In its 35 years of existence, the American Film Market (AFM) has gone through ups and downs, mirroring the trends of the independent international film industry and the strengths and weaknesses of competing trade shows.
Over the years, the event has adapted well to changing business models and marketplace environments. Early on, the AFM depended on sales of pornographic films and later took advantage of a growing appetite for movies by the nascent private TV sector. Subsequently, along came home video, pay-TV, cable TV, VoD, multiple windows and, most recently, digital rights, remembered Irv Holender, CEO of Ziv International since 1971, who began licensing Lorimar product in 1979. Holender has been exhibiting at the AFM since the beginning — first as Ziv, then Ziv/Lorimar, GLOW, Liberty International, Fremantle Corp. and now with Multicom.
According to VideoAge’s reports, in 1985, 60 percent of all foreign film sales done at the AFM were for home video rights. By 1990, theatrical sales resurged with 41.5 percent of sales, while video decreased to 32 percent. Four years later, free-TV sales accounted for 27 percent of the total, while theatrical was down to 30 percent. In a 1994 AFM VideoAge Daily interview, Alex Massis of Angelika Films reported that, “Television today represents 90 percent of our business.”
By 2008, AFM became “primarily a DVD market” (VideoAge, Nov./Dec. 2008 Issue), but two years later went back to “television sales (especially for the digital channels) and the VoD window, followed by DVD sales” (VideoAge, Nov./Dec. 2010 Issue). Then, in 2013, “AFM declared the DVD business basically dead, replaced by streaming.” In the same December 2013 Issue, VideoAge reported that “on [AFM] opening day, Blockbuster Video announced the closing of its remaining 300 home video stores in the U.S., to be replaced by streaming service.”
Holender remembered that the idea of a Los Angeles-based market came about in the summer of 1980, when a group of American content distributors, including Lorimar, began inviting foreign buyers to La Costa in Carlsbad, CA. The resort near San Diego was then owned by Merv Adelson, the boss of Lorimar.
The actual idea of AFM was first articulated that summer during a luncheon attended by five Los Angeles-based independent film distribution executives. They were meeting at the Il Giardino restaurant to “discuss the high costs, the bribes and corruption at the Cannes Film Festival,” recalled Bobby Meyers, who was then heading up international film sales at Lorimar and was the “instigator” for a locally-organized international film market.
At the restaurant, the group (which included Bill Moraskie of Carolco and Herb Fletcher of Crown International), found itself siting next to Rocco Vigliotti and Budapest-born Andy Vajna, both with Carolco, who decided to join them.
Subsequently, as remembered by Lou George (then with Arista Films), he joined an extended group that met in the boardroom of a Bank of America in Beverly Hills. The American Film Market Association (AFMA) was formed the following October with a $5,000 contribution from Merv Adelson (for legal fees) and with Bobby Meyers as its first president. The larger group also included Ed Carlin (Concord/New Horizon), Mark Damon (PSO), Robbie Little (Overseas Pictures) and Michael Goldman (Manson).
In 2004, AFMA changed its name to the more appropriate Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA), since by then many of its members were from outside the U.S.
The AFM began as a March 24-31 market in 1981, a few months before the creation of VideoAge, and from the start, the destiny of the two were intertwined.
The first AFM was held at the Westwood Marquis Hotel (now the W) in West Los Angeles. It housed 26 selling companies and registered a total of 1,000 participants. The following year, it moved to the nearby Holiday Inn on Wilshire Blvd, and in 1983, it was held at Continental Hyatt Hotel (which has since become The Andaz), where it remained for three years before heading to the Beverly Hilton, the hotel that had originally rejected it, in 1986. In 1991, AFM moved to its current location at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica.
Old-timers recall that in the beginning, actual sales of pornographic films were not officially allowed at the AFM, but since many sellers of the triple-X films were also producing and distributing mainstream movies, they could not be prevented from exhibiting.
In addition to changing its location five times since its inception, the AFM had to sustain multiple date switches and management changes, the most taxing coming in 1997. At that time, Mike Frischkorn Jr., a Washington D.C. lawyer with no film business experience, was appointed president. He resigned three years later and was replaced with current president Jean Prewitt, another Washington D.C. insider.
Despite surviving the prolonged and bitter fight with the more established (and now defunct) MIFED film market in Milan, AFM got stuck with unpopular November dates after the demise of the Italian market. However, the fall dates were later dictated by costs, since February is Oscars season and all hotels around L.A. increase their rates at that time. In order to keep costs at bay, in mid-2011, AFM organizers considered moving the market to downtown L.A., a move disliked by all participants, but avoided that with help from the city of Santa Monica, which put some pressure on the Loews Hotel.
While at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, in order to provide screening rooms for exhibitors, the market rented movie theaters in nearby Westwood Village and Beverly Hills. By 1990, the AFM relied on 20 screens in various scattered cinemas, which had to compete with the multiple screening rooms at MIFED that were conveniently housed on the same exhibition floors. Today, in its Santa Monica location, the AFM can rent exhibitors some 26 screens across three nearby multiplex cinemas and four hotels.
Despite the initial acceptance of the AFM, particularly among L.A.-based film companies, MIFED still dominated the international film market early on. Indeed, it was only in its November/December 1987 Issue that VideoAge actually listed the AFM on its calendar page as a February 25-March 4 market. The publication only began to report on the market in its April 1990 Issue. In his 2000 book “Inside Variety,” Peter Besas reported that in the beginning, Variety too “showed only a token interest in [AFM].”
Since its 1990 Issue, VideoAge has continuously covered the AFM, even when a controversy between the market organizers and the trade publication erupted in 1993.
The controversy actually began in 1991, when the 11th annual AFM moved west of L.A. to the coastal town of Santa Monica, using the Loews Hotel as its headquarters. That year also marked a direct confrontation with the fall-held MIFED, when AFM added a second market from October 21-26, in addition to its traditional February 28-March 8 dates.
MIFED proved to be a superior market, and the following year, AFM scrapped its October event, holding only its established February-March dates.
The confrontation, however, created rumblings among some exhibitors who had to face three AFM markets in the space of 11 months, and especially from European companies that did not want MIFED undermined. Indeed, the ‘90s were a turbulent period for AFM. Before Michael Goldman was elected chairman from 1991-93, he argued in the VideoAge September 1991 Issue that, “The AFM should put members’ interests before its own.”
With MIFED winning the first confrontation, the winter AFM dates remained in place for the following 12 years. However, with MIFED getting weaker due to Italian political interferences, in 2004, AFM once again tried another decisive frontal assault by staging, in addition to their usual February-March event, one that overlapped with MIFED’s November dates.
After the demise of MIFED in 2005, the AFM kept only the fall dates, which now compete with a much more powerful MIPCOM market in Cannes. Today, more that 37 percent of the 385 AFM content exhibitors (2014 figures) go to MIPCOM.
The irony was that the AFM was created in order to compete with another Cannes market, the Cannes Film Festival, which had become too expensive for American independents.
An added irony was that many earlier AFM officials and co-founders were in some way related to the Italian film industry, like Robbie Little, who went to L.A. from Rome in 1980; Mark Damon, who became a successful actor in Italy in the 60s; Italian-American Rocco Vigliotti; Michael Goldman, who in VideoAge Daily at AFM 1991 stated, “I’m married to Giulia Gagliani, an Italian from Rome,” and AFM president Jonas Rosenfield, a former executive with the Italian Film Exports (IFE), who joined the AFM in 1983 and became its first paid president in 1985. The IFE was created in 1951 to promote and distribute Italian films in the U.S., and it was partially financed by 12.5 percent of all American film earnings in Italy.
Plus, Bobby Meyers pointed out, at the very first AFM, “Italy was the country selected to have special meetings with.”
Contrary to the general belief that the AFM undermined MIFED, the actuality is that the Milan market was killed by Italian leftist politician Walter Vetroni, as documented in the 2015 book by this writer, “L’uomo del MIFED” (The MIFED Man).
Veltroni, as head of the Democratic Party and mayor of Rome, wanted a film market in the Italian Capital. In 2006, he was able to create “Festa del Cinema” with a budget of approximately eight million euro. This move proved unsuccessful from the start.
Meanwhile, trying to replicate the success of its market dailies at MIFED, VideoAge began publishing dailies at AFM’s two 1991 editions. As opposed to other resilient daily market publications, VideoAge Daily lasted only four years at AFM, due to a combination of factors, including some fierce undermining from that era’s AFM management.
At the time, it was suspected that AFM’s management team did not want competition for the other market dailies — clear favorites Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
In previous years, both trades had tried unsuccessfully to compete with VideoAge Daily at MIFED and NATPE, and surely did not want VideoAge on what they saw as their home turf. In addition, VideoAge Daily, published by this Italian expat, was seen by the AFM management as a MIFED supporter. Meanwhile Variety in particular, was conveniently very critical of MIFED. At that point, the strategy against VideoAge was two-pronged: The AFM demanded $15,000 ($26,281 in today’s dollars) to allow the circulation of VideoAge Daily, and Variety began selling pages at $500 each, clearly below cost (the breakeven page rate should have been $1,500) in order to successfully drive the competition out.
Meanwhile, the confrontation enraged some AFM board members — in particular Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Films, who, in early 1994, wrote an open letter to his fellow board members decrying AFM’s management strategy against VideoAge.
The friction with VideoAge that resulted in the scrapping of its Daily at AFM and the ongoing confrontation with MIFED contributed to a change of the AFM management four years later. This allowed for the return of open access for all media to the market. Leading the confrontations with both MIFED and VideoAge were AFM president Jonas Rosenfield, and Tim Kittleson, who had been with the AFM from the start and became its executive director in 1983 after Buddy Goldberg, the PR agent who became the market’s first director, left. Rosenfield retired from the AFM in 1997, and Kittleson left in 1998. Rosenfield died in 2000 at the age of 84.
Reviewing the changes over the AFM’s 35-year run, L.A.-based Multicom’s Irv Holender said, “[AFM] has become more of a general store, covering every aspect of the entertainment industry, including producers and writers walking into the suites pitching their projects. Also, as the digital streaming industry is growing, more attendees are trying to capture a slice of the market, as it was in the 80s with cable TV.”
Argentina’s Pedro Leda of Ledafilms started attending AFM in 1985. “In those days,” he said, “the main focus was Made-For-TV and Made-For-Video movies from independent producers; movies were very much in demand. [Subsequently], AFM evolved into mainly a theatrical pictures market for independent producers.
“Some new projects at AFM could also be Made-For-VoD, a growing trend. In the past at the AFM, you continued discussions and negotiations started at MIPCOM. Now, it’s more a follow up to the Toronto Film market with new projects to be available at AFM.”
Bobby Meyers recalled, “we started with only English-speaking theatrical film sellers. Later, we included foreign-language films sold by U.S. sellers, then international sellers of all language theatrical films. Eventually, it came to include television sellers and the many sellers of video product, who then in due course began to sell theatrical films as well.”
Film veteran Ken DuBow started attending AFM in 1985, and for him, the major change has been the “switch from February to November, which has deprived the market of high-end movies that now [flock] to Berlin and Toronto.” As far as the business is concerned, DuBow sells all-rights, therefore the emergence and disappearance of windows did not affect his revenue flow.
Chevonne O’Shaughnessy’s first AFM was with Quest Entertainment in 1991, and not being familiar with the Loews Hotel, she “ended up with a suite on the third floor, which was below the lobby level.” Her subsequent AFMs were first with PM and, since 2000, with ACI, “always above the lobby level.” In those early years, recalled O’Shaughnessy, “You could sell almost anything to video stores. Then Blockbuster Video came in and ruined our business model, and after them came the majors undercutting prices. Today, we sell all rights driven by VoD and streaming.”
By Dom Serafini
AFM’s Founding Companies (original supporters) 1981
ABC Pictures International
American Cinema Services
Arista Films, Inc.
Avco Embassy Pictures Co.
Carolco Services, Inc.
Films Around The World
Goldfarb Distributors, Inc.
Inter-Ocean Films Sales, Ltd.
Jad Films International, Inc.
J&M Film Sales
Lorimar Distribution International
Melvin Simon Productions
*** Robbie Little (Overseas Film Group)
Producers Sales Organization
Serendipity Productions, Inc.
Top Films International
Time-Life Films, Inc.
Original Members of the Executive Committee:
*** Edward “Ed” Carlin (Concord-New Horizon)
*** Mark Damon (Producers Sales Organization)
*Herb Fletcher (Avco Embassy Pictures Co.)
**Louis “Lou” George (Arista Films, Inc.)
Howard Goldfarb (Goldfarb Distributors, Inc.)
*** Michael Goldman (Manson International)
John Gumpert (Time-Life Films, Inc.)
Larry Sugar (Serendipity Productions, Inc.)
*Andy Vajna (Carolco Service, Inc.)
Original (first) Management Structure:
*Robert “Bobby” Meyers, President (Lorimar Distribution International)
*William “Bill” Moraskie, evp (Carolco Service, Inc.)
*** Michael Goldman, CFO (Manson International)
Arianne Ulmer, Secretary (Producers Sales Organization)
“Buddy” Goldberg. vp and AFM managing director (public relations, B.G. Co.)
Larry Meyers, vp (Jad Films International, Inc.)
John Rubinich, vp (Melvin Simon Productions)
Helen Sarlui, vp (American Cinema Services)
Janet Snow, vp (Avco Embassy Pictures Co.)
Bonnie Sugar, vp (Serendipity Productions, Inc.)
*Rocco Vigliotti, vp (Carolco Services, Inc.)
*= Participated in the first meeting in 1980
**= Participated in the second meeting
***= Participated in the third meeting to form AFM
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