The beginning of November brings about a lot of energy and anticipation – the passing of Halloween and the short road toward the holiday season.

For those of us in the world of film distribution, however, the beginning of November marks the annual American Film Market.

The AFM – as it’s known – held its first events back in March of 1981, and for many years it was one of the largest, most exciting and well- attended film markets in the world.

As the 2018 AFM wound to a close this month, the energy is far different. In recent years it has become glaringly apparent that the AFM’s attendance by distribution professionals is shrinking annually.

The Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), who runs the AFM, advertises otherwise, but, for those of us attending as sellers and spend exorbitant amounts of money to exhibit, we see fewer and fewer of our international clients bothering to show up.

Why is the AFM shrinking? There are several reasons…

First and foremost, the AFM is the most expensive market to attend in the world.

To give a comparison, I live walking distance from the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica where the AFM is hosted. Yet, to attend and exhibit at the AFM, my company spends more than TWICE what it costs to attend and exhibit the European Film Market in Berlin and the Cannes Film Market in France (and that includes airfare and hotel for both).

The AFM is a loss leader for most exhibitors and many of the buyers have stopped attending for the same reason – It’s too expensive.

Second, the AFM has no real accreditation process.

In order to attend most film markets, you must show proof that you are a legitimate working professional in the industry. The AFM on the other hand, will sell a badge or a booth to anyone willing to cough up the cash.

As a result, the AFM tends to have a very visible population of low level and unqualified attendees and exhibitors, further dissuading foreign buyers from attending. The common complaint heard from the buyers is that the content (the caliber of films available to buy) at the AFM is simply not very good.

Despite these shortcomings on the part of the AFM, it is still currently a must-attend market, especially for independent companies like my own. Not having a presence at the AFM is almost more visible than having one, so every year we swallow our pride and write the check.

This year’s AFM definitely had some changes worth noting.

First and foremost, for the first time, IFTA required people to have a market badge to even enter the Loews Hotel.

This, in my opinion, was a very positive change because it allowed the professionals attending and paying to actually have adequate space to take meetings, whereas in the past, the looky-loos and wannabe networkers would crowd the hotel lobby, the bar and the poolside and hog all of the valuable meeting real estate.

Despite that positive change, however, many of the regular buyers, particularly from Europe, simply did not bother attending this year. Some didn’t attend due to the expense, some because of shifting priorities, and some because they have come to find the AFM nonessential as a market.

Considering many of these absentees are people and companies who have attended for years, and some for decades, this spoke very loudly and hinted at a bleak future for the AFM.

One of the big talking trends of the market this year was China.

Approximately five years ago China opened its market to independent films and it became a free for all. Chinese buyers would attend in droves and acquire entire catalogs for their thriving digital market. Although the amount of paperwork involved was daunting, it was good business, and kept many small companies busy and liquid.

This year, however, things were different.

Chinese buyers were in attendance, but they all seemed to be looking for non-American films.

It seems that the trade war between the US and China has motivated the Chinese censorship board to stop passing American titles through. Although both sides hope this will not be a long-lasting problem, it was a sobering discussion to have over and over throughout the market.

The other trend I noticed was that the digital market seems to be gaining strength in parts of the world that were otherwise non-existent.

This is a great thing, particularly for smaller independent films.

Buyers from most of the larger territories like Germany for example, tend to cherry pick all rights on the biggest and best films and not even acknowledge the smaller titles. Now we are seeing buyers from territories like Germany who are offering digital solutions for the overlooked gems and indie films.

It’s definitely turning into a more volume-driven business but the fact that new digital distribution platforms and outlets are emerging that enable us to get our films released in more corners of the world is a very positive evolution.

Many buyers seem to thrive on buying packages of films for their digital platforms, than finding the few perfect titles to bank heavily on.

This is a double-edged sword for both sales agents and producers alike.

Volume means distributors are picking up more titles but paying a lot less money to license each one. That’s not only rough for the producers, but also for the distribution professionals like myself who now have to acquire more content and focus more on quantity over quality.

Moving Forward…

Now that the AFM is over until next year, we are already looking ahead at the upcoming markets in 2019: EFM, Hong Kong Filmmart, etc. There are film markets popping up all across the world, which is great, and many of them have established themselves as extremely worthwhile. So as the AFM dims its lights, other film markets are shining bright.

For now, the AFM will remain a must-attend market, but many of us anxiously wait to see if another more prominent North American market will emerge.