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February 25th - March 3rd, 2004

Going Back with Bruce Campbell

24th annual American Film Market

"Going Back to the American Film Market"

With more than seven thousand attendees from more than seventy countries, the American Film Market is the world's largest marketplace for film and video international and domestic distribution rights. Three hundred sellers and representatives from (at this particular event) six hundred and forty-two registered buying companies spend eight ten-hour days (and all the dealmaking they can squeeze into the evenings after the official market hours) negotiating the licensing of entertainment products for threatrical, home video, cable, pay-per-view, satellite, and broadcast distribution around the world.

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American Film Market
The central atrium at the Loews Santa Monica

For the duration of the market, the Santa Monica Loews Hotel gets turned into an office building. They haul out the beds and the rest of the furniture from the rooms, and you can pick whatever assortment of office furniture you'd like put in there. It's not cheap, but it works quite well, and for a week-plus long market, you really do appreciate having comfortable, quiet, and private office suites.

In 2004, we moved from the eighth (top) floor to our new offices on the fifth floor. While being on the top floor was cool in its own way, I'm happier being in our new spot: you come up the stairs or the elevator from the lobby, hang to the left, and we're in the corner office. Being easy to find is a good thing.

This year the Inferno team included Darlene Cypser, Mark Steven Grove, and myself. According to the official stats, the attendance was up 10% over last year, but we were a lot more than 10% busier. From mid-morning until late afternoon, we usually had at least a couple of groups from different companies at any one time.

One side effect was that our food bill was a lot lower than last year's: the food available at the market was as pricey as ever, but it was a serious challenge to find a free moment to eat anything during the day.

Inferno Film Productions entryway
Inferno Film Productions
AFM Office 525
Mark Grove, Trygve Lode, Darlene Cypser
Mark Grove, Trygve Lode, Darlene Cypser

The American Film Market is always intense, and it's always an educational and inspirational experience: more than a week solid talking to movie distributors from around the world about what they're looking for and seeing what product qualities and marketing aspects appeal to them.

It makes you want to rush right back home and create a script specifically geared towards what the buyers were saying at this market.

...but that's exactly the kicker...*this* market. By the time you had the film ready to sell, the buyers' tastes might have changed.

So we try to bring a diverse catalog of titles--eighteen, in this case--to the market.

The worst word to start out a sales pitch with is "no"--especially when a motivated buyer just asked you if you had a particular type of product.

Independent Film quarterly ad
Inferno Film Productions ad, as it appeared on page 1 of Independent Film Quarterly

If you at least have *something* to pique a buyer's interest, you're off to a good start. Even if someone had initially been looking for a particular type of entertainment product, it's not so unusual that some of the other titles you have to offer will just happen to catch his or her eye, or there might be someone else back at the home office who would be interested in reviewing some of the other products you have.

This year I shipped out Dell 2001fp 20.1" LCD panels for our video displays. Technology just keeps getting better each year; the 2001fps were a substantial improvement over the ADI/Provista L912 displays we'd used last year. Another change was to build an Epox "Mini Me" small form factor (SFF) based portable media server with all the movies and trailers we were representing stored on it. Last year, I'd brought a couple of DVD changers; a media server is faster and smaller, though it does have the drawback that there are more things that could have gone wrong with it. (Fortunately, nothing did.)

One thing we'd tried in the past, but didn't do this year was to have a small private viewing room in the back of our suite. It was a cute idea, but nobody ever used it. People would come to scheduled screenings that we had in the theaters or or in the screening rooms at the Loews, but nobody ever wanted to screen movies "on demand" in our office.

Piglet, the transportable media server
EpoX Mini-Me SFF media server
travel lodge Santa Monica

One of the side effects of turning the Loews hotel rooms into office suites is that, like many regular offices, you don't get to sleep in them. (I'm sure some people doze off occasionally, but you don't get to stay there overnight.) This time we spent our nights at the exotic nearly-beachfront Travelodge. It's not on the "official" list of hotels for the market and it's certainly not as showy (or as expensive), but we can always hold any after-hours negotiations in a nearby restaurant.

It's probably better not to lure potential buyers into the Travelodge anyway. Here's the sign they had on the door:

cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm
This motel room may cause reproductive harm

(I'm not really sure what sort of chemicals they were storing in the motel rooms. I guess we'll just wait and see whether I turn into some kind of strange mutant creature in time for the 25th American Film Market.)

Compared to the 23rd American Film Market in 2003, this year things seemed a lot more lively. Not only were there more buyers, the buyers seemed much more eager. Last year one of the most common (and most puzzling) things I kept hearing from buyers was that they were not going to take on anything that might be at all particular, they were only going to consider higher-budget films.

The logic behind this seemed a little odd, but we'd been seeing the same trend from domestic video retailers that year: they were cutting way back (or eliminating) independently produced and lower-budget titles in the name of eliminating risk...regardless of how much more favorable the terms had been on the contracts for the independently-produced titles.

finding electra

In 2004, I think we're seeing this starting to turn around. Buyers were interested in a more diverse range of titles, budgets, and genres.

Some things haven't changed: horror and action are still hot genres, while dramas and comedies remain harder to sell cross-culturally. That's not to say you can't sell dramas and comedies, but it's certainly more work to see to it that a particular product ends up being seen by the right person.

On the other hand, we saw a heightened interest in family entertainment and some distributors who were specifically looking for products aimed at female viewers, age 35 and up. So much of the time, it seems that people are only looking to target male viewers aged 18 to 25. It's nice to see more interest in other demographics. One of the biggest surprises was how much interest we had in our own martial arts training videos. We hadn't expected those to be a big draw at a market that's primarily oriented towards feature films, but "Shinobigatana, basic sword skills" was our fourth most-requested screener.

the little horse that could
drawing down the moon

China seemed to be especially interested in acquiring foreign content this time around--much more so than in the past. They're not a very high-paying territory right now, especially considering their size and population, but the buyers from China were very eager to get deals signed right then and there for a diversity of titles and genres. Selling film rights to Chinese buyers is slightly complicated by the added step of having to get the official stamp of approval of the Chinese government before anything can be distributed, and that adds a little extra time and work to the process.

The Chinese censorship standards won't pose a problem with most titles: you can't criticize the Chinese government (no surprise there) and you can't depict drug users as heroes. Pretty cut-and-dried. In the next couple of months we should start hearing back which of our titles pass; I think almost all of them will without any trouble.

paper, rock, scissors

The standards are a little different for every country, and even for different buyers from the same country. I can't say that they always make sense, either. One buyer was telling me that he had a lot of trouble distributing American-produced action films because of the violence level. We talked about how much was too much, so I'd have an idea of what products to steer him towards, and I asked him what the limits were for horror. "Oh, if it's horror, anything goes. The more, the better."

Go figure. A lot of movies can fit into multiple genres, and people will react totally differently depending on which genre you say the movie just have to get good at guessing the buyer's tastes before you open your mouth.

Once again, the bottom line came down to how good the promotional materials were. I've had lots of filmmakers get me promotional material that really doesn't do their film justice; they always tell me that the buyers should really watch their entire film to fully understand and appreciate it.

and that's absolutely true...except that they won't do it.

The sales presentation starts with the poster: it's got to grab their attention from twenty feet away and make it clear at a glance what kind of movie it is.


The poster also has to have enough interesting smaller details that it'll keep their interest when they look at it up close. Otherwise, they won't want to bother with the movie or even the trailer: I'll usually have to get them interested in some other title and then try to get them to watch the trailer "as long as I'm showing them something else anyway."

Then you have to make sure the trailer gets their interest in the first five seconds. If it doesn't, their minds are already off thinking about a different product. You'd be surprised how many buyers won't watch the whole trailer if it doesn't start out exciting enough.

The number one cause of "dull trailer syndrome" is trying to tell the story. Don't. If you're cutting a trailer, your job is to make someone want to watch the movie; if they don't know what the movie's about, that's fine as long as they want to watch it. If, after watching the trailer, they don't know the entire plot and storyline...good.

Make them want to watch the movie. If you can do that, you're most of the way to a sale; if you don't, it doesn't matter how good the movie is, they won't bother watching it.

American Film Market

In the movie itself, you've got the same situation: you've got to get the buyer's interest immediately...then you can slow down a bit and fill in some details. A slow beginning is most likely to mean the buyer won't make it to the ending...or even the middle. When you're a famous filmmaker, you can get away with starting it any way you want, but until your name is a household word, you've got to use everything you have to catch and hold the buyers' eyes if you're going to get your film distributed.

While we do sign some deals right at the market, most of our sales happen in between the markets. At the AFM, we put in a certain amount of face-time with the buyers, but most of the negotiations go on afterwards, when the buyers have returned to their home offices and have had a chance to screen the films that piqued their interest. Often they (or someone else in their company) will decide after they get back that they'd like to review a few more of the films we're representing, so we do an awful lot of international shipping after the markets, followed by more discussion and negotiations, until eventually we get down to the numbers.

This year the AFMA has decided to move the 25th American Film Market to November, 2004, instead of February, 2005, which means two AFMs this year. Sure, November might not seem so close now, but with a few months of negotiations, getting contracts signed, and making sure the movie distributors gets the appropriate masters and other deliverables in the formats they need...and a few months of prep time to get everything ready for the next exciting market, I'm pretty sure we'll be putting together the materials for the next market before we're done wrapping up the loose ends from this one.

the Elevator at the Loews Hotel
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