American Film Market on a shoestring budget

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by Erik Sean McGiven

In early November, the American Film Market comes alive with sellers, buyers, and promoters bartering for placement in distributor’s catalogs. With an attendance of around 8,000, AFM is the World’s largest motion picture trade event. It’s a marketplace where producers and sales companies license films to distributors, and this year, they project to have 2,000+ New Films and Projects, 1,000+ Distributors, and 400+ Production Companies. The Market is based at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and uses conference rooms and movie theatres in the area.

For struggling filmmakers and screenwriters, AFM offers opportunities for networking, project financing, and distribution. However, on a shoestring budget, it takes a lot of planning to achieve one’s goals. Attendance fees are steep, and exhibition costs are higher. Yet, there are ways to obtain meaningful accomplishments and do so without breaking the bank.

The immense size of AFM may seem overwhelming to first-timers, but it’s more a community with established relationships that date back years. Rapport and trust have been built over time, and while the products may evolve, the people stay pretty much the same. It’s also a market of niches where buyers must evaluate which products will have value in their home markets. Buyers face another challenge; in addition to assessing potential value and the whims of filmgoers six months to a year, they must also judge how present economic conditions will affect the entertainment marketplace. In previous downturns, movies have played the escapist role, but that was before entertainment became so fragmented. Now, there are considerably more choices, and younger audiences find that the Internet, iPods, and video games better fit their needs and budgets.

Yet, whatever the state of the economy, there will always be a need for products. Theatres, television, cable, satellite, and now the Internet all look for viable programming. Multiplex screens and television schedules eat up a vast number of titles. With the major studios cutting back and concentrating on blockbuster entries, there are product voids, and independent filmmakers stand ready to fill them. Moreover, as the ongoing credit crisis limits the number of movies released, those who obtain financing will find foreign distribution easier to acquire.

For low-budget independent filmmakers, especially on a shoestring, working in this Market requires considerable preparation. The AFM Pitching seminar stressed the importance of having a brief, coherent presentation, whether it’s a project in development, a proposed script, or a completed film. One must remember that buyers, sales agents, and distributors receive countless pitches, and to avoid getting lost in the shuffle, you and your project must be memorable. Your pitch should have water-cooler walkability. By that, I mean it should be highly transferable and be able to travel through the community without losing energy. Long before the Market opens, this process should begin by contacting your prospects and giving them a preview of what you will be presenting. You can do this via mail, email, or by phone. Could you give them a taste to whet their appetite? See the Market’s tips on How to work the AFM, especially the guidelines on Pitching Essentials.

Jonathan Wolf, AFM Managing Director, reiterates the importance of obtaining assistance in areas where you are weak. Pulling together the expertise and good judgment of others is an essential part of being a successful producer. This may require attaching a producer to your project who is more familiar with the creative aspects, one who is capable of securing financing, or a line producer who can manage the details of the production itself. If the film is near completion, a producer’s rep may be of help in obtaining festival exposure as well as securing a distribution deal. A publicist may also be required to create the desired pre-market buzz. Adding a sales agent to secure licensing rights within various foreign territories is another asset that ups the value of your package.

One obstacle for first-timers is identifying likely prospects and obtaining their contact information. For a listing of exhibitors and their contact information, go to the American Film Market website and navigate to Attend/Buyer/Exhibitor List. Since some of these companies also serve as sales agents, this list will be useful in locating these people. One can use other directories to cross-reference and identify the sales agents attending. Google or Bing “Sales Agents for Films” for various directories and look specifically for the one put out by Screen Australia. This pdf directory contains 22 pages of detailed contact information, including person-to-contact, acquisition policies, and recent acquisitions.

Another source is the directory on the Internet Movie Data Base, pro version – IMDbPro. Navigate to Company Directory, and from Type Company, scroll down to Sales Representatives. This addition to IMDb offers greater industry information and is available on a monthly subscription basis. Also, check out the KFTV online directory for their list of sales agents. This free online service caters to the international entertainment industry. Enter Sales Agents in the search window.

Short phone calls can help establish a rapport with targeted personnel. However, most filmmakers are reluctant to do this because international calls can be expensive. I would suggest using a low-prepaid international calling card. LDPOST has a list of available services along with rates by country. For instance, calls to France, London, and Germany can be as low as 2.0 to 2.4 cents a minute, cheaper than stateside long-distance rates. Place your call-in number, then your PIN, on your speed dial to streamline this connection process. There is also a Direct Dial option available where you dial a single number.

Because your prospect will not likely have the final say, your pitch and accompanying materials should provide strong sales arguments that can move up the corporate ladder. Up front, it should state your objectives, i.e., seeking an international sales agent, seeking co-production financing, or seeking acquisition of a completed script, etc. While your presentation may be convincing, it’s competing with numerous others, and having statements and figures to back up your arguments is essential.

There is a long list of evidentiary materials, and here are some of the more prominent ones. Include the ones that best represent your project. Comparisons to similarly budgeted films–their critical and box office success, logline, elevator synopsis, full synopsis, script coverage, named actors, named director, named DP, projected budget, festival awards, reviews, test screening results, audience ratings, trailer, DVD screener, poster artwork, press book materials, production stills, production stories, music tie-ins, merchandising opportunities, unique locations, EPK, film’s web site, and project’s blogs. Label these items with the project name and contact information, then package them in a clear plastic bag so they are not mixed up with materials submitted by others. State the availability of the master and release copies and their screening format. Condense your pitch into succinct leave-behind summaries that contain pertinent arguments and include goals along with all vital contact information.

While one quest in presenting a film at the Market is to obtain a sale, another is to generate a buzz for your movie. Postcards, DVD handouts, one-sheets, and walking billboard characters are some methods used. A film’s talk-ability inertia is a key factor in gaining distribution or representation by an international sales agent. A few of this year’s foreign language Oscar contenders use AFM to maximize award-season exposure. Additional buzz can be obtained from reviews or news briefs in trade publications such as Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, Deadline Hollywood, and indieWire.

During the latter half of the Market, Industry Half-Market Badges are available. During this period, exhibitors have more time to meet with you and are more receptive to hearing your pitch. To best utilize your time, map out your prospects and their hotel locations. Be aware that exhibitors are on numerous floors and that some share space. Scheduling appointments will help lend more credibility to your project. While the Half-Market Badge is good for four days, the final day is a getaway, and most exhibitors are packed and closed by noon.

It may take some time for buyers to get back to you, so it’s a good idea to follow up, reinforce your pitch, and document the arguments supporting your project. It also helps to add new developments that make the project more appealing. Follow up first with an email and later with a phone call. Because these are busy people, focus on the feedback you need. While you may be looking for a deal memo, you should also look for ways to strengthen the relationship. An appreciative thank you card can be helpful, especially when it notes useful advice or feedback you’ve received.

AFM conferences and seminars are good places to network and promote your project. In past years, topics have included seminars on pitching, financing, co-production deals, and incentives and tax rebates. These conferences are normally an added cost to your market pass, and prices are listed on the American Film Market website.

One of the perks of being a pass holder is picking up various print publications covering the Market. These publications include Screen, Cineuropa, Beyond Cinema, Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, plus industry trade editions such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. These are available on the mezzanine level and are free to pass holders.

I would also suggest taking in several screenings to see how other filmmakers promote their products. There are over 500 screenings to pick from, and while big-budget, big-star films draw respectable audiences, most films play to small crowds. Yet these gatherings afford opportunities to meet industry people, particularly filmmakers and producers. Use this time effectively and choose films closely related to your project. Screening times and theatre locations are listed in the catalog. Shuttle buses to various theatres are provided outside the Loews Hotel.

There are numerous opportunities in the Market to pitch ideas, network, and gain knowledge about the industry. The hotel lobbies where participants mingle are prime spots. It’s a relaxed atmosphere where spiels and business cards fly about at will. In addition, it’s a good idea to have as much information as possible on your card. Some attendees apply a sticker to the back with pertinent information about their project and company. Where applicable, write on back a desired call to action. Things such as “View my trailer at… ” When you exchange hundreds of cards, one can easily forget, so note those you receive.

With technological advances, you will also find notebook presentations as a practical means of making a presentation. These devices can play trailers, interviews with stars, and offer samples of promotional materials. There are numerous advantages to this type of presentation in that they are quick and to the point. Film is a visual medium, and what better way to promote a project? Most prospects are amicable to watching a short trailer and, if interested, open to viewing more materials. However, you have to identify the buyers and open a dialogue. While the color-coded badges provide some helps, most buyers are so inundated with impromptu pitches they stuff their badges inside their shirt.

There are also special receptions, parties, and red-carpet events, and most require being on the invitation list. While most of these events are for established friends and associates, a kindly inquiry can sometimes result in an invitation. While not openly publicized, invitations are handed out to promote a product or company. Sometimes, it is to firm up established relations or appreciate past business.

Lastly, mingle effectively. Introduce yourself by tagging your name with a profession, company affiliation, and info about your project. Listen, ask questions, and work the entire room with meaningful, productive dialogue. Regarding mingling with the international side of the business, AFM is at the top of the class, a marketplace where chance encounters can easily evolve into lucrative deals.

Erik Sean McGiven has attended the American Film Market as a film representative, publicist, and reviewer. The information compiled in this article results from his research and attending workshops on how to best utilize AFM opportunities, especially on a limited budget. Erik writes articles on the entertainment industry in addition to doing film reviews. Links to these articles and reviews are available on his website. He has worked in the industry in several positions, including producer, writer, director, production designer, script supervisor, reader, and reviewer.

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