American Film Market on a Shoestring Budget

In early November, the American Film Market comes alive with sellers, buyers, and promoters bartering for placement in distributor’s catalogs. With attendance around 8,000 AFM is the World’s largest motion picture trade event. It’s a marketplace where producers and sales companies license films to distributors and this year they project to have 2,000+ New Films and Projects, 1,000+ Distributors and 400+ Production Companies. The market is based at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and it uses conference rooms and movie theatres in the area.

For struggling filmmakers and screenwriters, AFM offers opportunities for networking, project financing, and distribution. However, on a shoestring budget it takes a lot of planning to achieve ones goals. Attendance fees are steep and exhibition costs are higher. Yet there are ways to obtain meaningful accomplishments and do so without breaking the bank.

The immense size of AFM may seem overwhelming to first timers, but it’s more a community with established relationships that date back years. Rapport and trust have been built up over time and while the products may evolve, the people stay pretty much the same. It’s also a market of niches where buyers must evaluate which products will have value in their home markets. Buyers face another challenge, in addition to assessing potential value and the whims of film goers six month to a year hence; they must also judge how present economic conditions will affect the entertainment marketplace. In previous downturns, movies have played the escapist role but that was before entertainment became so fragmented. Now there are considerably more choices and younger audiences find that the Internet, I-pods, and video games better fit their needs and budgets.

Yet, whatever the state of the economy there will always be a need for product. Theatres, television, cable, satellite, and now the Internet all look for viable programming. Multiplex screens and television schedules eat up a vast number of titles. With the major studios cutting back and concentrating on blockbuster entries, there are product voids and independent filmmakers stand ready to fill them. What’s more, as the ongoing credit crisis limits the number of movies released those that do obtain financing will find foreign distribution easier to acquire.

For the low-budget independent filmmakers, especially on a shoestring, working this market requires considerable preparation. The AFM Pitching seminar stressed the importance of having a succinct coherent presentation whether it’s a project in development, a proposed script or a completed film. One must remember that buyers, sales agents, and distributors receive countless pitches and to avoid getting lost in the shuffle, you and your project must be memorable. Your pitch should have water-cooler talk-ability. By that, I mean it should be highly transferable and be able to travel through the community without losing energy. Long before the market opens this process should begin by contacting your prospects and giving them a preview of what you will be presenting. You can do this via mail, email or by phone. Give them a taste to wet their appetite. See the Market’s tips on How to work the AFM, especially the guidelines on Pitching Essentials.

Jonathan Wolf, AFM Managing Director, reiterates the importance of obtaining assistance in areas where you are weak. Being able to pull together the expertise and good judgment of others is an essential part of being a successful producer. This may require attaching a producer to your project who is more familiar with the creative aspects or one who is capable at securing financing, or a line producer who is able to manage the details of the production itself. If the film is near completion, a producer’s rep may be of help in obtaining festival exposure as well as securing a distribution deal. A publicist may also be required to create the desired pre-market buzz. Adding a sales agent to secure licensing rights within various foreign territories is another asset that ups the value of your package.

One obstacle for first timers is identifying likely prospects and obtaining their contact information. For a listing of exhibitors and their contact information, go to American Film Market website and navigate to Attend/Buyer/Exhibitor List. Since some of these companies also serve as sales agents, this list will be useful in locating these people. One can use other directories to cross-reference and identify the sale agents attending. Google or Bing “Sales Agents for Films” for various directories and look specifically for the one put out by the Screen Australia. This pdf directory contains 22 pages of detailed contact information, including person to contact, acquisition policies, and recent acquisitions.

Another source is the directory on the Internet Movie Data Base, pro version – IMDbPro.. Navigate to Company Directory and from Type Company scroll down to Sales Representatives. This addition to IMDb offers greater industry information and is available on monthly subscription bases. Also, check out the KFTV online directory for their list of sales agents. This free online service caters to the international entertainment industries. Enter Sales Agents in search window.

Short phone calls can help establish a rapport with targeted personnel. However, most filmmakers are reluctant to do this because international calls can be expensive. I would suggest using a low prepaid international calling card. LDPOST has a list of available services along with rates by countries. For instance, calls to France, London, and Germany can be as low as 2.0 to 2.4 cents a minute, which is cheaper than stateside long distance rates. Simply place your call-in number, then your PIN number on your speed dial to streamline this connection process. There is also a Direct Dial option available where you dial a single number.

Because your prospect will not likely have the final say, your pitch and accompanying materials should provide strong sales arguments that can move up the corporate ladder. Up front, it should state your objectives, i.e., seeking international sales agent, seeking co-production financing, or seeking acquisition of completed script, etc. While your presentation may be convincing, it’s competing with numerous others and having statements and figures to back up your arguments is essential.

There is a long list of evidentiary materials and here are some of the more prominent ones. Include the ones that best represent your project. Comparisons to similar budgeted films–their critical and box office success, log line, elevator synopsis, full synopsis, script coverage, named actors, named director, named DP, projected budget, festival awards, reviews, test screening results, audience ratings, trailer, DVD screener, poster art work, press book materials, production stills, production stories, music tie-ins, merchandising opportunities, unique locations, EPK, film’s web site, and project’s blogs. Label these items with project name and contact information, then package them in a clear plastic bag so they are not mixed up with materials submitted by others. State the availability of the master and release copies as well as their screening format. Condense your pitch into succinct leave-behind summaries that contain pertinent arguments and include goals along with all vital contact information.

While one quest in presenting a film at the market is to obtain a sale, another is to generate a buzz for your movie. Post cards, DVD handouts, one-sheets and walking billboard characters are some of the methods used. A film’s talk-ability inertia is a key factor in gaining distribution or representation by an international sales agent. In fact a small number of this year’s foreign language Oscar contenders are using AFM to maximize award season exposure. Additional buzz can be obtained from reviews or news briefs posted in trade publications such as Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, Deadline Hollywood, and indieWire.

During the later half of the market, Industry Half-Market Badges are available. During this period, exhibitors have more time to meet with you and are more receptive to hearing your pitch. To best utilize your time, map out your prospects and their locations in the hotels. Be aware that exhibitors are on numerous floors and that some share space. Scheduling appointments will help lend more credibility to your project. While the Half-Market Badge is good for four days the final day is a get away day and most exhibitors are packed and closed up by noon.

It may take some time for buyers to get back to you so it’s a good idea to follow-up reinforcing your pitch and document the arguments supporting your project. It also helps to add new developments that make the project more appealing. Follow up first with an email and later with a phone call. Because these are busy people, focus on the feedback you really need. While you may be looking for a deal memo, you should also be looking for ways to strengthen the relationship. An appreciative thank you card can be helpful in this regard especially when it notes useful advice or feedback you’ve received.

AFM conferences and seminars are also good places to network and promote your project. In past years, topics have included seminars on pitching, financing, co-production deals, and incentives and tax rebates. These conferences are normally an added cost to your market pass and prices are listed on the American Film Market website.

One of the perks to being a pass holder is being able to pick up various print publications covering the market. These publications include Screen, Cineuropa, Beyond Cinema, Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer plus industry trade editions such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. These are available on the mezzanine level and free to pass holders.

I would also suggest taking in a number of screenings to see how other filmmakers promote their product. There are over 500 screenings to pick from and while big budget, big star films draw respectable audiences, most films play to small crowds. Yet these gatherings afford opportunities to meet industry people, particularly filmmakers and producers. Use this time effectively and choose films that are closely related to your project. Screening times and theatre locations are listed in the catalog. Shuttle buses to various theatres are provided outside the Loews Hotel.

There are numerous opportunities at the Market to pitch ideas, network, and gain knowledge about the industry. The hotel lobbies where participants mingle are prime spots. It’s a relaxed atmosphere where spiels and business cards fly about at will. In addition, it’s a good idea to have as much information as possible on your card. Some attendees apply a sticker to the back with pertinent information about their project and/or company. Where applicable, write on back a desired call to action. Things such as “View my trailer at… ” When you exchange hundreds of cards one can be easily forget, so make notes on the back of those you receive.

With the advances in technology, you will also find notebook presentations as a practical means of making a presentation. These devices are able to play trailers, interviews with stars, and offer samples of promotional materials. There are numerous advantages to this type presentation in that they are quick and to the point. Film is a visual medium and what better way to promote a project. Most prospects are amicable to watching a short trailer and if interested open to viewing more materials. However, you have to identify the buyers and open a dialogue. While the color-coded badges provide some helps, most buyers are so inundated with impromptu pitches they stuff their badges inside their shirt.

There are also special receptions, parties and red carpet events, and most require being on the invitation list. While most of these events are for established friends and associates, a kindly inquiry can sometimes result in an invite. While not openly publicized, invitations are handed out to promote a product or company. It some cases it is to firm up established relations or in appreciation of past business.

Lastly, mingle effectively. Introduce yourself by tagging your name with a profession, company affiliation, and info about your project. Listen, ask questions, and work the entire room with meaningful productive dialogue. For when it comes to mingling with the international side of the business, AFM is at the top of the class, a marketplace where chance encounters can easily evolve into lucrative deals.