December 2014
Volume 34 No. 7

December 2014
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AFM: Producers Trade Pitching Art for Selling Art

By Susan L. Hornik

“AFM takes place in Los Angeles, [and] every wanna-be writer, producer, director in town is there hocking their shlock,” commented Stan Spry, a producer at The Cartel.

Indeed, producers who attended the AFM, held November 5-12, flocked to the Loews Santa Monica Hotel (the film market exhibition headquarters), and had to come up with savvy strategies to keep themselves afloat in an ever-evolving global market.

Some 2,000 producers from all over the world (or a whopping 25 percent of total participants) gathered at the 34th annual AFM, and the market offered a good lineup of seminars, conferences and how-to guides, including how to pitch projects, production incentives around the world and product placement. AFM organizers are well aware of producers’ bloodline (i.e., money) and have courted a good number of film investors.

Among the many recommendations that AFM offered to producers was to be prepared with their sales and marketing strategy, aspects often neglected by producers.

One aspect that producers tend to neglect — and it’s not emphasized by the AFM how-to guide — is to take advantage of the 300 or so international distribution companies that traditionally exhibit at the market. If properly leveraged with pre-sales incentives, these exhibitors — in perennial search of new content to feed their distribution pipes — could be of great help to producers, giving them a respite from the task of finding additional funds.

But Daniel Zirilli, a producer at Popart Film Factory, who primarily makes films in the action genre as well as family films, knows how to leverage the market. “As a director/producer, I go to the AFM every year to meet briefly with the foreign sales companies selling my films, gathering intel on what names buyers are asking for and occasionally pitching new films. I structure a variety of eight to 10 action sequences in my films, working with sales companies and buyers to find casts with international appeal. The goal is keeping my films fresh, interesting and commercial for worldwide audiences,” he said.

The Cartel’s Stan Spry noted the AFM is, “One of the last markets of the year, so a lot of terrible content is being peddled. The studios and stronger independents [are] able to broker some deals, but there are many buyers and international distributors that don’t even waste their time coming to AFM anymore.”

Still, there is a bright side. “We are entering a new age of filmmaking, an online digital age where Netflix, Hulu and Crackle are the new cable premium channels and spearheading a revolution in how we watch TV,” said Brian Skiba, a producer at Victory Angel Films. “With shows like Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, we’re seeing a huge trend toward on-demand programming.

“So [at] this AFM, I [wasn’t] surprised [to] see more producers with serialized concepts ready for internet consumption. Buyers from around the world would be remorseful if they missed the opportunity to acquire these projects while the cost is at a minimum. In the next few years, this type of programing will become the norm and the cost will run at a premium,” Skiba noted.

“The era of the AFM pre-sale is over. Successful producers combine tax credits, equity and pre-sale partnerships prior to AFM, then arrive with finished films,” said Cord Douglas, a producer at Goldstein Douglas Entertainment. “Producers who lack the relationships to finance their films prior to AFM [don’t] have the confidence of legitimate buyers to generate pre-sales at the market,” he said.

Due to a dramatic increase in VoD revenues over the past four years, Douglas has seen a significant increase in the number of action and horror titles that used to dominate AFM offerings in years past. “Five years ago, the demise of DVD as a viable revenue platform had decimated the low-budget ‘direct-to-video’ action film market. Producers rallied by producing TV movie titles that thrive on broadcast sales alone. Unfortunately, not all of the direct-to-video producers were as adept at producing more story-driven, actor-dependent product. The quickly growing VoD market is more fully replacing home video revenues that were lost when DVD collapsed.”

The main trends from all the markets this year have tended to be a shift away from low budget straight-to-DVD fare, acknowledged The Cartel’s Spry. “That business is dying quickly as audiences and buyers have more choices to choose from. Most buyers and distributors are looking for star-driven genre films: action, thriller and suspense. There’s a divide in the marketplace of whether horrors are selling or not. Quality above all else is still king. Stars like John Cusak, Nic Cage and Jason Statham are still helping drive a healthy foreign and VoD marketplace, with many distributors looking for VoD/theatrical day-and-date releases so they can put the ‘in theaters now’ stamp on their VoD titles. Again, these movies are more star-driven,” he said.

Victory Angel Films’ Skiba added, “Also, we see buyers who are even more specific about the content they are buying, who’s in it, who’s directing it and who’s distributing it domestically. If you want to be a successful producer at this film market, you really need to garner projects with a strong cast for the type of project you’re producing and don’t cast your film with an actor who’s not keen for your genre.”

Finding the right genre to produce a film is also key. “Horror might be rebounding strong enough at this market and it may surpass action,” said Skiba. “But it’s got to be smart horror like The Awakening. I believe the Asylum [Entertainment] model is wearing out, slasher movies are dead and zombie flicks are overdone. We need a new horror that chills to the bone: let’s be afraid again of the dark but for new reasons.”

Technology has also helped Popart Film Factory’s Zirilli’s production strategy. “With technology finally catching up to the speed my team and I can shoot, we are delivering better action films with bigger stunts for less money — safely. For example, with my film, Reflex, I shot in Thailand and had high falls, people fighting on fire, boat chases, parkour and a car flip, and it was shot in 12 days on a budget. Next time, if I add bigger names with those stunts and hooks, it’s a winning combination for international sales. All territories/countries can relate to that type of action. Now for me, the key is to continue to work with dramatic actors in action, not just the few action names that keep coming up. I am hoping to help break out names known for drama into action so the acting quality is better.”