The American Film Market in Santa Monica is the leading film market in the world for independent films. The purpose of the market is to allow buyers and sellers of independent film to meet and finalize deals in person. The meetings are not random. Much work has been done beforehand and top buyers and sellers come to the market with their appointments already set. But nothing can replace the face-to-face final discussions where crucial details often come out and the parties can really reach a meeting of the minds. One buyer from the Caribbean explained how in discussions on distribution in his markets for a film, it came out that Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands were still available despite US distribution, and he snapped those up. He explained that this was the sort of thing that comes up in conversation that can be missed in the formalities of written conversation.
While there is much that happens behind closed doors, the AFM does not have the hushed compartmentalization of a bank or law office. The feeling of walking into the lobby of the Loew’s is like walking into the human equivalent of a jet turbine engine - loud controlled high-octane ignition where money is the spark and movies are the fuel.
A true marketplace set up in the Loew’s Hotel and spilling over the Le Merigot next door and the Fairmont nearby with booths and venders of every stripe hawking their product. Banners of film industry suppliers and players line the walls and hang from the atrium balconies. Elevator doors, pylons, walls and plastered with advertising. Every industry publication lays out racks of free copies for participants to take away. Film commissions from all over the world set up booths trying to attract film producers to shoot in their region of the country and the world. Some, like the Louisiana film commission, throw big parties featuring the food and music of their regions in an effort to give the filmmakers a taste of the local flavor that could be incorporated into a film when shooting there.
Anyone can enter the hotels that house the market, hang out in the lobbies, drink in the bars and eat in the restaurants. But to leave the public common space and enter the corridors that house the players’ suites, you must have a badge.
Badges are not just for gatekeeping. Everyone you meet flashes eyes to your badge where the color-coding and large print immediately inform them even at a distance of who you are and what you are at the market to do. Sellers keeping an especially keen eye out for the blue buyers’ badges and vice-versa. They do this not only or not especially to do a deal at this market. Most people here have been preparing for a month or two for the deals they will seal at the market. But in a business that is all about relationships, the market it a chance to meet and get the measure of people you might be dealing with next year.
There is a hierarchy to the proceedings, despite the seeming chaos. Some companies at the apex of the independent food chain never leave their suites. Buyers come to them. Their appointments are prized and the order of meetings is assigned with a mandarin complexity. These companies finalize their business in the first few days, and often leave the market well before the eight days are up, all their films having been sold in all the markets.
But few rise to these heights. Most people are looking to sell or to snap up for their region the best films possible and the best price. Films sell sometimes even before they are finished. One animated film, Futuricon, screened a short sequence on the shuttle buses that circled among the hotels and theaters. Both funny and thrilling, it got snapped up for distribution. Finished films screened trailers on the buses, often as teasers to try to get buyers in to a screening at one of the AFM venues.
While not a film festival, a person with an AFM badge could spend the entire week doing nothing but watching films. But to see them all, it would take a team of 30 people to watch each of the 30 screens going simultaneously. The AFM four-walls the AMC Santa Monica 7, the Loew’s Broadway 4, The Fairmont Five, the Laemmle’s Monica, the Mann Criterion 6 and adds four screening rooms in the Le Merigot hotel to make room for all the films that want to be shown on a big screen - a total of 900 screenings in 34 languages. Some films not only screen, but create a big event around their screening. The film, “Stuck” created a giant display in the Loew’s right by the Buyer’s Lounge, had an invitation only screening Sunday night and threw a big party at Rene’s on Wilshire afterward.
After the frenzy of the first few days, business moves to forging relationships for the future. The AFM is also a mecca for new ventures setting up their current and future projects. First time distribution companies like Unistar, which have a few films ready for the market this year, are also laying groundwork for the success of their revolutionary business model. First time attendees also include production companies like Visceral Films looking to pre-sell scripts or simply to have some face-to-face contact with financing entities that they will contact and work with over the coming year.
The AFM is also a good place to parlay this year’s success into more work. A screenwriter with a film at the market made a number of appointments based on that to pitch other projects. The AFM, by bringing so many people together in such a heady atmosphere takes on a feeling of a fraternity (there are a few women, but this event is packed with testosterone) and having credits and a badge is kind of like knowing the secret handshake that makes you one of ‘us.’
At the next tier down are the non-badge holders who may have an appointment or may not, but wait in the lobby to strike up conversations and play the luck card. At the AFM, since everyone is there to do deals, most people will talk to you for a minute before deciding if you can help them or not with their business. Sometimes a few sentences ends it, and sometimes the conversations draw out, cards are exchanged, and even the occasional meeting set up. It helps if a person has a very specific reason to be there: a film, a script, a service. The trick is not to hold on to one conversation, but to strike up many looking for a match.
The market also draws people who have a vague notion that they might be able to make contact with someone to help them realize their dream. One young blonde woman walked up to a lunch table by the pool and spoke to the man sitting there saying he looked like a filmmaker and was that seat taken. She explained she was an actress, fingering her pink martini a bit nervously. Outside there are still more hopeful souls, handing out flyers for services, handing out DVD’s to anyone who’ll take them. All of them drawn by the same centripetal vortex that brought over 8,000 buyers and sellers from over 65 countries to the Loew’s where over $800 million worth of deals will be sealed.
The American Film Market website