The AFM through the Lens of its Participants

The American Film Market (AFM) is one of the two most important annual global events for the business of independent film. IFTA’s AFM is where more than 2,000 new independent films in all stages of production are introduced to worldwide buyers/distribution companies and more than $1 Billion in deals are closed annually. This year, I happily accepted an assignment designed to directly gather information about the buyer/seller market relationship.

For the last several years I have been a member of IFTA’s Research team, providing Members with marketplace information and up-to-date analysis and statistics that benefits the sales efforts. To get a real insider’s viewpoint, my role at this year’s AFM, which wrapped its 37th edition on November 9, was very different – I had the opportunity to experience this year’s market as a seller working out of the exhibitor’s office of an established UK-based international sales company– one of more than 350 exhibiting companies at the 2016 AFM. Let me tell you, seeing the market through an insider’s lens was an exhilarating insight into the independent sales and acquisitions process of both sellers and buyers.

The exhibitor offices are the heart of the market – where offers are made and deals inked. Working with an exhibitor allowed me witness firsthand the process of how independent films are bought and sold through territory-by-territory licensing.

On the first day, I was surprised to see a packed schedule even though the market had yet to kick into full swing. The sales agents informed me that more than half of all market meetings are follow-ups from previous markets or check-ins with well-known buyers. This is a person-to-person business and keeping up relationships is paramount. These meetings aren’t always for closing a deal that day but rather for keeping the dialogue going and gauging buyers needs and budgets so they know exactly who to call when they get the “right title” in their lineup for buyers in certain territories. 

The exhibitor I was working with typically sells English language films. However, this market’s flagship title was a foreign film in a language that usually doesn’t command worldwide distribution. This created a sales challenge from the get-go as buyers are not likely to come to a market looking for a title in this language. The film’s high production budget, quality and strong storyline, however, made it an even more sought after title than anyone expected.

The sales agents expertly customized their pitch for every territory noting aspects that would boost revenue for each culture and audience taste. Foreign non-English language titles can have trouble obtaining a theatrical release in certain territories. Sales agents must be savvy as to which territories to push for an all rights deal or know when to settle for a television/VOD deal.

Buyers must also be strategic and guard their desire for a title in an effort to drop the asking price. With nearly 50 buyers in attendance at each of its screenings, the sales agents knew there was going to be interest in the title. It was soon apparent that the title was a must-have for many buyers. Word spreads quickly when a hot title emerges and floods of calls came in after the screening, offers were getting larger and buyers were waiting by the door to catch even a minute with the sales agent.  

Busy days rolled into busy nights with meetings over drinks and business dinners. What I noticed most is that people are open with each other explaining “the budget is tight so I’m pickier with my acquisitions this year” or “I love the title but need approval from the office before making an offer”. These candid discussions give the business transactions an air of camaraderie – a mutual celebration of a new deal closed.

Therein lies the beauty of independent film. People want to see interesting, edgy stories that major studios won’t fund. The title noted above was produced in a language spoken by only 6 million people yet because of the AFM and the sales skills of this company’s executives, it will be released in theaters all over the world.  Their risk paid off and I feel very fortunate to have been part of the process and can now better understand and appreciate all that truly goes into bringing independent films to global audiences. 

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