Script contributor, William Martell, chronicles his experiences at the 2010 American Film Market.
This is the sixth day of American Film Market, and I am on autopilot. I realize another issue with my AFM experience is not enough coffee. When I do an event like the Raindance Film Festival, I am sucking down coffee like crazy by the final days. But at AFM I’ve had a coffee before I leave the house and usually one for the drive in, and then I go to the venue and have no more caffeine. I should have bought a jar of Folger’s Crystals and ate it dry by Monday... but instead I was just tired again.
And the big problem is that I’ve decided today will be my last day at market, because I have writing assignments that need some attention. I just turned in a new draft of one assignment - a horror film, and am supposed to be working on the next assignment - a rewrite of an action film - this month. But so far, I have done nothing on it due to AFM, and this month has a holiday in it. So today is it for me at AFM...
And that was going to be a problem because I had put off talking to some of the larger companies until today, when it should be slower. The companies that I most need to have energy for... and I’m running on fumes. I walk upstairs like an old man, legs having a week of constant climbing already - like spending six days on a Stairmaster at the gym.
While walking down one of the halls I notice a pair of posters on the wall that sums up great luck with movie stars at AFM. To sell a movie, even a low budget movie, you need stars. If you tell someone that your script was made into a movie, the first thing they will ask you is “Who’s in it?” You can have the greatest story in the world, and people want to know who the actors are. Once low budget horror movies became saturated, having some name in the cast became the key to selling them. When you look at a movie poster, any movie poster, the stars names are right there on top above the title in big letters so that everyone can see them. Your name as writer? In teeny little letters near the bottom. Hey, maybe not fair, but that’s reality. There are three kinds of stars that get cast in movies that sell at AFM - stars on their way up, stars on their way down, and genre stars (B movie actors).
GENRE STARS: The funny thing about genre stars is that mainstream audience members may not know who they are. They are specialty stars, who have loyal fans within their genre. Distribs know who these genre stars are, and know which ones are hot and which ones are not and which ones have made so many movies over the past year that they are over saturated and no longer mean anything as a star. Some of these genre stars are supporting actors in A movies, like Gary Busey, but others are stars who hit big in some genre movies and now are the big fish in the small pond, like Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) who is still a star in low budget horror movies decades after his big break, and Tiffany Shepis who has worked her way up from really low budget horror films by shining in every single one of them. That’s usually how a genre star comes to be - they are cast in a film that becomes a genre hit, and suddenly the audience knows their name and wants to see more movies starring them... so producers hire them. Or they are the person who shines in some film where they may be the best thing about it. Those who start at the top, even after their stardom has waned, they are still names and faces the genre audience knows so they can continue to work... probably for less money in less expensive films. Those who start at the bottom have an upswing to larger budget genre films, and often go from supporting role to star. Both Jeffrey and Tiffany are known to the genre audience, even if you have never heard of them.
Most of my films have starred genre people. Though I have zero input on casting, I always suggest the producers hire some actors who are on their way up or actors from indie films, either instead of or in addition to the genre stars. That way the films might appeal to a larger audience who may not know the genre star. But so far, no producer has listened to me. Casting genre stars is kind of a sure thing. The target audience knows who the star is and may even seek out their films. If the producer cast an Oscar winner in a genre film, it may actually have a negative effect on sales. The target audience cares about Jeffrey Combs, but may not care at all about Judy Dench... and may even be turned off by a horror movie starring Dench. Casting mainstream names in a genre film may be a waste of money. So producers usually do what is safe and cast a genre star. I get that, but still suggest some star on their way up or indie name in the supporting roles. Often I write a couple of great supporting roles just so they can be cast with actors who are known outside the genre to bring in folks who are not those rabid genre fans... so far, none of those roles has ever been cast with anyone I’ve suggested. Pisser.
STARS ON THEIR WAY UP: One of the actors I always suggested for my films was Sam Rockwell, who is from the Bay Area (like me) and I met before he was ever in a movie. Back when they were casting Crash Drive there was a key supporting role that was written for someone who could act. The stars would still be whoever the producer thought could sell the film, but I figured the supporting roles might be where an interesting actor on their way up might elevate the whole film. But the producer said he’s never heard of Sam Rockwell (this was mid-90s). I said, “Yes, but are you planning on casting someone you have heard of in that role? Or just an actor from a casting call?” The answer was casting call, but the director wanted to pick the actor. So the guy cast wasn’t great, and nobody knows who they are today. We did score on two other actors from the casting call: Catherine Bell as the female lead (she had done an episode of Hercules) and Christopher Titus as the comic relief character (was doing stand up in clubs) - both went on to headline their own TV shows after we discovered them.
One of the ways an AFM company can get lucky is by casting a talented actor who seems to be on their way up... and that star ends up in a huge hit studio movie. So the number one live action movie over the weekend was Due Date starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis and Zach did some low budget movies for AFM companies before being discovered by mainstream Hollywood... and the posters came out at AFM on Monday. Suddenly that old title the company had in their back catalogue became the hot title they were pushing to any territory that hadn’t bought it. I think this is why AFM companies need to look at the up-and-coming actors and have a good idea of who they are and how talented they are. One problem with many of the AFM companies (including guys I have sold to) is that they only care about the star that sells the film and the rest of the roles are meaningless to them... when those secondary roles may give the film a second life if any of the actors cast hit big later on.
STARS ON THEIR WAY DOWN: The other place AFM find actors to headline their films are stars on their way down. Either because the star gets too old for whatever genre they are best known for, or completely screws up their career; they often end up starring in films at AFM. Tom Sizemore went from Heat to headlining a Michael Mann produced TV show to crashing and burning (and doing some jail time) and ending up starring in AFM movies made for half a million bucks... which is probably what Sizemore was getting per episode for that TV show. The great thing about AFM movies is that they are kind of a safety net for actors that studios no longer want to hire. Last year’s hot babe in some studio film may be this year’s dramatic actress in an AFM film... or the chief of police in a genre film. Burt Reynolds may play a retired cop who gets involved in a murder investigation in an AFM film.
The big score was the company who had a star on his way up with Zach Galifianikis and a star in limbo with a Dakota Fanning movie. No longer a kid, and not a sexy babe, Fanning is at an awkward age for mainstream studio films which makes her perfect for AFM movies. Everyone knows who she is, so she can sell a movie, but she’s probably affordable because there aren’t many people who want to hire her. She’s in like an adult Culkin. So here she is in an AFM movie that will probably come to a Blockbuster near you... if they are still in business.
Hey, a couple of days ago I met Will Vinton, and now I’m using the title of one of his films! As I wander the hallways at AFM I notice that many of the doors are closed with notes on them. Some of the notes say they have closed early today and have a phone number where you can call if you want to meet with the company, and others are just plain closed for the rest of the market - the people have flown back to whatever country they came from (which might even be Beverly Hills). This tells me more about the market than the press releases I’m getting in my e-mail box every morning that tell me how business as AFM is booming and attendance is up 6% over last year. Um, business seems to be so slow people are leaving after the weekend.
Many of the other company offices are run by skeleton staffs, making deals on whatever territories still need movies. If Bulgaria needs a couple of horror movies to fill out their slate, there’s someone in the office who can sell them... but not the boss. The boss may have already left.
This becomes another issue with interviewing people for my article - I wanted a huge number of interviews so that I could find a consensus, and so far I have a few interviews... and it doesn’t seem like I’m going to get many more today. Between my lack of sleep and energy and the closed companies, my “sample” is going to be smaller than I wanted. I’m worried about my article (though, if you are reading this blog you may not be as worried, since my AFM coverage is going to run about 65 pages). I go downstairs... and bump into Mike, who wrote a family film that has done well in Family Film Festivals. He asks me if I’m going to the seminar. “What seminar?” The one on making movies that starts in half an hour. “Who’s giving it?” Some group, but one of the panelists is Mark Damon. “I’m going.”
Some of you may be wondering who Mark Damon is, others know that he is the pretty boy actor who played opposite Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher (1960). Oh, yeah, and he’s the King of AFM. While living in Italy and being the American star in a bunch of Spaghetti Westerns (like Johnny Yuma), he began putting together deals for U.S. indie films for Italy and Italian films for America, and started one of the first foreign sales companies. Since then he has been the driving force in international film sales, and has made many films you have probably seen and continues to make upscale indie films like Monster and The Upside of Anger. The other panelists were equally impressive. And it was free. I went in, grabbed a seat, clicked on my pocket recorder in the event anyone said anything quotable, and the panel began... and it was all quotable!
Besides Mark Damon, the panel included entertainment attorney Todd Stern, casting director Ronnie Yeskel, publicist Erik Bright and was moderated by Sydney Levine and presented by DreamAgo - an organization that connects talent with business.
Mark Damon said so many great things about screenwriting and the importance of the screenplay in an indie film deal, and how one goes about getting a good script, that I had my article for Script magazine. A better article than if I had talked to every distrib at market (they never like talking about screenplays, probably because many have no idea what makes a good script and are afraid of having this pointed out in print). It was a great panel, lots of information, and plenty of stuff that writers need to know about this part of the business.
After the seminar there was a little party on the balcony, with wine and cheese and I grabbed some of each. During the panel, I noticed a student from a decade ago when I lectured at Art Center College in Pasadena named Maja, and asked her what she was up to - she’s producing her second film! That’s great! She’s someone I see every once in a while at screenings and working in producer’s offices. There are people who work their butts off finding a way into the business, and they’re the ones who make it.
After talking with Maja, I mingled... but am such a wallflower that I talked with no one else, not even Mark Damon who was only a few feet away or Sydney Levine who was talking to the person next to me. I have to get over this - I’ll talk to someone I know, but I am not good at meeting and chatting up strangers. Hey, I even had a meeting with Mark Damon over 15 years ago - that would have broken the ice. But instead I finished my wine and cheese and did a final lap of the lobby before leaving AFM for good. If they are closing up offices on Monday, I can’t imagine what Tuesday will be like. For me, AFM was over... and now I had to get back to work on my script assignment.