How to Navigate The American Film Market

The American Film Market is a trade show that happens every fall in Santa Monica, California. At the market, movie buyers and movie sellers from all over the world have non-stop meetings and do a large volume of deals. At the same time, the market attracts thousands of indie film producers, with a mission to make connections, make deals and “level up.”

Editor note: Over the past two years, AFM has been a virtual event. The following advice is geared towards the actual event, however many of these tactics will still serve you virtually.

You can’t just wing it at AFM. The industry executives in attendance are not eager to listen to pitches from novice film producers. If you intend to participate and get meetings, you’ll need to present value. Do you have a fully finished feature film to sell? If not, why should someone meet with you? And even if you do have a film to sell, is it attractive to buyers? Does your movie have a “name cast?” And does your cast have international appeal?

american film market

Once you know what you’re selling, your next step is to figure out who’s buying. Since AFM attracts foreign buyers worldwide, it is essential to gain a general understanding of how the movie sales process works. According to film industry executive Scott Kirkpatrick, each industry executive will fall into one of three categories, including foreign buyers, sales agents, and film distributors.

Foreign Film Buyers

These professionals make up the majority of the American Film Market. International buyers come to AFM with a shopping list for the content they want to acquire. It’s very transactional. They tell you what they want, and if you do not have it, they move on to the next seller. There is nothing sexy about the job. The first year I participated in AFM, a buyer from Turkey walked over to our booth:

“Do you have any action movies for Turkey?”

Here’s the rub. Even if you DO have an action movie for Turkey, what are you going to do? Sell off your Turkish rights and spend the rest of AFM tracking down buyers from every other foreign territory in hopes of getting global reach? And even then, what happens when you meet with buyers who are looking to license multiple titles in bulk? This is where partnering with a sales agent can increase the deal flow.

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Motion Picture Sales Agents

If you’ve been following Tom Malloy’s film distribution stuff for any length of time, you know that before you attempt to sell your film, you must first define your goals for distribution. For example, some producers have a set number they need to hit. Other producers just want to get their film seen. And still other film producers want to use their current film as a calling card. Knowing your goals will help you decide which sales agent to work with.

Sales agents know both individual buyers and distributors. And since sales agents work on a commission, it behooves these professionals to negotiate the best possible deal for their clients. But as a potential downside, your movie will become one of many titles in the sales agent’s catalog. Because of this, whenever making a pitch, the sales agent will have to focus on whichever film in the catalog shows the most promise.

Film Distributors

In many instances, it makes sense for you to forgo sales agents and pitch direct to distributors. Many distributors can transact in foreign territories or know people who can. They can get your film into premium cable television networks, and popular video-on-demand outlets. And when it makes sense, many distributors can manage a limited theatrical release for your film.

The downside here is one of rights management. If you sell your rights to a distributor, in most instances, you will have little control over how your movie is further marketed, sold, and seen. And once the deal is signed, it is signed! So to further help you in any deal negotiation, you may also want to create a movie marketing plan for your film.

How to Navigate AFM

You will fall into one of three categories. You’ll either be perceived as a hopeful amateur, a first-time film producer, or a veteran film producer. If you are looking to improve how you are perceived, social indicators may inadvertently lock you into a category.

Hopeful Amateur:  The hopeful amateur has not yet made a feature film but wants to. They attend AFM to get a lay of the land and make connections. While many are earnest, friendly people – It is important to note that AFM (like most Hollywood events) also attracts dozens of loud-mouthed, BIG talking phonies. How do you spot a phony? Good question.

Phony filmmakers usually hand out business cards like candy to anybody that will listen to their pitch. When not talking face-to-face with some poor sap, phonies can be found within earshot of populated areas, yelling into their phone:

“Johnny, we are close to getting green-lit for five million. I have to get going. We have another meeting!”

First-Time Film Producer: The first-time film producer has just completed their first feature and hopes the movie will be the breakout hit that garners millions of dollars in upfront advances, complete with a three-picture deal. The first-time filmmaker arrives at AFM, usually flying in from some small town in the mid-western United States, and enthusiastically walks from booth to booth, dropping off screeners and business cards like candy.

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Sometime during the third day of networking, the first-time filmmaker realizes that he is surrounded by thousands of other first-time filmmakers competing for the same deal. Towards the end of AFM, first-time filmmakers are invariably approached by some unscrupulous distributor who offers to “pick up” the movie and put it on some VOD platforms.

While the deal does not pay much money, the validation is more than enough. The filmmaker gets a Hollywood deal. And the distributor acquires licensing rights for pennies on the dollar. This results in the first-time filmmaker pushing aside a group of phonies, picking up his phone, and shouting:

“Johnny, we just sold our movie! And we get to keep ten percent!”

Veteran Film Producer: A veteran film producer does not need to impress anybody. People like him have made several indie features, have experienced both good and bad deals, and can now smell BS from across the lobby of the Loews Hotel. These industry pros have personal relationships with distributors who can help them get their movies seen and sold.

As a result, veteran filmmakers arrive at AFM, meet the people they need to see, and make a deal, or not. The veteran filmmaker silently leaves the meeting, drives home, and takes a nap. Veteran filmmakers are well over the hype and understand that while sexy, producing a motion picture is a business.

What You Need To Know About AFM

Before you step foot into AFM, you will want to know your objective. And you will also want to know what value you bring to the distributor. For example, a veteran filmmaker looking to distribute two action movies will have a much different objective than a hopeful filmmaker, full of awesome movie ideas but no track record.

Five Tips For Navigating AFM

Let’s face it, aside from slamming down a few cocktails with Hollywood hotshots, the primary reason for attending AFM is to build long term relationships and make deals. If you have gone through Tom Malloy’s film distribution training system you are further ahead than most.

  1. Have an objective. Create a list of people you want to meet, and why.
  2. Refine your pitch and make sure it sounds interesting.
  3. Only pitch your movie to people looking for your type of movie.
  4. Have a nice business card. But don’t give it out unless someone is interested in your pitch.
  5. Don’t do a deal without due diligence. This helps you avoid the bottom feeders.

Learn as much as you can. Make friends. Pitch the value of your film. And take your time. You don’t have make a rash decision with your film. You want to think long-term and always ask yourself – is this the best deal for my film?

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ARTICLE BY Jason Brubaker

If you'd like more tactics like the article you just read, make sure to grab a copy of the filmmaker checklist. You'll get 65 useful steps you can employ to produce your next feature film.
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