Lessons from AFM 2018 : A Mecca for Independent Filmmakers 

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Over the years the American Film Market (AFM) has emerged as a big international platform where independent filmmakers can find all the relevant industry people at one place to discuss business of creating, selling and distributing films

Seeing changes

As thousands of industry professionals from 28 countries descended upon the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica for the 39th American Film Market there was one thing everyone could agree on, our industry is constantly seeing changes and shifts in the business of making and selling independent film. Currently, we’re talking about evolutions in technology or marketplace access, but we can also agree that the independents are as resilient as they are nimble in their business approach.

The independent film business has always been a competitive industry and marketplace, but it is also a business that is populated by passionate, creative, goal-oriented people. It is encouraging to hear that they see a professional community committed to craft and open to exploring ways to push against these perceived headwinds to foster a more robust market. Thankfully, exploring ways to adjust business practices and overcome challenges seems to be in the DNA of those who choose to work in this industry.

Face to face

AFM and its contemporary film markets are essential to bringing industry people together in one concentrated place where they can sit down face to face and focus on the business of creating, selling and distributing films while hearing first-hand what’s happening in different territories, especially in the era of platforms and evolving consumer preferences.

“AFM has always been the big market,” said Millennium Media President Jeffery Greenstein. “You have Cannes in the spring and AFM in the fall. AFM is the market at this end of the year where everyone scrambles to bring their projects. At AFM I’m basically selling morning to night, from dusk to dawn.”

Film business practices

Producers and sales executives agree that AFM is critical for the continued growth and health of the independent film market. Nat McCormick, EVP at The Exchange saw the people at AFM looking to evolve independent film business practices, “Amongst a certain amount of buyers, people are exploring more types of co-productions. Buyers who would have before just been licensing a territory, there’s more exploration, and maybe they can come in and also be an equity financier on a picture. Maybe they can be a co-production partner.”

“Filmmakers looking for money for their next project can come to AFM and find international film companies interested to jump in and help sell the movie so that filmmakers can borrow the necessary funds to get the film produced,” said Mudbound producer Cassian Elwes. “Keeping in mind, of course, that a project must have the right elements attached to it and offer value at the right price point”.

VOD is here to stay

Consumers have also made themselves clear that VOD is here to stay. While streaming hasn’t fully replaced the gap left by DVD sales in the market more companies are starting to feel positive and hopeful as new platforms and established VOD providers become embedded in the viewing habits of international consumers of all demographics.

Production and distribution company The Asylum has evolved a sales strategy based on the changing demands by consumers, “The way consumers are viewing our product: Over Video-on-demand platforms. We’ve seen a growth in all types of VOD and buyers seem to be very interested in acquiring titles, including library titles, for these new venues”, said Paul Bales, Partner and COO.

Expanding knowledge

Over the years, AFM has evolved into something larger than a film market to buy and sell independent film. The film production community from around the world are drawn here to AFM. It’s an opportunity for them to expand their knowledge about the business. Writers and producers also have the rare opportunity to access 400 film company offices in one place with the prospect to land meetings with financiers and sales agents. Potential for success relies on presenting carefully curated projects that present value and are tailored to the specific tastes of each company.

Elwes suggested that as a young producer of independent film you need to educate yourself. “AFM is a great melting pot of like-minded people. It is an opportunity to compare war stories, to hear about opportunities you didn’t know about; soft money in foreign countries or hearing about a star that people are excited about in France that you weren’t aware of. When your next project comes around you are already aware of what you can do with that movie in terms of putting the financing together to make it happen.”

Key stop for deals

For international film producers and sales agents AFM can be a key stop to secure a deal within the ambivalent U.S. territories. UniFrance’s Adeline Monzier puts it this way, “Getting a U.S. distribution deal for a French Film still carries a lot of symbolic weight and can trigger other world sales but the economic reality of the market is very difficult and it is getting harder and harder for a French foreign film to cross the symbolic million-dollar threshold at the box office.”

The European Film Promotion group (EFP), a 20-year veteran of AFM, is seeing buyers from North and South America, “showing more interest in clearly defined genre films especially suspense, horror, action, and a little bit of comedy, because the market for these films is so much stronger in their territories”.

State of transition

Independent filmmaking is still largely a relationship business so the opportunity to sit down face to face and expand the conversation about your company, talent or country beyond what has been written in the press is invaluable to everyone working in this industry.

If you feel it is a challenging time in our industry. Heed a word of advice from Bales of The Asylum, “As the market is in a state of transition. It is more important than ever to understand the market and make and buy films that will work in the current environment.”

It will be exciting to see the deals and information that manifest in Santa Monica as a sign for what 2019 has in store.

State of the union

AFM Organizer Jean Prewitt said, “Our industry is increasingly under threat, in one way or another. People seem to think that anything we can or do produce can be handed off so why does it matter? In many cases, we are not the favorite child anymore in terms of government legislatures. We have found that it is important that we [IFTA] and the MPAA stand together wherever we can, as one industry, one community. We need each other, and it is important as a group that everyone sees this. We may disagree on how to solve certain issues but we work together to address people’s needs in the best way possible.”

Charles Rivkin, Chairman & CEO, Motion Picture Association of America, said, “IFTA and  the MPAA address so many common issues around the world, and when the MPAA and IFTA stand side by side there is truly nothing we can’t accomplish together, on behalf of creatives around the world.”

According to CR, “Something has to change. The MPAA self-regulated as an industry 50 years ago by rating our own movies, to avoid that regulation going through the government. Before we rated our own films sayings like hold your hat could not be used in film, women could not show displeasure during child birth as it would look like they did not want to start a family, and if there was a kiss one foot had to remain on the floor. We needed to self-regulate and we did.”

Producer & financier perspective

Milan Popelka, COO, FilmNation Entertainment said, “We are a long term-looking company; we are thinking about how to be a platform for storytellers, as the lines between different forms of content bleed…and we become an engine that powers those stories”

“The danger and biggest risk is seeing something happening and not paying attention to it. The lifeblood of any company is always the creative.  It doesn’t matter what you want to do if you don’t have the creatives coming to you you’re probably not going to succeed.” According to Arianne Fraser, CEO, Highland Film Group, “A lot of the sales agents are becoming more hybrid…with all these various elements sometimes Netflix is the perfect partner for it [the project].” “I love to find new talent. We cast Margot Robbie and brought her to Berlin and no one knew who she was.”

Future of the industry

John Friedberg, President, International Sales, STX Entertainment said, “There are going to be so many ways to consume content – immediate – on every device – How do you curate your time and what stands out?”

On the emerging Chinese marketplace, he said, “So there is a lot of attention focused on innovative ways to approach the territory in a way that is reliable. If you build somewhere where it is a huge part of your business plan – it can pose a risk.”

Talking about the power of talent, he said, “We are looking for strong stories that can reach an audience.  We do make films with hugely valuable actors. Distributors are wanting to have a marketable element to their film.”

The buyer perspective

Syrinthia Studer, EVP, Worldwide Acquisitions, Paramount, said, “There’s many films that we might look at in the marketplace. Book Club – the conversations that were happening in social was so exciting. That movie was drawing people to theatre because it had a communal feeling with it.”

“Although my focus and role is to acquire films that are complementary to our theatrical slate, we also engage in acquiring content for a multi-platform approach.”

Sasha Buhler, Head of Acquisitions, Constantin Film, said, “There’s a lot more specialty material out there and that is what we’re looking for the content that gets audiences off their couches and into the theatre together. We’re being more discerning about what can play theatrical now.”

Large volume of pitches

Tobin Armbrust, President, Worldwide Production & Acquisitions, Virgin Produced, said, “I would say the largest volumes of pitches that I hear now are on the phone, which is a very difficult scenario… You can’t read the room, you almost feel as though you have less time… But I do get a lot of my pitches on the phone because it is almost impossible for people to continually get physical meetings, hear pitches, have people come in and out.”

“I have to take whatever that idea is, whether it is in script or it is in pitch form, I have to take that idea and I have to get it down to a kernel, because now we are talking agents. The result of however I pitch that is going to get that script or that idea or whatever that is, going to get it from number 20 in the pile to maybe number 5 or 4, so it’s incredibly important.”

Producing Successful Content

William Feng, Head of Greater China & Vice President, Asia Pacific, MPA, said, “More than 80% of co-productions film in China. Hollywood movies used to dominate the top 10 in China, now it is Chinese films”

Belle Avery, Producer, The MEG, said, “You are going to be very surprised if you shoot there… They have been wonderful… We had 2000 people on set and everything went smoothly. Some Chinese films are not getting proper distribution… We need to see more of these films in broad distribution”

Bennett Pozil, EVP, East West Bank, said, “[The] new generation of directors have great exposure to Hollywood… Every year, in the top filmmakers there are 20 to 30 Chinese filmmakers.”

Studio films with independent budgets

Jeffrey Greenstein, President, Millennium Media, said, “I think the value proposition is definitely the right way to hit the nail on the head… talking about how to get money to make your film, I think the first question is what kind of film is it and where are people going to see it.”

“I would describe foreign sales as an understanding of what the revenues will be worldwide on the worst case basis.”

Ashok Amritraj, Chairman & CEO, Hyde Park Entertainment, said, “There’s always been a certain amount of equity out there… it’s just that, whether you’re making a million-dollar film or a 20 million dollar film, you’ve got to put the investor in a place where he’s got a shot of getting his money out.”

“From the word ‘go’ you have to be passionate about what you’re going to make because it’s a long road… Today I think, more than ever, is the day of the producer. You really have to want to make your movie, you really have to understand what movie you’re going to make and you have to execute at a high level.”

 From script to screen

Tamara Birkemoe, President & COO, Foresight Unlimited, said, “You have to make sure you have the right talent attached and in general you have to make sure that the foreign and the domestic [distribution sales] is enough in addition to whatever equity you have to make the movie.”

“Find the right sales agent for your movie. You want to find the ones that are going to sell your movie the best, the ones that know the buyers they’re going to sell to.”

According to Anthony B. Beaudoin, Managing Director, Union Bank, “Once you get into budgets that exceed 5 million, you want to have a distribution plan in place before going to the bank.”

Gender diversity

Alison Thompson, Co-President, Cornerstone Films, said, “The BFI has brought in a set of diversity standards… if you want to apply for funding through the BFI, you have to comply with these standards, otherwise you won’t get funded.”

Janet Yang, Producer, said, “There’s more than just talk. There’s a lot more data out there that is so much more sophisticated than what had come out previously. There is simply no reason any longer not to make diverse content.”

Jonathan King, President of Narrative Film & Television, Participant Media, said, “In some ways, I think the big companies are better positioned to prioritize that (diversity inclusion) because of the structure and the kind of product they make; it’s a machine. They can say ‘I’m going to take a chance on someone… Whereas each independent film is its own operation.”

“We place a high priority on crew on our movies. Everyone’s focused on how many movies were directed by women, but often men graduate from other positions on the crew to directing and the pipeline isn’t really there [for women], so we focus on trying to diversify crew.”

Sales perspective

Lisa Gutberlet, EVP, International Sales & Acquisitions, Blue Fox Entertainment, said, “We really try to create a global strategy, so we also have a U.S. Distribution arm… If we are the U.S. distributor as well, that will help us place the film internationally at the right markets.”

“We really want to be a worldwide partner and create a global strategy early on, to maximize returns in the film. Spain has, for a number of years, been a relatively more difficult territory to sell and they’ve come back recently and so has Russia.”

Basil Iwanyk, Founder, Thunder Road Pictures, said, “The market is really smart. If I want 15 million dollars out of foreign and the market says [the film] is worth nine million, the market is probably right.”

“Of course it’s hard; it’s the movie business, it’s always been hard. Shockingly, the movies that are supposed to get made, get made. It’s exhausting to constantly hear everybody complain… we’re making movies. This is a great gig and yeah, it’s tough, but so what?”

Future of video on demand

John Orlando, SVP, Programming & Development, Sony Crackle, said, “We’re very careful about making shows and building things that are relevant to our audience. Genre really works well for casual viewers and for people looking to settle down and escape.”

“In this time when there are 450 drama TV series out there, and hundreds of movies being made and acquired by Netflix and Amazon, we are able to make things specifically for an audience and then we’re able to market them with specificity.”

 

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