Fighting for independents: IFTA and American Film Market support worldwide production


These days especially, helping independent filmmakers wherever and with whatever is a tall order. Yet amid much change and many unknowns, the cross-borders trade association IFTA (Independent Film & Television Alliance) and Santa Monica’s upcoming annual AFM (American Film Market & Conferences), which IFTA produces, are the major international forces doing just that, serving buyers, sellers and enablers no matter their country, budget, genre, targeted audience or niche in the business.

Attendees and participants at what is regarded as the world’s largest annual film market have a big choice of prices and packages beginning at about $250 and moving up to about $6,400 and more for exhibitors with offices and screenings. (Details, including pricing, are available at and Insiders with mooching inclinations will tell you that industry people without badges can troll the always-packed Loews lobby for free and actually get some networking and business done or maybe score a free one-day pass. But many thousands of professionals each year go the straight and narrow and do very well by the AFM.

The independent players working in this global long-form entertainment game are many—producers and distributors, of course—and IFTA’s focus is on its buying and producing membership. But IFTA/AFM is just as supportive of sales agents, the original IFTA/AFM constituency and still out in force. And the AFM also attracts scouts from TV and new platform outlets, film commissions, financiers, post-production people, programmers, writers, international media, service providers (insurers, lawyers, accounts, publicists and the like) and all others helping to conceive and birth product for the worldwide motion pictures industry.

Buyers and distributors at the AFM are the largest contingent, filling the AFM warrens of offices and booths at its Loews Hotel headquarters. But in this age of convergence, categories overlap. Many buyers have become producers in some fashion. And sales agents may be buyers and sellers. The AFM’s exhibitors (those with Loews offices and showing off product) are producers, but many producers aren’t selling as they just may be trolling for talent, trends, contacts or money.

Asked about the many constituencies of the AFM and maybe to characterize participants in a reductionist way, AFM managing director and IFTA executive VP Jonathan Wolf describes it as “a troika. It’s equal among buyers, sellers and the production community.”

Reflecting the rapidly evolving, converging nature of the business, IFTA president and CEO Jean Prewitt explains that categorizing IFTA’s members and AFM’s participants has grown more complicated. “When IFTA formed about 30 years ago, the membership category was simple—sales agents for producers. But in a more complicated world where convergences of all kinds take hold, things change. And over the years just about every company that has survived has ended up whichever way in production. And all function in the world of licensing.”

And what a plentiful (product-wise) world it is. During the Market’s eight-day run, about nine nearby theatres and screening rooms will present about 500 features in more than 30 languages and 700 screenings on 25 big screens available to 8,000 industry professionals from more than 70 countries. Plus, for those who want to rest their eyes and exercise their brains, the AFM offers the industry’s largest Conference Series.

AFM’s stats underscore its pre-eminence: Over the past years, the Market has been seeing nearly one billion dollars in deals done annually for works completed and in every stage of development and production. Says Wolf, “The majority of the business at AFM is done around advanced pre-production projects and the films being screened. But our largest tranche is the advanced pre-production projects.” This year, more than 2,000 new films and projects will be presented, though many hundreds of finished films continue to hit Market screens.

Set for its 34th session Nov. 6–13, again in Santa Monica’s Loews Hotel (with the Conferences taking place at the nearby Fairmont Miramar Hotel), the AFM will welcome people focused on projects moving along the entire production cycle. And let sellers take note: The AFM, which calls itself “Hollywood’s Only Film Market,” isn’t purely an all-independents blowout. In fact, says Prewitt, the Hollywood studios send reps and buyers to the AFM.

With extensive film industry experience, Prewitt has special expertise in international law, policy-making and new technologies. She manages everything in the IFTA trade association, focusing on IFTA producer membership and policies worldwide that affect that membership. She also “looks over the shoulder” of Jonathan Wolf, who is in charge of AFM logistics and brings to the independent world broad film experience, including expertise in financing.

The AFM may be the largest market but not the only important one. Comparing it to similar events, Wolf underscores that the AFM, unlike several others, is a market only. Among the fest/market hybrids, he names Cannes’ market as “almost identical” to the AFM but deems Berlin’s EFM (European Film Market) as having more of an art-house focus. As for newcomers, he cites FILMART as “a growing market in Hong Kong.” As for the oldies, Toronto roars on as both a festival and market as distributors scoop up official selections for the commercial marketplace.

With its market focus, reputation and massive attendance, the AFM introduces many important titles from the global community to a global business community. Buyers and scouts at last year’s session, for instance, got glimpses of Frances Ha, Hannah Arendt, Quartet, Hello I Must Be Going and Kon-Tiki and films from the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, P.J. Hogan, Mira Nair, Spike Lee and Paul Verhoeven, among many others.

Like anywhere, the quality of films screened can vary widely, but the AFM’S most popular genres are, in descending order, dramas, thrillers, comedies, action-adventure and horror. Recalling the old days of the bunkered-down Cannes market, occasional loopy hybrids make the lineup. The synopsis of one such recent outlier went something like: A powerful record producer awakens in a nightmarish, outer-space world where he tangles with the transsexual diva ruler, a troubled transgender youth and a predatory child molester.

With such a bounty of independent product to move, IFTA and the AFM offer an amazingly valuable resource and tool with The Film Catalogue, a very rich and up to date compendium of films up for grabs, along with synopses, attachments and contact information. The Catalogue, which Wolf initiated years ago, is available through IFTA throughout the year online and regularly updated. During the Market, the Catalogue serves as the AFM’s indispensible screening guide.

Emphasizing the up-to-the-minute nature of the Catalogue, Prewitt says, “A producer can revise at any time by going online and making changes.” And IFTA regularly sends buyer members e-mail blasts by way of Weekly Updates that go out Monday evenings. Not all of the Catalogue’s films are completed, she adds. “Some are inchoate and you won’t see them completed for maybe even four years.”

Considered by most to be the world’s most extensive online resource for distributors and buyers, the online Catalogue is available in English, Italian, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean. Users can search its contents by language, production status, year of completion, budget, director, cast, company, title and genre. The site operates on a year-round basis, also providing highlights of market lineups at AFM, EFM, FILMART and Cannes.

Beyond its mammoth film bazaar, the AFM also functions as a popular learning center through its Conferences. This year’s Conference Series will feature topics on finance, pitching, production, marketing and distribution; sessions will focus on crowd-funding, crowd-sourcing audiences, film festivals, video-on-demand and more. Underscoring the continuing reign of theatrical, one session is devoted to the art and specialty theatrical market.

New to the Conference this year will be the AFM Producers Forum, designed for experienced producers from around the world but also, notes Prewitt, helping new producers like many from Latin America so that they “don’t feel like ducks out of water.” Forum participants will have access to 16 educational sessions addressing such topics as co-productions, working with sales agents, production incentives, working with U.S. guilds and more. Experts, whom Wolf describes as “the global film industry’s best and brightest,” will lead the discussions, which also may include an exploration of co-productions in China and India. Receptions and other networking opportunities will round out the day.

The AFM also announced that JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) and UniJapan are creating a 2,000-square-foot Japan Pavilion and, after a three-year absence, Unifrance will return to the AFM. Among new exhibitors, Panorama Media and Relativity Media will participate in the American Film Market for the first time. Easing navigation for buyers and others is the AFM’s International Pavilion for sales companies from outside of North America.

Prewitt, whose appointment at IFTA began in 2000, reminds that while the AFM is a bustling annual event, IFTA, which produces the AFM, is more substantial. She points out, “We function throughout the entire year, providing a broad range of services to the independent industry worldwide to support our members.”

L.A.-based IFTA, the global trade association for independent motion picture and television producers and distributors around the world, represents and provides significant entertainment industry services to more than 150 member companies from 23 countries, consisting of independent production and distribution companies, sales agents, television companies, studio-affiliated firms, and institutions engaged in film finance.

Founded over 30 years ago, IFTA provides licensing and legal assistance, helps filmmakers navigate difficult processes like collections and contracts, and provides members with an oft-used model international licensing agreement. It oversees arbitrations for resolution of disputes and advocates on behalf of its members in matters of media consolidation, net neutrality, the elimination of trade barriers, new technology, anti-piracy and copyright protection, market access and governmental pressures and consumer preferences.

IFTA members produce more than 400 independent films and countless hours of television programming that generate more than $4 billion in distribution revenues annually. IFTA also does a lot of lobbying on behalf of its members, says Prewitt. “Our concentrated effort is in D.C., Brussels and the U.K. But this year our energy has been less in D.C. because of a languid Congress and more in Brussels, where IFTA has been dealing with issues relating to the growth of VOD and easier European consumer access to content across territories.” IFTA also looks closely at European Community controls that might adversely affect its membership.

Prewitt observes, “It is very difficult out there, especially with a lot of consolidation on the distribution side and new platforms taking hold. It’s an uphill battle.”

But both Prewitt and Wolf see theatrical, as opposed to other corners of the business, as occupying a relatively comfortable plateau. Notes Prewitt, “We get a lot of feedback from our members but have not been asked to tinker with regard to theatrical.”

She regards worldwide theatrical as “the single most secure platform that continues to drive the business. There’s a lot of verbiage surrounding on-demand, but on-demand doesn’t contribute to financing. VOD is still largely an after-market business in Europe and the EC doesn’t get this. The business is getting more and more dichotomized and a vast middle is being lost. A decade ago these [middle-of-the-road] films could have a life across platforms, but today you can’t count on it.”

Prewitt signals that IFTA bows to its members’ needs and concerns. “We respond to what our members say they want, and members pursuing theatrical successfully don’t ask anything of us. Our members are attempting to access other platforms. Theatrical is very different, especially regarding who will pay the marketing and release costs; it’s the economic issue. We can’t advocate in the theatrical arena. Our membership is enthusiastic about online and we can help them on those platforms. So we’re more active regarding TV and online and in trying to find ways for indies to deal directly with the platforms, especially since online is primarily controlled by aggregators.” She also notes that VOD raises more concerns because it is in such early stages, especially on the European continent.

Regarding films vs. TV programs, Prewitt says that members are showing more interest in TV but the opportunities are very specific. Only a handful are doing dramatic series, but niches like the phenom Sharknado are notable because the company behind the campy cable movie has uncovered a new marketplace in the low-budget area.

Wolf feels his AFM attendees are still focused on theatrical because it “continues as the Holy Grail and the AFM is all about long-form.” He reminds that “direct-to-video goes back 30 years, so there’s always a component of that. But producers of most films, though not all that are made, know whether they are looking at theatrical or at least usually know ahead of time that that is the goal. What you do from the very beginning is picture where your audience will be sitting.”

From their perspectives inside so vast a world of independents, Prewitt and Wolf have noticed some changes. Says Prewitt, “One thing that has been noticeable over the past two or three years is the rise of Chinese participation from both Hong Kong and the Mainland. The Chinese are now coming to the AFM. We’re also seeing less involvement from Italy and Greece and Spain, this being a reflection of the European economic situation. Some companies have dropped out completely because they’re out of business. Another change is the nature of the films themselves—they now have bigger budgets and are expected to ‘travel.’

“Yet many changes are different from what you see in the U.S. and elsewhere, the result of a growing emphasis on local productions overseas which do so well,” Prewitt continues. “Also playing a part is the increased sophistication of companies, many of which are also looking at a strong export marketplace. There’s more participation from Asia overall, from Korea certainly. There’s some from Japan, but the Japanese are more difficult to figure out because they aren’t buying as much U.S. product. India is making frequent forays to AFM, but they don’t show a big boost in IFTA. So we’re seeing Asia rising and Europe contracting—it’s an economic thing.”

Wolf predictably calls China “an exciting part of the world,” but he raises some questions. He notes that more films are made in India, although as a percentage fewer films there export. He wonders if China will evolve like India with an increase of homegrown films for audiences in local markets. While a Mainland Chinese film may occasionally work in the States, Hong Kong has delivered more films that have been more successful, he observes. The question for Wolf is: “Will China, like India, be producing much more for its own audiences?”

He has also observed that “for the moment there may be more U.S. films as a result of tax incentives, but in the longer view the change is in the increase of independent productions in non-English-language countries and the trend to go local, which means less marketplace clout from the U.S. and the U.K.” He adds that “this jump in local production is not having an impact on the big productions.”

As for growth at the AFM, it continues stronger than ever, especially in the production community where “shows have perceived value.” Also growing are those post-production, service and film commission entities that are “helping to bring films forward” by way of the skills and incentives they offer.

Unlike recent years when the market was oversaturated, Wolf now sees a healthy balance so neither buyers nor sellers hold a controlling hand. He observes, “It really comes down to the film. You have the upper hand if you’re selling George Clooney or a film like Rush. With the balanced marketplace, supply and demand are in sync.” As for any impact on the AFM that the growth of quality programming from TV and Netflix might have, Wolf contends, “There’s no impact on our end, as these platforms are competing with one another with products different from ours.”

Both IFTA and AFM’s challenges for the future continue to be to “remain relevant,” says Wolf. “The needs of our customers continue to evolve and we have to stay on top of that.”

Asked how their relevance persists in an era of social media and so many new opportunities for buyers and sellers to promote and discover, Wolf quickly answers this “easy question.” It’s because “film is such a collaborative and organic art that requires so many people to make it happen. And what the AFM does is provide so much opportunity for the networking and sharing of information that moves so many productions further in the cycle.” Using an analogy from the music business, he adds that the making of a film is like a band that’s newly formed. “It takes them time and more input to create that winning single.”

Prewitt sees the changes as “more the result of how films are financed. Yes, VOD is changing values, but at the Market, which is a wholesale business, different things are being negotiated.” Adds Wolf, “Unlike traditional film distribution, VOD doesn’t generate pre-sales.”

For Prewitt and Wolf, the biggest change has been the shift in supply and demand since the middle of the past decade, when the production bubble meant too many films being made and then an oversupply. The focus, they say, was on business plans touting ‘here’s what it costs and here’s why it’ll be good.” But what it’s really about is “what the marketplace can absorb. Now we’re in a time of balance because the marketplace can absorb what we have.”

As for IFTA, it has already reacted to the explosion of information available and the easy access to it by aggregating this info so that it is more useful to members. “We’re not into raw data anymore but focus more on distributing commentary by way of marketplace reviews,” Prewitt notes. “And the AFM is not so much an auction anymore, so the market serves a broader function. We’re recognizing more niche markets…and people are coming in much earlier with projects and often they are new to the industry. So the AFM is doing more outreach to niche groups like the crowd-funding people, programmers and film students. And IFTA is doing a lot more work with film commissions in terms of their incentives and getting this information out to members.”

Like motion picture theatres, the AFM has that communal DNA appeal that attracts actual, not virtual, crowds. How refreshing in this digitally charged, online-obsessed age that, as Prewitt and Wolf remind, “Films don't sell themselves, the best deals result from the face-to-face contact that the AFM so amply provides.” That’s “face-to-face,” folks, not face-to-Facebook!