return to movie theaters and soundstages in early 2021. Neon’s distribution president Elissa Federoff expressed guarded optimism that North American audiences will return when the COVID-19 crisis begins abating, during the Future of Film Conference.

“People truly want to get out of the house,” she added.

The prospect of no parties on the Santa Monica Pier, no poolside meetings and no drinks at Shutters and Casa Del Mar did not deter participation. The five-day total: a record 570 exhibitors from 48 countries, 1,487 buyers from 66 countries, and 465 films screening.

Jonathan Wolf, AFM’s managing director, noted, “The expense of coming here is working in favor for those who can’t make all the major markets every year and only come to Santa Monica every two or three years. All those people were here this time.”

Todd Olson, president of international for Highland Film Group, noted that AFM is coming eight months after the pandemic started.

“The first virtual market at Cannes was a very different animal to the usual in-person markets so we adapted as we could,” he said. “The speed of the business slowed down somewhat because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID and the situation at the time. Then Toronto came and being a virtual market allowed more participants than compared to the physical festival/market. By the time AFM arrived, everyone had a better sense of their slates, what they were going to need in this coming year and the way COVID was affecting their market.”

Wolf noted that he was pleasantly surprised that technical issues were at a minimum. “We had five people on the help desk and we were overstaffed,” he added.

Brian O’Shea, CEO of The Exchange, said the activity was brisk. His company unveiled the casting of Josh Hutcherson to go along with Liev Schreiber in “Across the River and Into the Trees,” with shooting starting this month in Italy.

“We are definitely selling and closing financings,” he said. “We’re pushing people to get things done. There are less distractions. You have to be very prepared. You can slap in a lot of meetings back to back and run through a lot of possibilities.”

O’Shea said he is not discounting the value of meeting person to person and added, “But we’re adjusting to changing circumstances. The costs of getting insurance and getting bonded are a challenge. People are very engaged. There’s a real need for new product. The most important thing you can do is show is that you’re moving forward and bringing new things, showing footage. That creates momentum. We’re doing that with Drew Barrymore’s ‘The Stand In,’ which we completed earlier this year.”

AFM got a negative jolt on Nov. 11, when Lionsgate revealed it had dropped out of distributing the Gerard Butler action movie “The Plane” because producers were unable to obtain production insurance that would cover a COVID-19 outbreak. Lionsgate boarded “The Plane” a year ago at the AFM, announcing that it had bought the rights to the film for North America, Latin America, the U.K. and India.

Buyers and sellers at the online AFM have said that the uncertainty over obtaining insurance is a pervasive challenge, making completed films more desirable. And Brad Krevoy, chairman of the Motion Picture Corporation of America, expressed plenty of optimism about 2021 during the Nov. 10 finance conference.

“It will be the roaring twenty-ones! Content is going to come back strong, and it is going to be happy times, it is going to be fantastic for all of us,” he said. “There’s going to be tremendous demand. The biggest hope of all for independents, that’s transformational, is going to be advertising-supported VOD. That is going to give life to us for many years.”

Highland Film Group’s executive VP of sales Laura Voros said the adjustment to a virtual market was working: “The market is going very well and we’ve been super busy, with back to back meetings. Meetings on our virtual platform are a bit more challenging than meetings in person, so we started last week to make sure we could meet with everyone and we’re considerate of the time differences. Our buyers seem to be getting more comfortable with virtual meetings. They’re opening up and buying more and pursuing titles harder.”