As the 43rd edition of the American Film Market returns in-person this week, it provides the first real test of whether, and how, the independent film business can bounce back from the COVID years.
“It’s the first real ‘let’s get down to business’ market,” says Jean Prewitt, president and CEO of the producers association Independent Film & Television Alliance, which runs the AFM.
After two all-virtual years, the AFM is going all-physical for 2022, with no hybrid events, although there will be on-demand screenings, and business again based in the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. The market will run a truncated six days, down from the traditional 10, starting on Nov. 1.
On the eve of this year’s event, Prewitt spoke to The Hollywood Reporter on the challenges facing the indie industry — from supply chain issues and rising insurance costs to falling theatrical revenues — and why she’s still optimistic about the future of the business. “The independents just are invincible.”
How does it feel to be returning to an in-person AFM after two years of Zoom meetings?
Well, there are some, particularly in L.A., who see a real advantage to Zoom calls, as opposed to having to drive an hour and a half for a meeting you don’t want to attend, and then driving another hour and a half to another one. There’s certainly been the advantage that broke through that barrier of having to have everything in person. But in terms of the AFM, we missed it. There was a lot of excitement around the online events, but what they didn’t have was the personal contacts. And, for most of us, that’s the whole point.
Also, I have to say, as a trade association head, I take incredible pleasure in watching our members do what they’re good at. Watching them in their element, when they’re putting packages together and selling those packages, with all the enthusiasm that comes into being good at it, you get a completely different vision of what they are, and how they work. At this market, you see the members in this industry really come to life. The rest of the time, frankly, I’m just reading about it in your paper.
The business has certainly been through a tough couple of years with the pandemic.
It wasn’t just the pandemic and people being ill, it has been three years were it was really hard to get projects put together. And people continue to be a little uncertain about whether or not they’re reading the market properly. For two years, a lot of companies were essentially selling library to online services, now they’re back in a bigger world where other things are possible. It’s going to be very interesting to see how people have altered course, to see the new enthusiasm for the challenges in front of them. And there’s no way to do that if you’re not there on the ground.
Speaking to your members, what do they see as the biggest challenges for indie film in the near future?
I think the biggest one, and this really I started to hear in Cannes, and I think we will hear it even more, is that the independents are really experiencing what I would call supply chain problems. It is very, very hard to get talent released. It’s very hard to get crew because there’s been so much production from the online services, which is kind of eating up crew in any given location, sometimes putting them on contract for three or four extra weeks just to sit and wait till a project is ready. I think we’ll hear quite a lot about how difficult it is to get packages together, how difficult it is to time those packages.
From my standpoint, because I do a lot of this in the lobbying arena, the lack of affordable or even comprehensive film production insurance continues to be a major problem for anyone who is producing other than in a service-for-hire situation for a platform or broadcaster. We’re still working our way through the congressional process, to try to get coverage restored, and get the insurers back to business. I mean, the numbers I’ve seen, even the insurance you can buy for other kinds of risks has doubled or tripled in price. That adds yet another big cost element on budgets that are already strained by the ongoing need for safety and new safety protocols.
You mention rising costs and on the other end, because box office is down, especially for independent films, you have falling revenues. How is that gap to be bridged?
Well, that’s been the sad story of the independent film industry for as long as I’ve been around it. There’s always been some element that is going up and others that are going down. I think what it does is force everyone to follow the rule that is that the basis of success in this industry: to think long and hard about how you are going to find the audience for what you’re making and if you can really justify your investment.
One good thing about the experience of the pandemic was the shift online, which showed how very real that marketplace is. No one sniffs at it anymore and thinks, ‘oh no, I’m just doing theatrical.’ A lot of new avenues have opened up but it has also forced people to think much more seriously about whether or not their films really do have theatrical potential or whether it’s more realistic to go to some online or cable service, and seriously cut their budget in accordance with that.
Do I think that overall, the quality of product will drop? Probably not. I think there’ll be ongoing, very serious searches for tax incentives and ways to reduce prices. I’ve been really amazed just in the last six months, at how many of our members are going to places like Arkansas, to Oklahoma. One of the exhibitors at the AFM is going to be the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah Oklahoma, which has put in place an incentive to bring film production onto tribal grounds. And of course, now that travel is opening up, you’ll see more and more shifts around the world to try to take advantage of almost any form of cost savings.
How is the AFM itself doing? The pandemic was hard on events of all kinds. [TV trade fair] NATPE filed for Chapter 11, all the big markets have been struggling.
Coming back after two years means to some degree we are rebuilding. It isn’t just producers that are seeing escalating costs. If you look at the budgets we have to deal with compared to 2019 it’s pretty stunning. When it comes to numbers, I think we will be similar to pretty much every other event, in our industry or others, which is that we’ll be about 25 percent down on pre-pandemic figures. That includes the countries in Asia, that can’t travel, and that includes Russia, which was a big factor in 2019 in terms of companies coming. Those companies are largely absent this year.
We’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, since travel issues have eased, an increase from Japan and South Korea. But all that said, we’ve been stunned at the level of enthusiasm. We’re still getting people taking offices a week before start. We used to be pretty much done by the end of July. But we’re still getting people coming in.
In terms of how we’ve weathered the storm, I’d like to point out we are the only film market that has no government support, no major corporate support, no nothing. We’re put together entirely by the industry. That’s one of the reasons we’re taking such pleasure in watching the industry come back. So are people nervous? Sure. The same way they always are before a market. But people are really excited to be back to business.
AFM was launched 43 years ago, and had its real heyday during the home entertainment boom. Does this kind of market really serve the industry needs now, as everything shifts online? Why not just do a hybrid or online event?
Well, it’s a combination of demand and reality. One of the things everyone tries to do in the market is to create an auction environment and that’s very difficult to do if one of your potential buyers is 12 hours away. It’s very hard to understand what your competitors are doing. Will that change over time? I don’t know. I think everyone’s looking at this year of markets and their share of sales as a big experiment. Cannes was the test of “can it really work”? Toronto was a bit of the same. I think people are coming to AFM as the first real “let’s get down to business” market. It’s gonna be very interesting to see what comes out of it.
I’m old enough to remember this business even before the video age and we have seen huge transitions and disruptions in models of production and distribution since then. I look back at each of those transitions and I think about what’s the lesson in that for today. And then I go upstairs to talk to [Foresight Unlimited CEO] Mark Damon, who’s still there, who is still making films, who weathers every one of these storms as they come through, and still comes back. I think the independents just are invincible. They love what they do and they’re going to keep doing it, making movies for whatever means of distribution that is out there.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter