AFM Director Says Market Has More Buyers

Jonathan Wolf predicts that pre-production sales will increase.

While many sellers and buyers at the American Film Market still bear the scars from the economic recession, the event’s sponsors were seeing signs of recovery on Thursday.

Despite the economic downturn, the market’s managing director boasted that the indie bazaar had managed to attract more buyers than in previous years. Looking out over a sea of mostly empty chairs (perhaps a sad commentary on the decline of trade and print publications), Jonathan Wolf took advantage of the eight-day event’s introductory press conference to take stock of a dramatically altered independent film landscape.

"We see more and more companies from around the world coming here to license directly from production companies," Wolf said. "In many cases they are removing the middle man or the local distributor from the picture. From our perspective, we like to see a producer selling to the end user."

Despite the fact that the trade show drew more than 80 first-time buyers, where it usually attracts only 35 to 45, Wolf noted the number of sales companies was down roughly 10 percent; also, many buyers are sending fewer people on their behalf.

"The AFM grew on the bubble of overproduction, and we’re going to come down to where we were at in 2004," Wolf said.

A tightening of the credit markets coming on the heels of an industrywide strike that had filled distributors’ pipelines with a backlog of titles shook up traditional production models.

Whereas it had once been cheaper for studios to buy films before they went into production, over the last two or three years a glut of films hitting the marketplace had depressed prices on completed films to the point where a finished product actually was less expensive. Wolf said it appears that trend had corrected itself.

"We expect to see a substantial increase in pre-buying that hadn’t taken place at the same level last year," Wolf said.

One long-term trend Wolf cited in his remarks was the increasingly global nature of the independent film market. In 2004, 71 percent of the companies selling films were from English-language markets. In contrast, this year, only 62 percent came from those markets.

"We fully expect that trend to continue as the filmmaking skills of those countries continue to evolve," Wolf said.

One area on the mind of many attendees that Wolf skipped over was the flatlining of DVD sales and what that has meant for the beleaguered film industry.

"We’re looking for films at all stages of production," Jo Naylor, sales manager for the New Zealand-based Vendetta Films, told TheWrap. "There’s a greater emphasis on theatrical releases because DVD sales are down. In our country, we’ve had over 100 retailers close."

The more challenging environment for what had once been a cash cow had led to a greater emphasis on the talent involved.

"It’s all about the cast now," said Gene George, executive vice president for worldwide distribution at Starz Media. "You have to have names on the box if you’re going to move DVDs."

But while the various platforms for movies may be in flux, Wolf emphasized that the appetite for independent films remains undiminished.

"We have tremendous diversity, from big films to ‘Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,’" Wolf said. "All these have an audience."