AFM: A Conversation with Managing Director, Jonathan Wolf

An hour after I posted my initial reactions to 2015 American Film Market (AFM), the Managing Director, Jonathan Wolf, emailed to set up a chat. That he took half an hour to talk with me today, less than a week before the start of AFM2016, speaks volumes about how committed the nonprofit is to providing screenwriters and filmmakers with a positive experience at the market and conference.

I was flattered that he found 80% of my assessment was “spot on." The following is a loose transcription of his corrections and thoughts on the other 20%.

First, the Corrections

My perception that AFM is primarily for finished films does not match the data. One billion dollars in sales come out of AFM each year, about equally divided between finished films and pre-sales. That means about $500,000,00 dedicated to foreign and domestic presales of projects that are in pre-production.

There’s a lot going on in those screening rooms. At any given time there are about thirty simultaneous screenings. Of the 350 companies at AFM, a third are actively screening films in a given year. The other two-thirds are there for packaging or have already sold in most of the world. (He agrees, though, the screenings still aren't likely the best use of a writer or creative producer's time at AFM).

Foreign pre-sales are still a big deal. From what I understood, it’s all about risk management and liquidity. Pre-selling to foreign markets allows the filmmaker to take out a bank loan to start production. It also transfers some of the risk away from the producers. Some producers choose to presell 20%, 50% or even 70% of the world to eliminate some of the risk.

There’s a wide range of film budgets represented at AFM. The larger budgets are associated with the large independents, such as Lions Gate and The Weinstein Company. However, many films are in the $100K-$3.5M range.

He deemed “50% true” my assertion that AFM is not the place to find a sales agent or sales producer. He estimates that about half will find success or a clearer path to it and half will have trouble getting traction. The first three days they're really busy. By the second half, “some not all” have openings in their schedules and “some not all” of those are willing to meet with people without a prior appointment. The norm is to set up meetings before AFM starts. (The 4-day Industry Badge runs from Saturday to Tuesday to help attendees capitalize on this availability.) 

Thoughts & Elaborations

Jonathan didn’t disagree with me about AFM gravitating to “genre films,” but did elaborate by saying that companies that are risk averse seek genres that are easy to pre-sell. Action adventures and erotic thrillers, for example, depend less on execution than comedies or dramas.  He gave the example of "Brokeback Mountain." The script could be magnificent but buyers would see at as risky because it’s much more dependent on execution. By comparison, “Expendables 5” would need little introduction and be seen as relatively low risk. (NOTE: This might explain a lot of about what’s on the screen of my local movie theater!)

There are three kinds of producers. Know which one you are and which one you need.

Creative producers work with writers and have great empathy for stories and audiences. He estimates that 80% of producers at the AFM are creative producers. A creative producer at AFM is doing one thing: selling a script or package. The best ones take a soft approach. They give a synopsis and suggest they read the script. Period.

Line producers are like the general contractors who help implement the film.

Sales Producers are experts in the art of sales. They work with creative producers, often as partners. Sales producers are relatively scarce, even at AFM.   

According to Jonathan, only a handful of producers are experts in two of these areas and almost no-one is adept at all three.

The takeaway? If you consider yourself a producer, “know which one you are and stay in your lane.”  

If you’re a creative producer or writer, partner with a sales producer. Most creative producers don’t and he feels it’s a mistake. You’ll be too emotionally attached to your film or script to be able to sell it well. Leave the selling to the professionals. There’s a reason sales is the highest paid occupation in the world.  

His Advice for Writers & Creative Producers Visiting AFM?

Be a “stealth participant.” Start the lifelong process of developing relationships. Start understanding what the marketplace wants, what companies are producing what kind of films, what films are working… Come to learn.

If you spend 4 or 5 days at AFM and leave with 4 or 5 lasting relationships, it’s worth it. This is an industry of relationships and AFM's a good place to build them. Meet people, learn what they do, and look to develop partnerships.

Keep your pitching conversational. Do a very soft sale. Instead of starting off with a memorized routine ask questions. Find out what the person you're talking to is looking for.

Jonathan started out as a car salesman and likened the approach to selling a car: when someone came on the lot, you ask what they’re looking for and tailor your response to that. He asked if I’d ever run into an aggressive information heavy car salesman before who ignored my wants. I had: I left and looked elsewhere. (If you prefer a fishing metaphor: let the fish get to know the bait.)

It’s the same with film. Start with a question rather than a pitch. Figure out your prospects. Do they match on genre? Budget range? Connect with them. Learn their needs then tailor your response to their needs. Sales 101.

He advises not to spend your time at AFM meeting with sales agents or producers from your hometown. But do hang back and learn. Then set up a meeting for later and arrive at their offices prepared.

Bonus Sales Advice for Independent Filmmakers

Hook up with a sales agent before you start filming. Sales agents know the global marketplace. They’ll be able to help make decisions that improve the profitability of your film. He gave examples of knowing which actors might be more valuable and figuring out where best to apply your budget

Jonathan volunteered a final insight. “Festivals are the worst place to world premiere most films.” They create media and social media buzz on the film and there’s no way to monetize on it. And that can turn off potential distributors. Solution? Get your distributor first. Discuss a festival strategy with them. Half the deals announced  at Sundance are sold prior to the festival and simply announced at the festival.

If all the distributors pass, (see prior comment about agents/buyers considering “Brokeback Mountain” as risky), take it to the festivals and hope all the sales agents and distributors were wrong. Just keep in mind, festivals are first and foremost cultural events for their communities, not an international market.

For more of his insights and tips, check out  “How to Work the AFM” and Jonathan’s podcast (with Pilar Alessandro) on pitching at AFM