AFM: A Writer & Anthropologist's First Impressions

As an anthropologist turned screenwriter and filmmaker, my first visit to the American Film Market (AFM) in November 2015 was eye-opening. When several screenwriter friends from Stowe Story Labs told me they were considering attending AFM2016, I decided to write up my observations and reactions. They found them helpful. I hope you will, too.

From looking at their website, it's clear that AFM is massive: 8,000+ industry professionals, 2,000 new films and projects, 1,000 production companies, 500+ screenings, 400+ distributors, and 100+ speakers.  When I first said I was thinking of going, Jacob Okada, my writing/producing partner in First Encounter Productions, shared enough of his colleague's impressions of past years that I realized it would likely be overwhelming. I was glad AFM is in Santa Monica, CA where the water and sand would help me through!

At Stowe's September 2015 Narrative Lab, an AFM-initiated producer, Alex Boden, gave me some invaluable advice. The first time, it’s best to go and observe. Attend the conference, walk through the rest, and get the lay of the land. 

That made sense to me. I sounded a lot like approach AFM like an anthropologist. So I did just that. I took Alex's advice to heart and adjusted my expectations. It took off a lot of the pressure in what would be an intense five-day experience.

At the time First Encounters had three projects at various stages and I was curious to see how AFM might help move the ball forward.

  • PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON (2015), a completed math/science/art documentary that had run the festival circuit, but not yet been distributed,
  • HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, an advanced draft of an original narrative screenplay, and
  • DOGGER CITY, a sci-fi climate/migration treatment based on a short story I’d just optioned. 

To prepare, I looked into who was coming and identified some organizations I wanted to try to meet, made some meetings through MyAFM, and prepared one-sheets (including pitches) for each project. It was helpful that we had recently had a unit production manager draw up a budget of HUMANS AMONG HUMANS.

At AFM, I was able to talk with several minor and non-traditional distributors about the documentary. Some were a friendly pass. Some led to further explorations. I met with a handful of people who might take part in the production of HUMANS AMONG HUMANS (composers, special effects), and spoke informally with a few dozen people about our projects and theirs. I’ve stayed in touch with some of these folks and I’d be glad to cross paths with all of them again.
My brief takeaway? AFM is primarily for produced films with a potentially international audience (more on that below) but can be great for getting an overview of distribution and meeting other professionals in the film industry.
AFM is huge. Officially, AFM holds a multitude of meetings and events in multiple stories of multiple hotels and theaters connected by shuttle buses. Unofficially, AFM spreads even farther through many hotel lobbies and restaurants, basically taking over downtown Santa Monica. If you’re at all introverted (like me), it can feel chaotic and overwhelming. So be prepared to allow yourself some breathing room in between activities.

Getting ready to go:

AFM's website is great. There’s a map of all the venues with the shuttle bus that runs between them. They’ve got a website ( that allows you to put up a profile page with a description of your project(s), post messages offering your products/services, and connect with other participants. For me, this was a great way to ease into AFM. I set up a few meetings with composers, special effects teams, the Colombian Film Commission, and a couple of enterprising Chinese distributors interested in distributing our documentary through non-traditional means (ex. cell phone, bus). Having some meetings lined up going in made AFM feel smaller, friendlier, and more manageable.  It also forced us to hang out waiting for meetings in common areas. That often led to great chats with new people.
As you can see on their website, badges are color-coded. There’s a palpable hierarchy at AFM. People know what each badge means. Certain floors and events are restricted to the higher (read: more expensive) colors. I bought the “Industry Badge plus 4-day conference” (red) plus an additional financing conference. That got me MOST everywhere I wanted to go. I also get a carousel mixer with the badge, which turned out to be a nice networking event on Santa Monica Pier.
This is an expensive trip.

Prices have already gone up since last year. What I did in 2015 would in 2016 be: $595 for the red badge + $95 for the one-day conference pass + meals (there’s not much economy eating near the venues) + hotel (I stayed in Venice and it was still over $100/night) + transportation (I walked the two miles to Santa Monica or took relatively inexpensive Uber/cabs). With airfare from NYC, it ended up in the ballpark of $2000, without extra splurges.
It's cheapest to buy badges early. In 2016, prices jump 10/8 and again 10/31.

Rooms in Santa Monica fill up fast and affordable rooms are limited.
AFM is really multiple concurrent events.
There’s a producer’s conference which I found really helpful and would highly recommend to anyone thinking of trying to see their script all the way through to distribution.  AFM offers half day sessions on things like distribution, production subsidies, and festival strategies. If nothing else, it’s good to hear producers talk about what they feel is important and where they feel the market currently is. For example, in 2015 distributing in China came up often and there was an entire day of sessions dedicated to it. (It's back in 2016.) The producer’s conference sessions can be good for meeting other attendees. They also have a nice breakfast and coffee spread where people gather and chat.
In particular, the pitching session with Stephanie Palmer from Good in a Room and two excellent independent producers (Cassian Elwes and Tobin Armbrust) was fabulous. If you want a chance to pitch on a stage in front of a few hundred people, you can apply ahead of time online with a video pitch  or throw your name in a hat the day of. Just watching and hearing the producers’ feedback on the pitches was plenty of education for me. Sign up early: the pitch session was packed.
There’s a market for completed films. This is centered in the main hotel which is five or so stories of production companies and distributors squatting in rented offices. As an anthropologist, fascinating. As a writer, rather intimidating. The lower levels are lesser known companies and have their doors wide open. You can go and chat with them pretty easily. A lot of the national film commissions are set up here and you can make the rounds learning about the incentives to film and/or do post-production in places like Panama, Thailand, Ireland, etc. The higher up you go in the hotel, the more doors are closed, the more conversations are appointment only, and the less welcome you feel.
There are screenings held in multiple places in Santa Monica. These are folks trying to sell their produced films. They’re part of your price of admission but I didn’t have a chance to go to any. I understand these generally have very low attendance. You’ll see a lot of postcards floating around advertising screenings. There’s also a big book and web page that list them all.

Carousel Cocktails are themed mixers held every evening on the Santa Monica Pier. I went to the Low Budget Film night. I enjoyed getting to meet other filmmakers in a fun and relatively informal setting. You should get access to at least one with your badge. And, yes, you can ride the carousel!
Some personal observations. Take them with a grain of salt…
My overall takeaway? I’m really glad I went. Once. I likely won’t go back until I have a produced feature that I’m trying to sell abroad. Even then, I’d do it through a sales agent. For where I currently am in the industry, I see the value of AFM more as a conference than a market.

Genre films that could be easily understood by a foreign audience seemed to dominate AFM. I don’t think it’s where I’d sell our drama, HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, as either a script or finished film.  Once it’s finished, our sci-fi adventure story (DOGGER CITY) will be a better fit for AFM.  If I were to try to sell it either as a script or finished film, I would hire a sales agent and not try to do it myself.  AFM is a world of relationships and, at least for my relatively unconnected self, I would need someone who knows the people and the game well to cut through all the BS and make progress with selling the project. There are a lot of closed-door meetings that you’d never even know about. There are also a lot of informal meetings in other hotel lobbies with financiers and such that you would never know to look for without experience and connections. A good sales agent knows the world of AFM and the appropriate people in it.

(NOTE: If you’re interested in the conference side, consider attending Produced By, put on by the Producers Guild of America. I went to Produced By: New York  in October 2015 and would eagerly go back again. It’s much smaller. Like AFM, it's great for meeting people and the panel sessions give in-depth insight into contemporary production and distribution. I didn't have a chance to attend, but you can also pre-purchase a seat at small group Mentoring Roundtables where participants can ask questions of industry professionals.)

My recommendations to a screenwriter visiting AFM for the first time?

Adjust your expectations.

It’s great to go to AFM to get the lay of the land and see if you can build any new relationships.
Go ready to briefly pitch your ideas and discuss them in informal conversations. You may or may not have a chance to formally pitch your projects to someone with the direct power to produce your film. In my experience, more likely not the first time. But be prepared to do it. Take a one-sheet summarizing the project, too. Practice your elevator and 1-2 minute pitches.

Be prepared to be on, all the time. Know something about each person/company you’re going to meet. Have questions ready for them. I arrived early for the pitch session and got caught flat-footed before the pitch session when Stephanie Palmer came up and asked if I had any questions for the panel. Thankfully, I knew who she was but I muddled my question about pitching a cross-genre film with a rambling synopsis of Humans. And I forgot to introduce myself. Her easy cordiality turned into a flat smile. Standing there awkwardly with my coffee and muffin, I had to have looked unprofessional and unprepared. Thankfully it was an anonymous interaction. One from which I learned a lot.  

Why do I say it’s unlikely you’ll have a bunch of formal pitches? Most films are hawked through sales agents, not the creator. 
If you want to go with a sales agent, lay the groundwork before AFM. The sales agents are really hustling during this period. It’s not the best time to meet with them. You may be able to set up appointments in advance with some, especially later in the festival. 
It’s also not the best time to meet with producers as they are hawking their completed projects and negotiating contracts. Again, you may be able to set up appointments in advance. I think the brunt of their work is at the beginning of AFM, so you might have better luck meeting producers or agents later in the festival. The challenge is that their schedules will fill up while they’re at AFM. So, it’s good to contact them well ahead of time. 

To be frank, from what I saw, very few if any scripts are being sold at AFM and those that are being sold seem to be doing it through the power of an internationally beloved actor attached.
Do your homework. Use MyAFM to meet people of similar or slightly higher status. It helps to make AFM feel more like a community. Figure out which production companies and sales agents work with products like yours and contact them early to see if they’ll have anyone at AFM. If so, it can’t hurt to request for 15 minutes of their time. I wouldn’t take a “no” as an “I’m not interested and I’ll never be interested.” The producers and agents really are super busy with already produced films during AFM. You may luck out and be able to talk to folks at a smaller company or junior members of larger companies. Keep your expectations in check, though. It’s more likely these kinds of meetings won’t happen on your first trip to AFM. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. You’ll find yourself in informal conversations with a lot of interesting people. You never know who could unlock the next phase of your project, but it’s better to look at it as long-term relationship building.
Allow time in your schedule for impromptu conversations and catching up with friends you don’t often see. You never know who’s at AFM. A lot of people bump into former colleagues and classmates. Because AFM’s in Santa Monica, a part of LA people like to visit, I was able to meet up with three sets of Jacob’s and my industry friends. Those informal meetings are key for maintaining relationships.
My sense is that AFM works well for a certain kinds of movies: ones that have significant potential for foreign sales, certain genres that are believed to translate well to foreign markets (action, horror, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes love stories, rarely comedy), a certain budget range (not low-budget indie or studio), and for completed projects. My sense is that in the past there was more purchasing of scripts and funding them through pre-sales on foreign markets, but that the bottom is dropping out of this approach to financing. 
One thing I noticed from these meetings and chatting with other participants is that there are a lot of folks out there chasing production subsidies and foreign markets by taking their stories and setting them in places they think will lower the cost of the film or having characters that reflect the markets where they hope to sell their film. The subsidy issue was very marked with the EU. The character issue was very noticeable with China. Sales agents, producers, and some writer/directors were almost salivating at the burgeoning market there. It’s also a tricky market, apparently, but that’s another conversation. 

I was very glad that I wasn’t trying to sell anything. For one, I realized how rare it is for an individual to make a sale. But even more so, because I wasn’t pressuring myself to sell a project, I didn’t feel desperate and that made it easier to appreciate AFM and the people I met.  It seemed like too many people - at all levels - were trying to grab onto whatever or whoever might help get their film made or sold, no matter the cost to story.
Bottom line? From my observations, AFM is not the best place for writers to try to sell their own screenplay or pre-finance their own project, especially on a first visit. That's what sales agents are for. But it’s well worth going at least once to get the lay of the land (both at AFM and in marketing/distribution more generally) and to meet other film professionals. Keep your mind open and your expectations reasonable, listen and observe, and you'll get a lot of the experience. 

NOTE: Two days after publishing this post, I had a great phone conversation with AFM's Managing Director. I typed up his reactions and advice. Check it out!