Script contributor, William Martell, chronicles his experiences at the 2010 American Film Market.
The alarm goes off way too early. I drink a quick cup of coffee and check my e-mails - about 30 AFM related press releases, plus two party invitations. I RSVP to the later one, not wanting to ditch the market in the later afternoon for a Hong Kong Film Fest & Market party - I’ve been to the fest a couple of times in the past. I zip off to AFM without even stopping at Starbucks for a coffee to go...
Day two of AFM was more crowded... but still nothing like past years. Plenty of empty chairs in the lobby. It is hot again, and I’m glad I’m not a salesman in a suit and tie. But I am thirsty as heck, and a coffee or soda or even a glass of water at the hotel is not cheap. I’ll just tough it out. Even though the place looks empty, the official press release says:
The business of independent motion picture production and distribution -- a truly collaborative process -- reaches its peak every year at the AFM when more than 8,000 industry leaders converge in Santa Monica for eight days of deal-making, screenings, seminars, premieres, networking and parties. Participants come from more than 70 countries and include acquisition and development executives, agents, attorneys, directors, distributors, festival directors, financiers, film commissioners, producers, writers, the world's press and all those who provide services to the motion picture industry.
The 2010 American Film Market today announced updated screening numbers, with a total of 427 films appearing at the market. Of those, 43 are world premieres, 306 market premieres and 21 will be presented in 3D. Exhibitors from 36 countries will hold more than 700 screenings. AFM Managing Director Jonathan Wolf announced today.
Many films are already generating Oscar buzz on the eve of the AFM, Nov. 3-10. Throughout its 30-year history, 18 films that have won the “Best Picture” Academy Award® were sold at AFM.
I don’t see anything like 8,000 people here. But maybe they’re all waiting for the weekend. The hallways seem empty. What has happened to Indie films?
THREE TYPES OF INDIE
An independent film is one that is made outside the system. Usually the writer doesn’t sell their screenplay, instead they find the money from private sources and make the film themselves. Those private financial sources can be anything from selling your body to medical experiments (Robert Rodriguez) or selling your comic book collection (Kevin Smith) to getting a second mortgage or putting together a group of doctors and dentists. Check out the credits on your favorite Indie films - is the writer also the director and producer? The film is then sold or licensed to a distributor, or a deal is made with a foreign sales agent to represent the film to buyers at the market. The movie is sold to domestic and foreign distrbs, and hopefully you make your money back plus a profit.
When I was at the Video Software Dealers Association convention a few years ago, I attended an indie distributor panel where they estimated that there are 27,000 independent films made every year... and less than 600 get any form of distribution, including DVD. Most indie films are never seen by anyone other than the maker’s family and friends. The ones that are picked up by a distrib have some “exploitable” element(s) which make it possible to sell the film to an audience. Movies are made to be seen, and if your film has no audience appeal it will not survive.
The second kind of indie film you will find at AFM are those made by small indie producers who regularly make films. Many of these folks used to have deals with the studio based “indie” labels, but those are all gone now (except for Searchlight) - for whatever reason the big indie boom that gave us Miramax films in every multiplex went bust... and now Miramax has closed its doors in NYC. There aren’t enough people interested in seeing that type of film anymore... but there are still producers making them - if they can find a big enough star to get the financing. Because of the studio based “indie” labels vanishing, there seem to be more of these producers with deals at AFM, and it’s not unusual to see some big dramas there these days - driven by those producers who used to make movies for Warner Independent (or even the guy who ran Warner Independent).
The third kind of independent films are those made by producers who are outside the system... in the tradition of Roger Corman. The majority of AFM companies fall into this category. They usually don’t have a studio deal for theatrical, but they have some sort of financing connection - maybe with a cable net like SyFy Channel or Lifetime, or maybe with a DVD label. Though you may find a company that makes star driven indie films at AFM, most of the films made by companies (as opposed to individuals) fall into whatever specific genre is connected to their output deal. Companies like UFO make science fiction films, because they have a deal with the SyFy Channel. Imagination Worldwide specializes in female lead thrillers, because they have a deal with Lifetime. Companies like Imageworks that don’t have cable output deals focus on popular genres like action or horror. You may not think of these as indie films, but the original independent films were B movies from companies like Monogram Pictures - films made outside the mainstream studio system in a popular genre that have a hint of exploitation... or more than a hint these days. If you want to survive as a producer, you need to make the types of films the audience wants to see... or you’ll end up with one of those unreleased indie films. AFM is full of indie genre pictures... from “backyard” horror films to low budget action and thrillers to bigger pictures.
You will also find the survivors of the big budget indies, like GK which produced The Departed and sold domestic rights to Warner Bros. and companies, like Nu Image, make star driven genre films like The Expendables and the remake of The Mechanic with Jason Statham. Every kind of indie film is on sale at American Film Market, along with foreign films from every corner of the world.
BUSINESS IS PICKING UP
The film business can be broken up into three stages: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition. As writers we are part of production - making the film. Exhibition is actually showing the movie - the cinemas. Distribution is the middle man - companies that find movies and deliver them to the cinemas. Movie studios are usually distributors who have deals with producers on their lots and often act as a bank - funding or co-funding movies. Independent distributors usually buy completed films that they find at festivals or through submissions. The Head Of Acquisitions at a distribution company might watch a stack of DVD submissions every day, looking for that one in 27,000. They will attend screenings set up by producers, and attend film festivals like Toronto and Sundance.
Distributors are an audience surrogate. They are looking for films with the elements that will appeal to the people who buy tickets and DVDs. Some companies have a special niche audience they cater to, others are looking for films that will interest a mass audience. Because a niche audience means a limited audience and limited earnings, most distribs are looking for a movie with cross-over potential that can play in art houses and mall cinemas. The first films that sell out festivals tend to be the genre films from the midnight shows. At the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago many of the films in competition never got picked up by distributors but The Weinstein Company paid top dollars for All the Boys Love Mandy Lane - a horror movie playing a midnight show and also picked up Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, a comedy-horror film also playing at midnight. Both films ended up getting lost because Weinstein was undercapitalized and couldn’t do a wide release... but both films ended up getting a limited theatrical and had a great life on DVD.
If a drama or “serious” indie film doesn’t get good reviews, it will die in the cinemas and then either do no business on DVD or just not get a DVD deal in the first place. But a cruddy low budget horror movie can usually get a DVD deal, because there is a loyal horror audience that will want to see that film. So a genre film is a much better bet than a serious drama. This year’s World Jury Prize at Sundance, Sympathy for Delicious, did not get picked up by any distrib at the festival and would have remained unseen, but it got picked up by a very small company at AFM, Maya Entertainment, which specializes in “Latino themed” and Spanish language films. Sympathy is in English, and has an all star cast!
One of the producers I talked to told me his biggest problem is that stars haven’t seemed to notice that the audience for dramas and “indie” type material has shrunk down to next to nothing. Stars don’t want to do genre films, and distributors are not much interested in non-genre films; leaving producers stuck in the middle. Because a distribution agreement is the key to getting private financing, and much of the financing comes from the distribs themselves through guarantees and presales, a producer needs stars to get funding, but cannot get funding if those stars are in an arthouse type movie.
This is really all about stars’ rates - someone who has been paid a high rate to star in a studio film expects to get the same amount for an indie film made for a fraction of the cost... unless it is some artsie film. They will work for a reduced rate for art, but not commerce. But many of these stars are either not being hired as much by studios (who may make an expensive tentpole movie with a second tier star) or they were no longer being hired on big studio films at all and were working in those studio “indie” films that no longer exist. Either way, if they want to work in this new indie world they need to work in genre films, except they don’t want to. The producer told me about a big female star who is “too old” to star in studio films and now plays mothers and character roles, but when offered a starring role in an indie genre film always turns it down. She has a passion project - a dramatic script that she will star in at a reduced rate - but everyone who has read the script thinks the film would never make a dime (though it might get the actress an Oscar nomination). So no one is going to make her passion project and she isn’t going to make a commercial indie project and she has not been in a studio film for a couple of years now. Time for stars to wake up to the new reality of the film biz - they may have to accept smaller checks if they want to keep working. Maybe do those studio jobs that pay well and slip in some indie genre films in between for less cash. The key is probably some sort of sliding scale based on the film’s budget. Meanwhile, producers are having trouble getting films made.
When I went downstairs to do a loop of the lobby, I spotted Josh Olson (who will not read your fucking script) at the bar and wandered over to say hello. I am practically dying of thirst but don’t order a beer because I have had nothing to eat yet today. I ask Josh what the hell he’s doing at AFM and he says he’s on the Tromadance panel in about 15 minutes, so I tag along. Maybe there will be a pitcher of water in the room.
In case you don’t know, Troma is the distribution and production company of Lloyd Kauffman and is responsible for films like The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo & Juliet and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD and Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator. They make unapologetic exploitation films out of New York. Lloyd is a character, and many of the costumed characters in the lobby on the weekend are from his movies. Several years ago when he was at Sundance he realized there were no exploitation films there, and only a couple of films without movie stars. How can some young filmmaker get their film noticed if Sundance won’t show it? So he began his own film festival that accepted genre films and rejected films with huge movie stars - Tromadance - a few blocks away from Sundance. Cost to submit a film to Tromadance - $0. Cost to attend the festival - $0.
Before the press conference started, some crazy guy dressed like a 1950s spaceman was at the podium making a speech about how his planet needed Earth women to breed with, and he would be accepting applications after the press conference. I look around for water... there isn’t any. I am dehydrated and need liquids. The spaceman starts to hit on women in the audience, asking if they would like to come back to his planet and mate. I realize that crazy guy is the infamous Dennis Woodruff - a crazy non-pro actor whose car is plastered with headshots and signs begging for a role in a movie, any movie. If you’ve seen Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones, you’ve seen a replica of his car engulfed in lava.
Lloyd wrestled the microphone away from Woodruff, just in time, and he talked a bit about the festival, which is moving to Asbury Park, NJ next year, then begins introducing guests. Stephen Paul, producer of the sequel to Ghostrider with Nicolas Cage and Superbabies (one of the worst films ever made) talks about the importance of an indie film festival without prejudices against genre material. I don’t remember what his connection with Lloyd is, but it’s possible he began working for him many years ago. Lloyd is like the New York version of Roger Corman, many people got their start working on his cheapo films. Next up is Josh, who talks about making your own movie as a way to break into screenwriting, or just break into the film biz, and he’s funny and irreverent. He’s followed by screenwriter Adam Rifkin (Mousehunt) who talks about making his weird indie films like The Dark Backward, and you might notice that this press conference for a film festival has two screenwriters speaking. It all starts with the script... even The Toxic Avenger starts with a script. It’s being remade now as a studio film with a script by Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind).
Next up was Chris Gore from Film Threat, who thought it was funny that his film festival book was required reading in many film schools, since he’s a college drop out. Richard Saperstein, who has produced everything from Se7en to The Mist and has been an exec at almost every mini major and big indie distrib, said he “Was both inspired and offended by Lloyd Kauffman.” Hot actress Jaime King (Pearl Harbor), who is abnormally tall, read a letter from Neveldine/Taylor (Crank) praising Kauffman, and then said some kind things herself about him - she is starring in the remake of Mother's Day, a Troma slasher film from the 80s. Darren Bousman, the director of the Mother's Day remake gave this advice to filmmakers, “95% of my day is failing, but the other 5% is what counts.” And told people not to be afraid to fail.
The thing about companies like Troma and Corman is that they give new talent a chance. James Gunn, who wrote the remake of Dawn of the Dead and wrote and directed Slither and the upcoming Super started out at Troma, as did many other East Coast filmmakers. Indie genre films are a great training ground - the list of people who started at Roger Corman’s companies is almost endless. After the press conference I headed upstairs to interview some distribs and then headed to a party down the street...
PARTY RSVP MIX UP
I followed the crowd down the street to the venue, and there’s a check in table out front on the sidewalk with a huge line. I get in line with a hot reporter from NBC and her camera guy... and she recognizes me! She writes scripts and took my class at Expo one year. So we are talking while waiting in line, and she asks if they might interview me the next day... and I say “sure," and then this complete pest guy who knows me from Sherwood Oaks classes cuts in line between us and starts talking to me. This guy claims to be an award-winning producer, and wants a free option on some of my scripts so that he can take them to his “contacts." Um, no IMDB credits, and if he has a contact with money, why not get them to fork over enough for an option? It’s not like I don’t have credits. Anyway, this guy is pestering us, and when it’s the NBC folks turn their names are not on the list. Neither is mine. Neither are some other press people’s names. Seems the guy who sent out the press invitations used his personal email address, and when we hit “reply” to RSVP, they all dumped into his personal email. Not the company email, which is what they made their guest list from. So we have to wait for them to call this guy at home, have him check his email for our names. Took a while. Well, they screwed up a second time, and forgot to ask him if my name was on the list. So the NBC people and the others were sent in to the party, but not me. Oh, and that pest? He claimed he was with the NBC people and got in! He had no invitation at all! About ten minutes later they got ahold of the guy again and he cleared me.
Once inside the party - it was cool. A fire torch twirling gal, some gals on stilts, etc. No food, but plenty of drinks. I have a couple of beers, and feel better. But know that will be short lived. Across the room I spot a guy I haven’t seen in years - the guy who was answering phones for that producer who I convinced to read one of my scripts, and ended up getting the head of development and producer to read the script, buy it, and make it. Jim was producing big films for a while, and then seemed to vanish. He ended up working for a film financing company and now is producing some films through them... could I send him some scripts? Sure! I mingle a little more, bump into an FX guy I haven’t seen in a couple of years who is now doing 3D conversions, talk to a few other people and then really want to drink two gallons of water while not standing on my feet (I wanted to sit down, not try to drink water while standing on my hands or something), so I split the party and went home. Although I had felt awful all day, some good things had happened.