In November I went to my very first American Film Market. If you’re a filmmaker or any kind of “content creator,” you really need to start learning about this end of the business. I’m still a neophyte, so this is less a definitive guide and more of a set of observations and tips that I picked up while there.
Check out the accompanying podcast to this article: That PVC Show – Surviving Your First Film Market for a deep dive into this topic.
The view from the deck of the Loews Hotel. Not a bad reason to go : )
WHAT IS A MARKET?
Markets really exist to connect sales agents to distributors to exhibitors to higher-up producers. It’s a business-to-business convention, as opposed to film festivals, which are focused on interactions between filmmakers, fans, press, the local business/non-profit community, and (sometimes) distributors. Markets are where sales agencies display their wares to foreign (and sometimes domestic) buyers, then buy projects (usually completed ones) from sellers. There are often seminars, social get-togethers, buyer screenings, and other events. But much of the action happens in a series of hotel rooms, offices, or pavilions, where agencies display their key art and trailers, and host quick meetings (scheduled and unscheduled) with folks ranging from studio-level bigwigs down to people like you and me.
This can be a bit of a head-turner (or a straight-up turn-off) to folks who make movies. This is where, as the saying goes, “the sausage is made.” But as filmmakers keep getting pushed into the business of selling and distributing movies, you might as well learn how to survive and thrive at a market.
SHOULD I GO?
If you have a completed film and you don’t have a distributor, you’re in a very strong position. You have something that sales agents will be interested in looking at adding to their library of films, hopefully to sell at the next market (if not before). You should go.
If you have a project with some funding behind it and any kind of attachments (cast), you could be in a good position. A sales agent will certainly take a look at it and may even be able to come aboard in some capacity. They may be able to pre-sell the film to different territories (which can lead to financing). Or they may be able to partner up with you.
If you have a script but nothing else, you can certainly go, but look at it as more of an exploratory, let’s connect with people mission. Most sales agencies are small, low-margin businesses, and they don’t have cash to spread on investing in films, unless you have a good track record and are making the film for “the right price.”
If you don’t have a project, but you want to network, think carefully. The seminars are interesting, and AFM’s three-day pass is cheap ($295), but if you don’t live in LA you’ll have to factor in travel, lodging, food, and missed work expenses. It may still be worthwhile as an educational experience.
Let’s say you’ve got a project (in whatever state it’s in). The first thing you need to put together are five elements:
- A trailer or sizzle reel — keep it to 2 minutes or less
- A one-sheet — this is a letter-sized sheet of heavy stock (don’t do what I did and print it on ordinary paper) with a poster of your film on one side, and information about it (logline, synopsis, brief bio, attachments if you have any, contact info) on the other
- A pitch — you’ll want to come up with a fairly scripted verbal bite-sized encapsulation of your story. Keep it short and to the point, less than 90 seconds if you can. I rehearsed the pitch a lot, until I knew it well. Then I could vary it a little bit (if I was talking to an agent who liked horror, I could emphasize the horror angle; if I was talking to an agent who liked supernatural/ghost stories, I could lean in that direction).
- Business cards
I had two projects to pitch, a mini-series (Spectral City) and an indie supernatural thriller (Bitter Child). So I made up one-sheets for both projects. I did the posters in Photoshop at a very large page size, then shrank them down to letter-size. When making print work, talk to whoever will be duplicating your one-sheets and make sure that you’re working in the right color space (CMYK is for most print work, RGB is for online/web stuff), and resolution (web resolution is 72dpi, print is typically 150-300dpi). For Bitter Child in particular, I studied other supernatural thriller posters and tried to make mine look like those. Originality is not always a selling point at markets.
I took DVD screeners of and postcards for my last film, Found In Time, a few copies of my book, and a couple of copies of the scripts for Bitter Child and the pilot episode of Spectral City. I didn’t take too much printed matter with me. For one thing, it’s a lot to schlep around all day long. For another, most agents are getting a ton of crap and by the end of it they’re probably going to throw most of it away. I set up a secure password-protected Vimeo link to Found In Time, and that worked just as well if not better than giving out DVD screeners.
I already had a trailer for Found In Time, and a sizzle reel for Spectral City. I encoded them to H.264 for playback on a tablet (see below). It took a few tries to get the playback smoothness/quality ratio just right. Make sure that the sound is encoded at a high bitrate. Nothing screams amateur more than bad sound.
If you don’t have any kind of web presence (FB page, website, Twitter account) for your project and/or yourself as a producer, set up something basic but decent-looking now.
Find someone who can mentor you through the market. Matt Medisch of The October People had been to AFM before, and he stepped me through a lot of the nuances of the market. I also listened to Stacey Park’s FilmSpecific podcasts on AFM. My friend, writer/director Chris Benker, had also been to AFM before with his earlier films. And my attorney, Bob Seigel, has been in the business a long time. Between these four sources I was able to stitch together a good sense of what to expect. My editor Dan Loewenthal also hooked me up with a couple of people to call while I was there — potential connections to make.
The first big decision is what kind of pass to buy. AFM lasts for ten days but the first six are focused on sales – sales agents want to talk to licensors/distributors, and make deals that will bring them revenue. They don’t want to talk to you. Fortunately, the AFM organizers offer a three- and four-day pass to the last weekend, for small fry like you and me. Other markets work differently, so do your research. Don’t spend more money than you have to.
Next, you’ll need to research the sales agencies that are attending, so you know who to target. Once you buy a pass to a market, you’ll usually be given access to the official market’s site. AFM’s site includes a catalog of attending companies and their films. I combed through it, and cross-checked the films and companies with IMDB and the company websites. I found about 80-90 companies (out of many hundreds) that fit two out of the three following criteria:
- Bringing films to the market that fit the genre and budget of Bitter Child (supernatural thrillers < $1M)
- Had a history of/interest in producing TV (a fit for Spectral City)
- Were involved in financing and development as well as distribution
See if any of your friends, friends of friends, or other producers you might want to talk to are also attending. It’s just as important to network with your peers as it is to try to make deals.
Out of this stew I put together a database of companies, their attendees, and their email addresses. If I happened to know something about a company or its films, I noted that too. I then spent some time writing up some emails requesting meetings — including a very short version of the pitch and my bio — personalizing them whenever possible, and sending them off.
As email responses came in, I entered them into the database as well. I ended up with a number of “Nos,” a few “yeses,” and some noncommittal responses. Gradually I filled up my schedule with meetings, and left some time for random encounters and mental debriefing.
You’ll also need:
- A tablet or light laptop — this is for your use, but also to play back your trailers and maybe display your key artwork
- Paper and pen — many pens, actually (I tend to lose them easily)
- Comfortable shoes and business casual wear — You can’t wear jeans and t-shirts (this is not a festival). Business casual (skirt or pants, collared shirts or blouse, nice belt and shoes) is a must, but wear shoes that won’t kill you by the end of the day
- Get something to hold your business cards in
- A shoulder briefcase/laptop bag. Something that looks suitably business-like (not too much like a messenger bag). I found a laptop shoulder bag in my closet with about a million compartments for my key art, postcards, laptop, and iPad.
- Altoids and/or breath fresheners, toothbrush and toothpaste — whatever it takes to keep your breath minty-fresh and your teeth free of food. You’ll be talking to people all day. Leave a good impression.
OKAY SO I’M THERE, NOW WHAT
AFM starts up in the morning around 8-9 am. I downed some coffee and breakfast, picked up the free trades, and set up at a table in the hotel lobby to read through them, organize my pitch, and review my schedule.
While you’re there, make sure you eat and drink water. Some folks carry energy bars around; I just stuck with water.
When you’re roaming the halls, looking for the particular companies you’re meeting with, look at the posters and artwork that all of the companies have set up. See if you spot any trends — in the artwork itself, in the genres being represented, in the titles, in the actors. Is there an actor you see a lot? Is there an archetypical poster design? Are there an abundance of one kind of movie and an under-representation of another? How does the key art you’ve brought compare in terms of quality and “look” to what’s on display?
There are many ways to interpret this data. On the one hand, greatness often doesn’t come from simple imitation. Making something that’s just like everything else out there is not necessarily a productive strategy in the long run. On the other hand, people are limited in their time and energy. The company reps you’ll be meeting with have specific needs, have been at the market for many days already, and have stacks of DVDs and other stuff to look through. If you hit them with something completely out of their wheelhouse or that they can’t see a fit for right away, you could lose them.
IN THE ROOM:
Arrive at the room before your meeting time. If the company rep is late or talking with someone else, don’t get upset about it. Make nice with the intern (if there is one) and practice your pitch to yourself. Introduce yourself to anyone else who’s waiting on line. Take any posters or lit that is on offer.
If you have a completed film, you have something the company wants, so the conversation should be pretty straightforward. It should be about your film, who’s in it, and what you’re looking for in terms of distribution. If, like me, you’re at an earlier stage in your project, it’s best to approach this as a scouting/information-gathering mission. I found I got a lot more mileage if I approached the meetings with an attitude of “how can I help you” rather than “here’s my project I want to sell you on.” My experience as a line producer was a big help — I could always pitch my services in that regard. Matt Medisch did a brochure that pitched The October People as producers-for-hire. I tried to listen as much as talk, ask them how their experience at AFM was going, find out more about their company (sometimes it’s different from what’s listed in the directory). The people you’ll be talking to may be company principals, or they might be assistants. Treat all of them well.
The main discovery for me was how genuinely interested in filmmaking most of the folks were. I had been warned that markets are “where the sausage is made.”. I found this not to be the case — at least, not in the attitudes of the people I met. They cared about making, buying and selling good films. Many were looking for the same things I was — to establish relationships. Very few of the people I encountered were motivated solely by the cash. There are, after all, easier ways to make a buck.
At the end of the conversation, ask the rep what you should leave behind. Many are swamped with screeners and posters and paperwork, so they may not want anything. It’s rare that they will ask for a script or screener. Most will be okay with a business card and one-sheet. Offer to email them a link to your online screener and/or trailer. Ask them how long they need post-market before you follow up with them. Most will say two weeks; a few will need a month. Their first priority is to close the sales deals (that bring in money) before they get to acquisitions and development (which could cost them). So don’t feel bad if they tell you not to talk to them for a month. Use the time to rewrite the script or re-edit the trailer.
The rooms closed up shop around 5pm or so, just in time for the happy hour in the hotel lobby. Other markets have unofficial and official parties. Stick around for these. It helps if you’re good at these sorts of things, but if you’re not, keep in mind that everyone else is probably a lot more nervous than they appear to be — everyone is looking for a connection. Look around for other producers who seem to have something on the ball. Or reps who you didn’t get a chance to talk to. Ask questions and listen. It’s a great way to get to know people, and you can learn a lot.
CONFERENCES AND SCREENINGS:
At AFM I went to one seminar — the “African Co-Productions” one. It was pretty terrific. Africa is a huge growth market. The speakers ran the gamut from Nigerian producers to distributors to sales agents to South African production companies. Conferences are a good opportunity to network with other like-minded producers. I find it hard to talk to the speakers because everyone else is rushing the stage to talk to them. So write down their names and companies before the end of the conference and follow up with them later if you’re not one of the lucky few to catch them on the stage.
Some markets also have screenings. These are for prospective buyers. They are probably not worth going to. For one thing, the buyers rarely attend entire screenings – they have so many to catch up on that they only watch 20 minutes or so of each film. So you can expect to have a constant stream of people walking in and out of the theater. For another, there’s no real chance to connect with anyone in a dark theater, which is why you’re there. If you want to check out the competition, you can write down the name of the sales agency or filmmaker and see if you can get a screener down the road.
Follow up with the producers after the market, sooner rather than later. These are your peers or people who are slightly below or above you on the foodchain. But don’t discount them — they may prove to be powerful allies and/or collaborators. And you don’t know where those connections will lead.
SOME LAST TIPS:
When someone hands you a business card, write down something about them on the back — how you met, what project of yours they’re interested in, what you’re supposed to email/mail to them. Trust me, you won’t remember any of this later.
Often equipment vendors and film commissions take booths. It’s worth scouting these and picking up some information from their tables, maybe chatting with some of their staff. I didn’t know that Trinidad and Tobago had such a huge tax incentive program. If nothing else, I was able to learn what kind of local resources (crew, vendors, post, etc.) some of the smaller countries have. And I got a contact number in case I have to budget or shoot a film set there one day.
If you’re on a budget, AirBnB is your best friend for lodging. I found a place a few blocks from the hotel for about half the cost of a “discount” hotel. I scouted a few relatively cheap places to eat along the way. If you can get around without a car, you’ll be very happy in addition to not being out rental, gas, and parking money. My AirBnB host recommended an LAX-to-Santa Monica shuttle that only cost $8 each way, and dropped me off about ten minutes’ walk away from the place.
Cannes is a little trickier — hotels are insanely expensive — but you can find hotels out of the immediate Cannes vicinity for about half the price. Just pay attention to how far away they are from bus/train access and when public transportation stops running. AirBnB also has a presence in Cannes.
I am much indebted to Matt Medisch, Stacey Parks, Bob Seigel, Chris Benker, and Dan Loewenthal for all their help. It truly takes a village.
Arthur Vincie is a writer, director, and line producer. His latest feature film, “Found In Time” (sci-fi) won “Best Sci-Fi Feature” at seven festivals, and has been to 14 others so far. It was picked up for domestic distribution by Green Apple Entertainment and is now available on Amazon, Vudu, and other channels. Focal Press just published his non-fiction book on preproduction, “Preparing For Takeoff.” You can find out more about the film by heading to www.foundintimefilm.com, and check out the book on www.preparingfortakeoffbook.com. He’s currently working on his next feature, “Bitter Child” (bitterchild.com).