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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with Jonathan Wolf (AFM) @ 69th Cannes Film Festival


Jonathan Wolf has been Managing Director of AFM (American Film Market) since 1998. He has been a visionary and passionate independent film advocate and pivotal force in the film industry for over two decades. I interviewed him in the Dubai Pavilion at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Here is what he had to say:


Can you explain, for people who don't know, how important is the American Film Market in relation to the Cannes Film Festival?

JONATHAN: The AFM is like a bookend to Cannes. The same things happen in many cases to the same people who attend. The AFM's participants are really made up of three groups- there are the producers, the sales agents and the distribution companies. Those who are making films from all over the world are bringing it to the market to find distribution. This is where independent film really reaches an audience because we have buyers coming from more than 80 countries looking to acquire the rights for their country in a specific media for each film. AFM will screen about 400-500 films, maybe 2,000 projects are brought as well and about 1,600 buyers are coming to see those films and hear the pitches on those projects to see what will work in their country. At the same time, beyond the buyers and sellers, you really have the global production community who is there. Literally thousands of producers from more than 50 countries, post production facilities, film commissions, lawyers and bankers; this is really where the independent film community meets. And like I said, it's a bookend to Cannes. Many of the same people who are at Cannes- most of the sellers, buyers and producers- then are at the AFM. It's the twice a year time to touch and connect and mostly close deals.

Would you say it's the most important market for North America?

JONATHAN: I wouldn't look at it from a North American standpoint. Both AFM and Cannes are global events. Both of us have participants between 80-100 countries. There is only one market on the western hemisphere and that's the AFM so it's hard to say it's the most important, but it compliments Cannes and we have a great relationship. We trade information and it's the same people at the same event. When you have a film or a project you can't wait a whole year to go to a market to look for financing or to sell it; you need to come as soon as it's ready. That's why the AFM dates are set exactly six months from Cannes to provide the industry with a twice a year option.

Over recent years there has been a lot of speculation about the volatile changes in the world of distribution due to piracy and new technology. Have these changes affected the AFM?

JONATHAN: Piracy of course affects the marketplace because sometimes it prevents films from getting made. When a buyer in a country cannot commit to a film before it's made because they're uncertain how to prevent piracy it actually reduces the number of films made. It's less about the hurt on revenue. Studios feel the revenue fall off from piracy, the independents feel a drop in production from piracy because they can't get some films financed. The industry deals with it but it's sort of like the weather; we try to deal with it but we can't change it very much. Then in terms of new technologies- the independent community has benefited from technologies because over the decades, whether it's been VHS, cable, satellite, VOD, TVOD, SVOD. As these technologies com forward the independents are very nimble. They move quickly and understand how the marketplace is changing and they adjust their deals. There's always challenges. Some succeed more than others adapting into the marketplace but ultimately they all adapt.

Can you speak about the AFM 2015 market and moving forward into 2016?

JONATHAN: AFM 2015 was great. We had a full house. Everyone was there, business was done. We had some new initiatives. One was we started having network receptions on the Santa Monica pier. We had actually never done formal AFM events there before. There's a 100 year-old merry-go-round there which will have it's 100 anniversary this year. We will close the merry-go-round and use it for private receptions so all of our attendees can come and network in the evening, have a cocktail and meet people they haven't been able to find. Much of what we are doing is pushing forth initiatives to help people connect. We don't travel to events to see things we can see on the internet or do by email; we really travel to events to build relationships and have face to face time. So the events and activities we are building are all about facilitating that.

Would you say markets are good for filmmakers to connect or just buyers and sellers?

JONATHAN: The word 'filmmaker' is very interesting because we all define that word differently. So, I'm going to use more specific words like 'producer', 'writer', 'director' and such. At Cannes, the activities are good for all segments of the industry because of the festival. If you're a set decorator you can be here and watch films at the festival, the credential is free, and see what is happening in your craft. The same for if you're a cinematographer or director. Since the AFM is only about commerce, we do not have the cultural component. There are certain disciplines where there is no benefit for being there, and that would be for those on the creative side (DOP, set designers and directors). However, producers with packages and writers with scripts, this is their home. This is where business is done, this is where packages are being looked for. This is why if you look at what people have on their badge to see what they do, a producer and writer is number one. Whereas in Cannes, where the auteur is celebrated, it might director. There is a difference. If I was advising directors and cinematographers, I would say choose Cannes. For writers and producer, I would say choose AFM. Because of its singular focus on commerce at AFM, it's easier to get traction, visibility and to sell your movies.

Can you explain what is the IFTA organization?

JONATHAN: IFTA is the Independent Film and Television Alliance. It's a 35 year-old nonprofit, non government organization made up of motion picture, TV sales companies and exporters. It's a trade association for sales companies so its mission is very similar to any mission of any trade association in any industry, which is to provide services and programs that are best done collectively for that industry. Top of the list is advocacy and lobbying. The laws in many countries as they continue to evolve, especially with the technologies, can favor one segment of the industry over the other. While anti-piracy efforts favor all, some other laws could favor the studios versus the independents so we have to be very actively engaged- in Washington, Geneva, Brussels- in monitoring and advocating for laws that support the independent model because the independent model is different from the studios in one very important way. When the studios distribute their films globally they simply send their elements to their own offices, whether it's in Japan, Korea or Argentina. An independent is dependent on a local distributor acquiring their film and that business model of import and export, licensing to a third party is different than the studios and the laws of import and export, of piracy, of production supports in the country can affect the independent business model. So IFTA first and foremost is there to support the independents and the business model they follow. We have a staff of 30 who are focused on providing these programs and services to the independents.

Since 1998 what have been your fondest memories of working with AFM?

JONATHAN: For me, it's been the transition of that period of transition of the AFM from being mostly an import and export event to being one that is relevant to the global production community. The founders of the event wanted buyers and sellers only, back in 1981. As I took over in the late 90's we then shifted the focus to the production community. Now we have more activities for producers and writers than we do for buyers.

Looking forward, where do you think the independent film market place is going?

JONATHAN: It's changing. Some will succeed and some won't. It's really sad but it's a cycle of life. The fact is the passion of the storyteller will never die and that passion will lead to films being made through different financing mechanisms and through new distribution schemes. But the films will still be made and they will still reach their audience. The passion for making a film and the passion for finding the money to make that film, there is no greater passion. Other than maybe saving the life of a loved one, there is no greater passion than the artist who can't afford their canvas and filmmakers are artists who can't afford their canvas. They will constantly find the money, they will find their way to make sure that film reaches their audience, whatever the new technologies are. And I'm excited to see what they do and how they do it.

You get to write a piece of that history.

JONATHAN: I get to help.


Interview by Vanessa McMahon; May 14, 2016

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