AFM – Jonathan Wolf Instructs Writer/Producers To Do Their Homework



AFM 2016 -photo by PR company

On the eve of the 37th the American Film Market - one of the top three sales and business events for the film industry - I talked to the managing director Jonathan Wolf about what writers and other creatives can do to enhance their success at the market.   The AFM is the world’s largest film market. 


As a writer, myself, and teacher of writing, I am often asked by students and industry friends if a writer -alone - can find real success at the annual American Film Market in Santa Monica.   Since it has always been my thought, in the years that I have covered the AFM, that many of the exhibitors are there to sell their own films to international buyers and not purchase stories from writers, especially those who have no funds and no attachments, I hesitated to encourage my associates.  Yet, according to Mr. Wolf, there is hope for those who properly prepare for the event and do their homework ahead of time. 

Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director of AFM - photo from PR


Mr. Wolf has served as head of this prestigious event for over eighteen years.  With a background in international finance and distribution, Jonathan Wolf strives to make the AFM a place where the production community will, find relevance and connections.  He focuses on the commerce and business of the industry because, despite what many passionate creatives feel, filmmaking is a business and those involve in it want to enjoy the profits while entertaining their audiences.  "I want all voices to be heard.  The filmmaking business is a team effort."


One of the special side effects of the AFM, and other events like this, are the fact that one has the opportunity for face time with the people you wish to do business with.   As many know, this is a relationship industry.  It's not just who you know and who knows about you, but how they feel about you personally and if they feel they can work with you.   Movies can take years not only to make, but to fund and prepare, post and project.  Those who are on the producing end want to know that they like you and can work with you easily for several years.   Developing these relationships can take patience, tenacity and sometimes years.

So the real purpose of the AFM, besides the obvious one of selling your films, is networking and connecting. You have to be out there and meet people.  Writers and producers who sit home and wait to be found, probably never will.   Doing one's homework is a crucial part of this.  Weeks before the event, pour over The Film Catalogue - one of Mr. Wolf's creations - and see who is distributing and what type of films they seek.  "Make appointments with those you feel might be receptive to you.  Know their names and their roles as well as some of their films you might have liked.  Don't go into a room and ask for the person doing acquisitions."  Not only does that show arrogance, but it proves that you are not really into the business.  "Filmmaking is an art, but it is first and foremost it's a business." 


"A majority of the deals made at the AFM are for features that have not yet started production yet."   Producers  understand where you fall in the scheme of the industry.  Are you a creative producer/writer?  Are you a sales producer?  Or are you a line producer or another industry associate?   .  What is your package?  Who is your audience?  Most stories are dependent on execution, but one cannot generalize.  "Monster would probably never have been made if the right star had not been there for it."  Every script, every story, is different and each have different journeys to their end productions. A dramatic film that needs a A-list actor to get over the sales hump will be more difficult to sell than one who can have unknown actors involved. (Genres as horror and thriller can often succeed here and sell well internationally, though during the AFM I learned that even horror now needs some recognizable name.)


AFM 5th floor hall photo by Henry Tarlow

Having production incentives - or at least knowing about them - and equity can sometimes be more attractive to buyers than the right star.  "Understanding the business and realizing it is not just a creative venture is your key to success.  You cannot just hand someone a script, expect them to read it, and buy it on the spot."  The AFM reflects the global audience's taste.  "It's a place for projects to get established and find traction. Sometimes one has to look at what the studios are doing - and then consider doing the opposite."


Even those who believe themselves to be pure writers must, for the sake of the conference and for their own success, assume a producer hat. That is, they need to understand the buyers, their needs, the budget of their films, and how everyone involved will benefit.  It's not enough to be passionate about your story and know you are a good writer.  Again, by understanding what possible location incentives might be had for your script indicates you are a savvy producer.  Don't go into a meeting without knowing something about sales, without understanding the global market, and what is working out there.  Know which stars are internationally acceptable, and what budgets and genres are being sought as well.


 "If you are not good at sales, then you need to find a selling producer to be on your team. When I take a poll at the orientation meetings a majority of the attendees believe themselves to be creative producers.  Very few are sales producers.  Those sales people are, however, the ones you want to attract.  Our hallways are not for shoppers.  Most people are traipsing from appointment to appointment.  When you are in between meetings, you need to be studying the film catalogue and see what other meetings you can set up.  The later days of the AFM are often better for meetings since the first few days those there want to sell their own films.  However, if you already have a finished film, you do have an advantage and might want to purchase the full eight day package."


2016 AFM - Chang Yi photo by Henry Tarlow

Your lawyer or representative would tell you to never to leave scripts. So don't burden yourself or others by dragging those packages along (besides, today most people have you email material.)   Bring plenty of your business cards, your bio, and a one page about your film as well as your own understanding of the company you are approaching.   Be brief and consider what they, the buyers, need.  Yes, a good story is crucial. Everything starts with story, but if that is all you have, the production of your film will take a long time unless you learn to team up with the right people.  In between your appointments, check in with people and call those you want to set up for future meetings.


While the price of the event is considered high for some, one has to chose wisely.  Those selling completed films might consider buying the full seven day package.  Again, set up your meetings ahead of time. The first few days are when the distributors and sales companies are meeting with buyers. During the second half, Saturday through Tuesday are the best for writer-producers looking to meeting people.  That's when the price of credentials drops 35%. 


 At one time, people could congregate at the pool, hang out and schmooze as they tried to meet buyers and producers without having to buy a badge.  However, many of the credentialed attendees felt pushed and over-crowded by those who had no credentials - many who often nursed cokes for hours at a time.   So, in 2014 it was decided that badges would be needed for those wanting to be poolside.  The lobby and bar, however, is still accessible - as are the local restaurants where many buyers and exhibitors hang out afterwards.  "Our costs are less than most major conferences where you often have to rush the stage for 30 seconds with the speaker - which may or may not help you later.  Here, you meet people in the hallways, restaurants and everywhere." 

So, can writers looking to start projects find success at the AFM?  It all depends on how you define success.  At the AFM you might get a chance to pitch your project to someone.  A novice writer believes that will mean a sale.  Maybe, but that is often wrong.  The established writer/producer knows that a pitch is part of a multi-stage process.  A good pitch brings you one step closer to having someone agreeing to read your script.  One step closer to a possible green-light.   Maybe one step out of a 20.  But the AFM is not just a place to pitch.  It's a place to get intelligence that you can use later on.  It's a place to start and develop relationships. Mr. Wolf says that actors, line, cinematographers, set and costume designers, etc who are seeking films to work on will not benefit by attending.


If you are coming to the event and your only goal is to find money or a producer for your passion project, than you might not have success.  If you are, however, coming here to meet people, develop relationships - which can take time to cement- and come away with a few people that you can keep contact with, than you have met with success.  "In fact," says Mr. Wolf, "some come to AFM just to see what the market place is seeking.  It's a learning process.  You need to not only know what is selling know, but try and get a handle on what will sell next.  If Sci-fi westerns did not do well a few years ago, and if you understand westerns, maybe something will be coming around again shortly. So many people become stealth learners here." 

So having set up my appointments, I look forward to seeing some of my old friends again and make some new ones…and who knows…maybe it will result in a new script deal for me.   See you at the pool.

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