A few weeks ago I attended the American Film Market for the second year in a row.

It’s an annual film market where Sales Agents are selling the films they represent to foreign distributors and buyers.

Producers, like myself, will often attend to try and meet with these Sales Agents and find one to represent their films, but it’s also a great place to learn as they have great conferences and workshops centered around every aspect of the filmmaking process.

Here are my notes from the week. Hoping something is useful as you go out to make your own films in the future. To see last years notes, check out this post.

Finance Conference

part 1 – early session
  • China has 1 window. Theatrical. Films distributed in the US have multiple windows.
  • You have to understand how your films will survive economically, and you should understand this well before you go into production.
  • China is quickly becoming the biggest theatrical market. Possibly by 2017.
  • Kids aren’t watching TV, they’re watching micro content on their phones and other devices. Lots of money going into content for YouTube, virtual reality, etc.
  • Is your material really cinematic? Is it going to make people want to GO to a theater to watch it?
  • Your job (as a producer/filmmaker) is not to be pedantic, but to see the movie through it’s entire life.
  • Make sure you get some objectivity throughout the process. (Not from sycophants…)
  • Good storytelling can cross borders and solve all of your problems.
part 2 – late session
  • How do you finance a film? Equity, debt, presales, tax credits, other…etc.
  • You need a roadmap, driven by the material, as to how to get the film financed, produced, and distributed.
  • Put together a package BEFORE going to equity investors. Package is script + talent + presales + tax credit. The gap (between the package value and the shooting budget of the movie) is then covered by equity money.
  • The greater the value of your package, the better the deal.
  • Presale market is still a viable part of a package, but the buyers are becoming more sophisticated. They want quality. They’re becoming more about marketing the whole package and not just the face of a star on a movie poster.
  • Once you’ve had 20+ projects produced, you can go to CAA and package the project…now (as a first time or unknown indie producer), you’ve got to find a different way.
  • You can use budgeting software to do hypotheticals on shooting in different states/locations.
  • If you’re budget is big enough to justify using a completion bond and bank loans, get to the bank as early as possible. All you need is a budget and finance plan and they can start working with you. (Most have a $1MM or more minimum budget, and require a completion bond.)
  • The California film tax incentive is $330 Million per year. Case by case basis.
  • Only 5% ($15 Million) is set aside for indie film, distributed three times throughout the year.
  • NYC has a post production credit, LA does not.
  • Focus on the package and the talent first, then go after distribution. (Roadmap)
  • Make sure you have the rights to everything you need and that they are properly secured.
  • Getting 30% of the budget covered through presales is a good goal to shoot for.
  • Have comparables for your film early on in the process. Helps everyone out.
  • Be realistic about what you can make the movie for. It should be = or < what the market is willing to pay for it.
  • To shoot in the UK you have to setup a UK production company, or work with a UK prod co.
  • Be organized. Have a checklist and a roadmap.
  • Rare to see presales for low 6 figure films. Depends on the movie and who’s in it and the relationships your sales agent has with the buyers, but assume none.
  • No bond company will likely do a bond for a 6 figure film.
  • You can use Kickstarter for development money and to shoot a proof of concept (and proof of audience). Don’t need to raise the whole budget there.
  • Every jurisdiction wants long term episodic TV.
  • As a producer, start getting relationships with talent agencies and managers. They will help pitch their actors on your project.

Pitch Conference

  • Investors aren’t going to give you money to “take your word for it”. Need to show actual value, and don’t talk above your own head.
  • Development is the most underfunded part of the filmmaking process, which is arguably why so many bad movies are released by studios.
  • You have to be able to convince someone in 1 to 2 sentences that your project has legs. Everyone is pitching all the times, make it concise and easy to repeat.
  • Be in command of your answers in a pitch session. Pivot quickly, be decisive, act like the role you want to play on the movie (producer, writer, director, etc.)
  • Surround yourself with a good team who has done it before.
  • If someone is taking a meeting with you, they are already a little bit interested. Have confidence.
  • Producers & Directors need to be able to attach actors quickly. Like, within the first 10 minutes of the meeting, get them eating out of the palm of your hands.
  • You’ve got to make sure the WHY is part of your script.
  • What makes the characters compelling?
  • Don’t spend too long on theme. One sentence, then get to the plot.
  • Assume your audience is smart. Use shorthand.
  • Never say “I think…”. Say “I know…”
  • Person your pitching to wants to hear the end. They want to hear all 3 acts.
  • If you’re a film producer, produce films! More than 1 or 2 in a 5 year span. Get the movie made at whatever budget you can raise then go make the next one.

Production Conference

  • In pre-selling, you’ve got to understand the buyer.
    • US: 330 Million people. Rich and Big.
    • Europe: 40-80 Million people. Rich and Small.
    • Asia: 1 Billion people. Poor and Big.
  • Sales agents are mostly selling bigger films (not indies), but are selling a slate of movies. Most sales agents identify volume buyers, and loop your movie into a bigger deal.
  • Sweet spot for independent movies is cable tv networks. Ion, UP, SyFy, etc.
  • You need to know who the buyers are in the major territories.
  • Careful about pre-selling US and then having to wait 6-8 months to premier at a festival. Could kill everything.
  • Having a set photographer is incredibly important for marketing materials.
  • SyFy – titles almost more important than content. At best they’re really good at titles…
  • Sales agents starting to care more about story and less about names (FINALLY)
  • Your pitch has to make the [buyer, investor, studio, distributor] want it NOW.
  • If it’s a really really good script…that solves a lot of problems.
  • Cast – above 2000 on the IMDB star meter is where to look…
  • Unit publicist should be on set as much as possible so that they can tell the story of the production. They have a publicity/marketing brain and will be able to find stories where you can’t.
  • At the end of a setup, move the crew & give the set photographer a minute to get some shots with the cast under the lighting.
  • Take shots of textures, props, locations, atmospheres, etc.
  • Brief the cast and crew about social media and how to best use it to benefit the movie.
  • There is a large demand for featurettes. Pay someone to produce 5+ short (3-5 min) videos for you.
  • Your EPK (electronic press kit) is a separate production. Needs to have it’s own crew. You can spend $20k or have some film students come do it or somewhere in-between.
  • Hire one person to handle social media, put them in charge of drip feeding all the social media channels. They are they eyes of the audience on set.
  • Featurettes can be as short as 2 mins. Ask “what is it that is interesting about the film?” and “what does the audience want to see?”
  • Find ways to give large film publications exclusive access to the film, give them a big feature for their site/audience.
  • Social media should be about authenticity, not marketing.
  • How can you make the trailer release a big EVENT? Same for other releases and milestones.
  • Negotiate your music rights to include the use in the trailer.
  • Use social media to TEASE, not to REVEAL. Has to be planned with the unit publicist and marketing team.
  • 1st step is defining your audience and what channels they access most.

Off-Site Financing Conference

  • Development funds are a must. Probably 10% of a low budget film’s total budget.
  • Attach a sales agent and casting director as early as possible. They will help put the package together to go get the rest of the financing.
  • We’re in a visual business. SHOW people what you are making to get them excited (teaser, sizzle reel, trailer, etc.)

Sales & Distribution Conference

  • Producer fee for $500-600k indie feature can be upwards of $50-60k. Budget accordingly.
  • If you want to be a career producer, look at your business plan. How do you make money? How much? How often? etc.
  • You need the right expectation, right budget, right plan to go to market.
  • And independent film needs INTRINSIC VALUE.
  • Studios can spend their way into your consciousness. How will you accomplish it with no money? Get creative.
  • Sales agents do a lot of their acquisitions in between markets. Ok to email them about your film.
  • Lionsgate, for example, looks for films 1-2 years out from the market that they will be selling it at.
  • Your relationships with agencies, distributors, etc. counts toward the intrinsic value of your film.
  • You need to have line items for E+O (errors and omissions) insurance, lawyers, accountants, deliverables, etc.


Some of the big takeaways for me from this year’s AFM:

  1. As a producer, you can’t just throw a film together and expect it to succeed. It’s a very involved, difficult job, and you need a very clear roadmap and lots of connections to make it work.
  2. Expectations need to match reality. There were tons of producers there at the market with a “$3-5 million dollar indie” that they were trying to find a sales agent for. But without a major actor attached, the market will never justify that budget. Do your homework first as to what the market will pay for your film, attach actors early on to get the value of the film higher, and budget accordingly.
  3. You have to be present. If you make a movie without ever talking with a sales agent, or a distributor, or anyone else, then expect it to get into a big festival and make millions, you’re naive and fooling yourself. Get out there, make connections, put together a team of trusted individuals and companies that you can consult with as you develop a project.
  4. Marketing and distribution are just as important as development, production, and post. Without a successful marketing and distribution plan, it doesn’t matter how great your film is if nobody sees it.
  5. It’s possible. There are plenty of filmmakers and companies making movies for a living. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can make it happen.

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