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AFM Adventures: Day One

Script contributor, William Martell, chronicles his experiences at the 2010 American Film Market.

Script contributor, William Martell, chronicles his experiences at the 2010 American Film Market.

On Wednesday, November 3rd, the American Film Market opened in Santa Monica at the Loews Hotel on the beach. I have been attending AFM since 1986, and covering it for Script magazine and a few other magazines since then. Now, my coverage is exclusively for Script and my blog. Last week in Los Angeles it was raining so hard people were wondering if they should build an ark, this week we’re in the middle of a heat wave. But the temperature wasn’t the only thing making people at AFM sweat...

Though the trades always announce that attendance is up from last year, the building seemed empty. For the past two years the number of vendors at AFM has expanded, so they took over the Le Merigot Hotel next door. This year, only four companies were next door, and much of the 8th floor of the Leows was empty. Though the first day of the market is usually slow - the crowds show up on the weekend - I don’t ever remember it being this slow. If I wanted to sit in the lobby I had my choice of chairs... even though there were only half as many chairs as last year! Though some of this may be due to the economy, there’s a much larger sea-change going on in the world of independent films. Several years ago the “middle” of the business began shrinking, and I believe it is completely gone at this point. More on that later, after I’ve spent more times wandering the halls and talking to people. Hey, I know what you’re wondering...

I’m so glad you asked. American Film Market is a market for films - just like K-Mart or Target or Walmart. Well, actually it’s closer to a swap meet. Major studios like Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Universal, have their own foreign distribution arms or long standing deals in place with foreign distributors, but Independent Producers, without the consistent output of a big studio, make their foreign distribution deals on a film by film basis. Selling each film to each individual country. Every year producers would fly to Cannes to sell their product (the Cannes Film Festival is the excuse for them coming to town, the Cannes Film Market is the real reason they are there). Three decades ago a group of American Indie Producers decided to start their own market. Why fly to France when the French can fly here?

Every year since then, Indie Producers from all over the world set up shop at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica for a week in November to sell their films. Beds are removed and replaced with office furnishings, turning the luxury hotel into the world's most exclusive office building. Security guards are posted at the elevators and stairwells, to keep the uninvited off the sales floors. Only those with badges are allowed upstairs. The hallways are filled with buyers and sellers with badges, the occasional movie star, and lots of posters on stands outside of the “offices." Lately it has become more and more common for a company to have two offices - one that is open to the public and one that is private - for making large deals with special clients. American producers selling films to foreign countries, or foreign producers selling films to America - that’s the swap meet part. Every foreign film that shows in a cinema in the United States or is on DVD or BluRay comes through one of the film markets - like AFM or Cannes or Hong Kong.

These films range from potential Oscar winners and nominees like the late George Hikenlooper’s Casino Jack starring Kevin Spacey to B movies like Roger Corman’s Sharktopus to big budget films like Ghost Rider 2 with Nicolas Cage and Kane & Lynch with Bruce Willis and Jamie Foxx to foreign films like Europa’s Algerian War drama A View of Love. Any movie that is not made by a studio is here - and the studios often send “scouts” to look at films they might pick up for distribution.

Film is a global business. The same Will Smith film that we see in the United States will be exported to France and Italy and Japan and Zimbabwe. Almost 70 percent of the average USA film's earnings come from outside the United States and rising production costs have made foreign box office increasingly important. With the "average film" costing $106.7 million by the time it reaches the screen and blockbusters costing north of $200 million, studios need films to be hits overseas... and domestic indie films also need to be seen around the world.

In fact, with the economy in disarray and private financing drying up, foreign sales and financing are often a way for an indie film to get made. Filmmakers from the indie world pop up in the most unusual places here at AFM - the Polish Brothers may have a film at a company that usually does genre films, so their movie is surrounded by horror or action films. Of course, Harvey Weinstein has his own suite where he is buying and selling films. The other 70% of the world seems to be the new place to find Indie financing... for now. There have always been traditional indie films at AFM - usually just for sale - but now some are here for funding as well.

What may seem strange to you is how AFM is a “shadow film industry." You may think everything is made by the studios, but when you wander the halls and see so many films made outside the system, with stars you know and sometimes even directors you know, you realize that this is a huge business that isn’t part of the studio system until Paramount buys the film or Warner Bros makes a distribution deal in the USA. Then you think the film was made by Paramount or Warner Bros, not made by the scrappy guys in the suites at the Leow’s Hotel. In the movie Charlie Verrick, criminals are divided into Organized Crime (the Mafia) and The Independents (bank robbers like Charlie Verrick). The Mafia thinks they are the major power, but there are many more Independents... and those Independents are just as powerful in their own way. AFM is like a convention of those Independents (and at least a couple of people here may have robbed a bank or two). They make those movies you see on SyFy Channel or Lifetime or HBO or Showtime. They are those movies on NetFlix with some slightly faded star or that actress who was in last year’s hit... but just turned 35 and is now too old for Hollywood. There are hundreds of films here that are not made by a studio or a studio based producer. It is a shadow industry... and maybe just as strong as the studios.

After grabbing my badge I did a sweep of all of the floors, just checking out who is where and which companies have gone out of business or changed their names to avoid prosecution. Usually the hallways are filled with posters for movies on stands, this year - almost no posters. And very few monitors blasting trailers. Yes, this is the first day, but it seems really subdued. Has AFM gone upscale or are there just fewer companies than ever before? And have those companies cut down on their displays and publicity? In the past, a press badge guaranteed that you would be ignored, but a distributor grabs me and asks if I would like to see their movie tomorrow... and mentions there will be many cases of vodka at the afterparty. He talks more about the vodka than the movie! I don’t know what that means, but I accept his invitation. Maybe they should serve the vodka before the movie? I continue down the hallways, up stairs, down more hallways. I wave at a couple of people I know as I wander down the halls - people I may talk to tomorrow, but I have a seminar to attend at 4pm on making films that will play in Asia and Japan, with Don Murphy (Transformers producer) on the panel. Don is a young legend - one of the guys who discovered Tarantino. He is also a legend for fighting in public. I’d love to hear what he has to say about creating movies that play well in Asia... But I get to talking to a producer about the market and miss the panel by a couple of minutes. So I check out the lobby and the first day “lobby rats."

There will be more on the lobby rats in a coming entry (that’s the slang term for the people without badges who hang out in the hotel lobby waiting to pounce on anyone with a badge who comes downstairs: actors, producers, writers, directors, stunt people, etc., many of them kinda wacky). I do a lap and go out to the pool, and when I come back in I spot the amazing Dave S*******. Dave is a character. He was a wedding videographer who made a movie for pocket change, sold it, and now produces movies for $10k or less. You read that right. He might make a dozen films in a year, too. Most of them are horror flicks, and what amazed me about his trailer reel is that there are even some faded stars in some of these films. Dave has a budget formula for extreme low budget films, and can get the film completed and to a distrib on time and on budget... and he actually pays his crew! Not well, but most of them are film students who would be happy for the credit. Dave is also famous for making a film called King Cobra about a giant killer cobra... where there was no cobra in the film. They couldn’t afford to show it. “Cobra shmobra!” he said.

Dave was complaining about the way the middle has fallen out of the business, and there are companies who are hiring him to make films for them... making a lot of money off those films... then not calling him once the company is back in the black. What pissed him off was that these companies that didn’t call him for a while go back in the red and then want him to drop everything and make a movie for them... oh, for less money if possible. He’s tired of being used - he just wants a little respect. There is a skill in making a movie for $10k or less, and having a core crew that will continue to work at those low wages. Hey, there may not be a giant cobra in the movie, but the buyers don’t know how little in cost - they think Dave’s films cost $250k-$500k.

Someone else who knows Dave came by and told us the Puerto Rico Film Commission is serving free rum on the 5th floor... so we climbed some stairs. I was the only one with a badge, but security is kind of relaxed in the lobby area of the 5th floor - where the free rum was. Here’s the whole hotel mafia thing - the rum was offered by the PR Film Commish at their booth - but a hotel bartender had to do the actual pouring. While drinking a few glasses of free rum, I talk to a filmmaker from Australia who is at AFM to find the rest of the funding for his film and cast some USA actors to help with the US sale. I find this funny, because American films star Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson and a bunch of other Australians. I talk to some other folks, then decided I could drink no more free rum if I intended on standing, and wandered back downstairs for a final sweep before heading home.

Except I ran into another lobby rat - a screenwriter named Steve who is famous for doing an uncredited rewrite on Bloodsport 2 and turning that into a career. Steve gave up writing to produce, and now puts deals together based on people he knew when he was writing B movies. He had spent the whole day in the lobby doing meetings - and closed a deal just before I walked past. In the couple of minutes I talked to him a distrib came by - they will be handling the film. I looked at this and realized maybe I am doing everything wrong, and should be making my own scripts... not just shooting them on a rented RED camera, but putting together deals for real movies. Have to think about that over the next few days. Meanwhile, I’ve figured a couple of angles for my Script magazine article - I was going to focus on what kinds of scripts and elements in those scripts that AFM distribs and producers are looking for... but now I am also going to investigate the way the business continues to evolve and what that means to us as screenwriters. What if we all end up having to write $10k movies?

Then it was time for me to leave - I said goodnight to the distrib (will visit them upstairs later in the market) and headed home... with a stop at Staples to make color copies of 8.5 x 11 posters for some of my scripts. Tomorrow I will attend a press conference and do some actual AFM journalism stuff.