As much as we in the news, are supposed to remain objective and not play favorites, there are some things admittedly, that we at Reel 360 and Reel Chicago get really stoked to cover.
November has become one of those months we love to focus on as awards season has kicked off and with awards season comes The American Film Market.
Besides the fact that I met my wife at the market in 2017 – which was the ultimate deal for me – over 8,000 industry professionals, from more than 70 countries, converge in Santa Monica every November to create their own deals. It’s amazing to watch the relaxed city at the beach become electric.
Acquisition and development executives, agents, attorneys, directors, distributors, festival directors, financiers, film commissioners, producers, writers, the world’s press, all here to buy and sell.
According to the AFM, over $1B in deals were solidified here last year. That is a WHOLE lot of converging.
One of the main reasons the market continues to excel and exceed is due to the man behind it, Jonathan Wolf. Since becoming Managing Director of AFM in 1998, Wolf has guided the growth and repositioning of the American Film Market into the world’s largest film market.
It is as he calls it, “The United States’ version of Cannes.”
I had heard much about Jonathan, having covered the market since 2015 for Reel Chicago and then Reel Chicago’s Reel LA column. But I never got to chat with him. This year, with Reel 360 expanding its coverage of the market, we thought it was high time to sit down with Jonathan and pick his brain so our readers, who are attending, know best how to use the market.
It finally happened. Turns out I only had to ask and Reel 360 finally got on a call with Jonathan to discuss the upcoming market.
Jonathan, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. We’re huge fans of the market. Thank you. We really appreciate that.
So, the studio model has changed drastically. Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount and the rest are basically releasing brands now. There aren’t really smaller films being released. Does that have any impact on the AFM? Do you think it will cause certain groups to dominate? Well, we’re fortunate that in the independent film world that there isn’t a dominating presence because the creative process is so diverse and spread out.
There are literally hundreds of companies so you can’t say which studio dominated the box office when you only have six players, so it’s easy to see the couple of winners and losers. We have something like 350 or 400 companies, from 60 or 70 countries, so there isn’t really a dominant force. Now, if if you take the viewpoint of the only thing that matters are 50 million dollar independent films that are going to have wide theatrical releases in the U.S., then you could potentially come down to a short list of players. But, we don’t view the landscape through that lens.
What are you excited most about this year? Two things actually. First, it’s always discovering what new projects and films have come forward because we’ll screen three hundred or so films, but our staff is different than a festival staff, where we don’t see any of the films in advance. In fact, our staff isn’t even permitted to go into the screenings. So, for us the excitement is hearing the buzz throughout the market and afterwards either about which films premiered that got a lot of positive reaction or which packages were announced in up for pre-sale.
Also this year, we are continuing to expand our programming in terms of conferences, roundtables and presentations. We’re now up to about 50 or so sessions across three stages. So, we literally have three programs going on at a time throughout the market and that creates a lot of both energy in terms of, “What do I do next? Who do I go listen to?”
Were you aware of the amount of people who attend from Chicago and the Midwest in general? You know, I wish I knew that ahead of time. We have had people from about 70 countries and last year, 43 states. So, it really is everyone from everywhere.
What can you tell a person from Chicago or the Midwest who wants to pay for that badge? What can they expect? What can they hope to gain? I would say this to anyone coming from wherever. Film is a collaborative process. Think of a band. If you’re a drummer and you’re sitting in a city where no one plays your kind of music, you can’t really progress unless you travel to where someone is playing that music.
If you play grunge, you’re going to Seattle. Country, Nashville. You have to find the right people to collaborate with. Film is similar. Yes, writers can sit on a mountaintop alone and come up with an amazing script. Sometimes, they’ve got to come down off the mountain and hang out with the rest of the industry. The collaborators in this country are primarily in Los Angeles.
Yeah, there’s a great film scene in New York, Chicago and a few other cities, but if you want to collaborate, you have to make coming to LA or Hollywood part of your regular cycle. The advantage of AFM is that it’s really a twofer. It’s both the show and it’s Hollywood’s – an opportunity for people, traveling from wherever, to not just participate in the market, but to set up meetings and activities within the Hollywood community.
As a screenwriter, I have also found that AFM is particularly helpful and supportive of my brothers and sisters We try to be. We don’t focus solely on a screenwriter, but we do acknowledge they are attending and try to help them understand the business side of the film industry and what they need to know.
Why? Because writers can be like painters. They can write things that they enjoy. People paint things they enjoy, but does that necessarily make it commercially viable? So, we try to educate them [through roundtables and panels] on the marketplace. Not to change their art, but to help them understand that if they are looking at writing as a profession, rather than a hobby, they have to look at what is going to sell.
How does someone, who doesn’t really know the market, maximize their experience at AFM? Plan ahead. While there are lots of people you can bump into and have casual conversations, the success of AFM is based on appointments. Planning ahead means determining weeks in advance. Three or four weeks in advance. Who do you want to meet? What panels can you attend? Using the MY AFM website is essential to see who the participants are and see who you might want to just get to know.
People who don’t have a positive experience [at the market] buy a credential, walk in the front door and say, “Now what do I do?” They expect things to happen rather than them making it happen. What they see are thousands of other people with purpose and they’re standing there wondering what is my purpose. It’s planning ahead and really just diligently determining what it is you want to do.
I found the AFM app is an invaluable tool. Yep. The key thing is, that you get to see who is there before you get there. If you’re a writer and you’re looking for horror producers, you can literally search in the app, find them and set up a meeting.
With the current guild/agent situation, do you anticipate even more WGA members attending? For someone who is a pure writer, the AFM has value, but it has value only in the right for the right individual. And that is an individual who’s actually good at pitching. The reason that a writer would attend the AFM is simply to convince people to read their script. So for that, yes we may get more guild members this year. That’s all. They’re not there to sell their script. Success is getting a producer to ask to read the script. They’re going to take it home and read it after the show. AFM works for writers who feel that they can do a great job pitching and therefore get value. Otherwise they have to find different avenues find producers to carry that script for them.
But it really does seem that it would behoove the writer who is attending to go to the panels and roundtables – especially with the likes of Blumhouse and Pilar Alessandra teaching the pitching process. You make a good point. There is also a third reason beyond selling. Education is the third thing which gives the writer a sense of what the marketplace is. If the writer is thinking about doing a certain type of film or a certain type of genre, they are able to go door-to-door and ask companies, “What are you working on? What do you guys wish you had and can’t get enough of?” So, after attending a writer may turn around and say, “Now I need to develop a story along this or that line or genre because that’s what the marketplace is seeking now.”
I’ll wrap it up with this – one of the things that made the AFM so intriguing and entertaining was the lobby at the Loews. It was filled with, how do I put this tastefully – colorful characters. Now, you’ve made it harder to enter the Loews and there was some negative buzz about it. What are your thoughts? [Laughs] Let me give you a couple of answers to that. First, I’ve been wanting to do this for about 10 years.
There’ve been a number of both political and logistical roadblocks. When the AFM was first formed, it positioned itself in the middle of the marketplace. It was for people looking to do 2 to 5 million dollar films. There were a larger number of people with smaller films. Over the last 5 years or so that’s changed. The middle ground film has pretty much disappeared with the exception of some non-English art films that have lots of government funding. The AFM brand had to move up to a new level in order to be more relevant to those who are promoting theatrical features globally. And it meant that we just had to be a little more bespoke to those attending.
Now I have a question for you.
Jonathan: I understand you met your wife at AFM? Colin: That’s absolutely true.
Jonathan: Well, first of all, congrats. And you know, I won’t take any credit for it. I just would like a special thanks.
Done. Thank you Jonathan and the rest of the AFM team.
The AFM will take place from November 6 (the day I met my wife) to November 13 at the Loews Hotel, Fairmount Hotel, Le Merigot, as well as other venues around Santa Monica. It’s still possible to pick up a badge here.
Contact Colin Costello at firstname.lastname@example.org.