AFM: Time for a rethink?

This year’s American Film Market made a comeback as an in-person event after two years due to Covid, but judging by the Loews Hotel’s empty corridors and lack of announced deals it seemed a smaller, quieter affair than Cannes Market in May.

While attendance figures released by the Independent Film & Television Alliance on Wednesday are more than decent – a record 87 countries were represented among 5,866 participants – AFM suffered from a lack of announcements of major new projects. Other recurring themes included ongoing concerns about the new realities of the theater sector and the dangers looming on the horizon from political and economic factors such as a looming recession and the war in Ukraine.

305 companies from 38 countries registered as exhibitors at AFM, with most exhibitors coming from Great Britain after the USA, followed by Italy, France, Germany and Canada. From Asia, South Korea and Thailand had 17 and eight exhibition companies respectively. Buyers came from 68 countries, with the majority coming from the US, followed by Germany, the UK and Japan, with the most active contingent from Asia. There were only two buyers from China and 14 from Russia.

A few brave souls could be heard uttering the mantra that the film was counter-cyclical or even recession-proof. But these optimistic sentiments don’t fully account for the harsh reality that China is largely absent as a buyer, currency moves of anywhere between 10% and 25% large enough to jeopardize deals; and rising interest rates threatening stagflation in areas like the UK

Few deals were announced during the market, due to fewer projects being sourced and because the pandemic has changed “buying cycles,” as Arianna Bocco, President of IFC Films puts it. “The dealmaking is more consistent, there’s no more breaking into the markets, and deals are taking longer to close – they might not close for a month,” added Bocco, who also pointed out that IFC is having talks about one of two titles leads from the AFM. Bocco said she was “on the fence” about the effectiveness of a market like AFM, which she says isn’t as competitive as Berlin and Sundance even in a normal year.

Bocco admits it was invigorating to “engage with co-workers,” but it also took “a lot of time, energy, and money to travel to Los Angeles.” She also says some projects are “on the expensive side” and are “tightening buyers’ wallets,” particularly with “general inflation” making deals even riskier.

But these issues — and the changes brought about by COVID and streaming — are better solved by buyers, sellers, financiers and producers meeting in person than over Zoom.

So, like Cannes before it, the Santa Monica Convention served the purpose of bringing together the independent and international components of the industry. The first day was sleepy, but Thursday (day three of six) saw long lines of visitors looking for short-term passes.

“Although the Loews was less well attended, it was the first AFM in three years to be held in person. And as the industry reinvents itself, AFM is also going through a period of self-analysis and reinvention – some companies are conducting their business remotely, others are using hotel lobbies and public venues, and still others are still operating in the offices where they have operated for years. But where there is no doubt – people want to gather and do business,” said Dylan Leiner, executive vice president of acquisitions and production at Sony Pictures Classics. “People still want three markets. But the format is changing, as evidenced by how few people have rented space at Loews.”

The Loews’ taped-off upstairs corridors, a retreat from the nearby Merigot Hotel, and rooms shared by as many as three companies were all visible scars of the old order.

Buyers and sellers continued to argue that good stories/quality films/premium content (choose your ubiquitous term) still have a bright future.

“AFM was a great opportunity for us to sell Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film ‘The Island’ which has been loved by distributors everywhere. We’ve also been able to take the time to review our upcoming films, which will be delivered in 2023, so we can work with our distribution partners to prepare for theatrical success,” said Glen Basner, CEO of Filmnation Entertainment. “Although we all face challenges as the world evolves around us – including interest rate increases and currency fluctuations – we feel our dynamic independent marketplace is prepared for any change and will continue to be a foundation for the film business.”

Hugo Grumbar, partner at Embankment Films, is equally optimistic. Admittedly, the company handles some of the rare hot packages unveiled at AFM, most notably “An Ideal Wife” starring Emilia Clarke as Constance Lloyd, Oscar Wilde’s wife and Irish author. “Distributors are taking a much more targeted approach to their acquisitions, but we’re very encouraged by their continued commitment in the knowledge that our titles have recognizable stars and clearly identifiable audiences,” says Grumbar.

Over at Munich-based Global Screen, Klaus Rasmussen, SVP International Sales and Acquisitions, emphasizes, “AFM is primarily intended for commercial products that reach a wide audience.”

Like many European sales banners, Global Screen bought many franchise-based family films and cartoons. These included “Lasse,” which Rasmussen says worked well with buyers. Meanwhile, Martin Moszkowicz, CEO of Constantin Film, one of Germany’s largest distributors, questioned the purpose of the AFM, despite believing it was a “decent market”. “Los Angeles is always a good place to do business. With or without AFM,” says the manager.

Korean executives visited Los Angeles in large numbers, with production executives taking meetings away from the Loews and being sought out for co-productions and remakes that might outnumber those at Loews booths in hopes of passing trade.

Contents Panda, the distribution arm of Next Entertainment World, reported strong sales for The Night Owl, a thriller upcoming release. “Horror titles seem to be doing well,” said sales director Danny Lee. “And in some cases, we prepare content as both a film and a TV series, so we can speak to both groups of buyers.”

All in all, there is still room for a pure market like the AFM to exist alongside the industry confabs of festivals like Cannes and the EFM in Berlin, but it may need a rethink. An even more streamlined format, sprinkled with more networking and fun events, as well as affordable prices and a different venue, could provide the needed sense of excitement and help the AFM thrive in this brave new world of independent film. AFM: Time for a rethink?

Charles Jones

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