“We feel bullish about it,” say most UK sellers as they return to Santa Monica for the AFM

Is the American Film Market (AFM) in 2022 a must-attend event for UK sellers? This year’s market is the first in-person AFM since 2019. Since then, doing business virtually and all year round has become normal, the cost to travel to the US for Europeans has shot up,  environmental implications are considered more than ever and Italy’s more conveniently situated market MIA is increasingly looking like an autumn alternative. 

The answer is yes – for now. The line-up of UK sales agents heading out to the Loews in Santa Monica for this week’s event (November 1-6), sees both the major players from the UK and boutique outfits attending. Most are still taking some office space in the Loews and will have similar sized teams to pre-pandemic.

Sellers are feeling positive about the chance  the AFM offers to zero in on business, without the distractions and delights of a festival like Cannes, Venice or Toronto, where conversations around deals can drag on for weeks, or months, post festival.

“The market is much more focused,” says Film Constellation CEO Fabien Westerhoff of the AFM. “Clients that will make the trip are in town for a reason. They are in town to buy movies. For us, it’s definitely going to be an ambitious sales market. We feel bullish about it – the films look terrific.”

“As an event, it’s absolutely significant, whether you decide to spend as many days there or take as big a team as before,” says Gabrielle Stewart, managing director of HanWay Films. “Buyers like having allocated time of year when they focus on their acquisitions, and other times when they focus on release.”

“Having spent two or three years doing markets on Zoom, simply being in the same room as somebody else and sitting over a glass of wine feels like a luxury in itself,” adds David Garrett, CEO of Mister Smith Entertainment. “One no longer has to be lavish or have super-duper offices. It’s not what people really care about – people care about the films and getting the business done.”

Urgency is key for distributors, suggest sales execs. “Buyers are looking to buy something that looks like it is going to go soon, and not too ahead of time, like they used to,” observes Stewart. “So many films have been pushed, or cast changes have happened. If you’ve got a film that’s going to go in the next six to eight months, with a great cast, there’s a real appetite in the market.”

The AFM also offers a vital opportunity for UK sellers to touch base with their US network. “It’s really important. After the market, I’ll spend a few days going round meeting producers and agents. If I weren’t going to the market, I’d be going to LA anyway,” says Garrett.

Cost implications

The fragile economic situation in the UK and across Europe cannot be avoided. “Any business – it’s not just the film business, cars, manufacturing, publishing, and if you look at the share prices and tech stocks – it’s hard to shine a positive light,” says Garrett. “There’s very little certainty around. All we can be certain about is the trait in humanity to still enjoy and pursue storytelling.”

For UK execs going to the AFM, this means considering the cost of travelling such a distance, the volatility of the pound against the dollar, and the steep cost of booking office space at the Loews. A nimble approach to planning is key. 

“Lots of teams and countries are reassessing their travel needs and requirements since the pandemic. I don’t see it as AFM specific,” says George Hamilton, chief commercial officer of Protagonist Pictures. “To really get an overview of the market experience, we are going to have to get through the whole film calendar to make any judgement call.”

“I don’t think you will have people committing to a trip 12 months in advance,” believes Westerhoff. “That mentality has changed. We very carefully select which markets we attend and which we don’t. The concept of being constantly on a plane feels a bit antiquated. We choose our trips, but when we travel, we give it all the love.”

One sales agent who did not want to be named is feeling less optimistic about the future of AFM. “I think its days are numbered,” they say, ”More and more people are going to either not show up to the AFM, because it’s expensive, or they are going to move outside the Loews. Given that the AFM is the one event of the year where ITFA [Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), the global trade association that runs the AFM] actually makes money, I can’t see it remaining financially viable.”

This year, the UK umbrella stand – that brought together a selection of more specialised sellers from the UK and was arranged by trade body Film Export UK, for which the BFI acts as the primary funder – is not running. Charlie Bloye, chief executive of Film Export UK, told Screen back in July: “We decided there wasn’t the same level of demand from our own members to justify it. The AFM always requires people to register quite early, although they delayed it by around a month this year. Perhaps people didn’t want to commit in mid-July for something that’s in November.”

As a response, Reason8, SC Films International, Screenbound, Film Seekers and Kaleidoscope have taken a joint office in the Loews together.

Some sales agents don’t expect the number of European buyers attending the AFM to be as high as in previous years. “It’s quite clear there are going to be fewer attendees, particularly from Europe,” says Stephen Kelliher, managing director and co-founder of Bankside Films. “Some of my colleagues were at MIA, with a wide range of distributors, and the majority said they are not going to the AFM.” He pointed towards  France, Italy and Germany as notable absentees.

Westerhoff is more confident.  “It looks like the Japanese are very much back in town, and the Latin Americans,” he points out. 

“I have many meetings with LatAm and North American clients, and for us these should be good in terms of completing deals at or shortly after the market,” adds Reason8’s co-managing director Anna Krupnova, who is also planning on doing online meetings during AFM, with buyers who were unable to attend physically.

Genres 

Horror is always popular with AFM buyers and new projects this year include The Moogai and Went Up The Hill for Bankside Films, Protagonist Pictures’ Clown In A Cornfield and French sales outfit Charades’ There’s Something In The Barn. “When you look at market-driven films, genre continues to prove very resilient. You have more options and exploitation on a genre film. For horror, cast is not necessary, because there is an in-built horror audience,” says Westerhoff.“That really sweet spot is having a director-led genre film, that means having the genre element that will cater to a commercial audience, and having that strong directorial voice behind it that hits the festival pedigree.”

Drama remains a harder sell. “There’s a general sense among the distributors that audiences don’t want films that are going to be challenging in an emotional way, but there will always be exceptions to that, like if you have an Oscar- winning cast that gives the market confidence,” says Kelliher.

Westerhoff, who sold Venice drama Blue Jean around the world, adds: “The reality is, in cinema, drama is still the crown jewel genre, in particular when it comes to performances – but there is such amazing drama on television. If you want to stand out in a movie theatre, you have to offer something very special.”

One form that has taken a time out, but sellers are aiming to ignite a revival of, is the great British romantic comedy. “We are in the age of rediscovering romcoms,” said Kelliher. “That’s not to say I think we should all be trying to make Notting Hill, set in the 2020s. It’s time for a reinvention, and telling them in a way that’s interesting for younger audiences. We have a couple in development, casting stage.”

“We’ve got some stuff in the pipeline,” confirms Protagonist Pictures’ Hamilton. “There is definitely life and future in that genre.”

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