AFM, A Look Back and a Look Forward

I always enjoy the cool ocean air as I walk up to the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica for the American Film Market every year. The shimmering Pacific Ocean is the backdrop to AFM, as it’s more commonly known to the over 7,000 attendees. It is the largest movie business event in the world and it’s quite a sight to behold. They empty out all the guest rooms at the hotel and transform them into sales offices for international production and distribution companies to hawk their wares to international buyers – this is where movies get bought, sold, seen, and pushed out to the rest of the world. It’s a behemoth of an affair and the movie business has been doing deals at AFM since 1981. Over the course of the eight days of the event each November, over $1 billion in deals get made. Yes, one billion dollars.

And it’s not uncommon to hear some of those deals go down in the five-story open atrium hotel lobby, where large-backed lounge chairs and couches act as a de facto meeting space for attendees who can look up at giant banners advertising myriad films and film production services around the balconies of the many floors above. One year I saw an advertisement with no name, and just images of shark heads coming out of a giant spiraling tornado in front of the Santa Monica Pier. They ended up calling that movie SHARKNADO, one of the SyFy channel’s biggest hits and generated many sequels, a musical at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and they are shopping around a spinoff into a kids’ animated series.

AFM 2018 drew over 1,300 buyers from 73 countries and they showed 402 screenings. The year showed a trend toward uncertainty – with the proliferation of content on every kind of device the competition has become quite stiff. But that can also be seen as a boon for independent filmmakers who can license their content to new media companies looking to fill their content space, even though the revenue from profit-participation is disappearing with it. So producers are trying to keep up with the business as it’s changing so fast because of the new streaming models. It seems like most traditional sellers are trying to find their footing in the new landscape.

LocationEXPO, an integrated locations tradeshow sprinkled throughout AFM, had a strong showing in its second year with 51 film commissions and agencies from around the globe including from Korea, Panama, Russia, Spain and Thailand – altogether they presented more than $1 billion (again, yes, $1 billion) in production incentives and opportunities. And for those that haven’t been to a locations tradeshow in the past, it’s kind of like wandering around the world and seeing all the fantastic places you can shoot, but all in one place. Booths are staffed with knowledgeable representatives from each locale, often the film commissioners themselves, and you can ask them direct questions about filming in their country or city. And if they’re offering incentives (such as Massachusetts’ 25% production credit, 25% payroll credit, and a sales tax exemption), you can start making business decisions about where to shoot.

Carl Hansen being presented the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge award. Carl Hansen, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Nic Novicki.  Photo courtesy of Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.

AFM is a great place to be, not only because the weather in Southern California is still nice in November, but because the world is there, ready to show you what its got, and waiting to see what you have to offer. For those of you looking to attend AFM this upcoming November, here are some pointers to get around:

  • Get a badge. In the past, you’ve been able to walk into the lobby of the Loews, even without a badge, but they’ve closed the access to the lobby so you must have a badge to get access to any part of the Loews now.
  • Go in with a plan and do your research. There are literally hundreds of rooms and thousands of people who are trying to sell and buy, but they’re not all buying and selling the same things. Know what you’re selling, and target the companies that go after that kind of material. Don’t approach an action/horror distributor with your RomCom.
  • You don’t need to bring a script with you. Come armed with marketing materials (postcards or a pitch deck) that you can hand out easily, and won’t bog you down. You’ll be walking around for hours, so no need to carry all that paper, and no one will just accept a script – even in a marketplace setting. Save a tree and your back.
  • Bring a ton of business cards. Yes, a little old school, but a lot of the world is still kinda old school. And make sure it has all the relevant info for you on it, including phone, e-mail, website and/or social handles.
  • Have fun and don’t be afraid to talk to anyone. You never know who’s going to be at AFM. You will see name actors and directors walking around that you may be able to interact with in a meaningful way (as long as you’re not accosting someone, they tend to be receptive in the market environment). Or you just may meet some really cool people, like accidentally sitting next to an award-winning composer from Italy who is now composing a bunch of amazing projects there. [writer’s note: that actually happened to me]

Carl Hansen is an award-winning filmmaker and Emmy-winning producer, recently having won “Best Director” in the 2019 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. Carl is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in the Entertainment industry and he enjoys volunteering his time teaching producing and production management classes to the next generation of young storytellers.

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