Talking the American Film Market

With more than 425 production companies, entertainment publications and local film commissions in attendance, it can be difficult to know exactly what to do attending the American Film Market.

The trick is planning, knowing where to look and knowing who to ignore. Obviously, most online new organizations are going to immediately hit the suites of the heavy hitters like Focus Features, New Line Cinema or The Weinstein Company (the latter representing so many movies, their AFM brochure is actually bound like a book), while web sites specializing in horror will hit up the many boutique companies offering the latest titles starring the likes of Bill Moseley and Sid Haig. My first stop, of course, had to be the Troma suite, to pay my respects to my former boss and current IFTA President Lloyd Kaufman. It was a moment of fear for yours truly, for I was worried how he might react to my less-than-flattering but still positive review of his latest film, “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.” Despite our differences during my employment at Troma, Lloyd did teach me quite a bit about the film industry no USC student would ever learn paying their $20,000 per year tuition, and I hoped he knew I wasn’t being down on his new movie because of those differences. Walking into the Troma suite, I was greeted warmly by my former co-worker Jeremy Howell, who is now in charge of International Sales, and we caught up on this and that while he showed another reporter some of Troma’s latest acquisitions. And then Lloyd entered the room, fresh from the just-completed AFM Opening Press Conference (which I missed because of traffic). Naturally, my fears were heightened when Lloyd completely ignored me for several minutes before acknowledging my being in the room (a hard thing to do, since I tower over the man). When he finally did “see” me, Lloyd was as gracious as I have ever seen him, asking about how my wife’s new job was going (shocking me that he remembered her name, even though he had only met her in passing on two or three occasions, at best) and about life in general. It was a pleasant enough visit, the topic of “Poultrygeist” never coming up once, even though most of our conversation took place in the hallway outside of the suite, directly in front of a poster for the film, which one of the Troma volunteers was marking up a sign noting its March 2008 booking in New York City. (And if you do have a chance to see the movie in a theatre, do so. Support truly independent cinema.)

After our goodbyes, I made a beeline to the Weinstein suite, one flight up and across the oceanfront pool alcove. The differences between Troma and the Weinstein suites were night and day. The Troma suite was smaller than the tiny Upper East Side apartment my wife and I were living at when I was working at Troma, while the Weinstein suite was bigger than the somewhat spacious Hollywood apartment we currently occupy. Troma showed their clips on small TV/DVD combo units, while the Weinstein suite previewed their latest offerings on a huge widescreen HDTV equipped with the latest AppleTV hard drive. Seeing I was just another press guy, I was summarily ignored by the sales agents looking to make their big sale, but I did spend enough time there to see the first trailer for the upcoming Matthew McConaughey film “Surfer, Dude,” which the Weinsteins are representing as international sales agents, even if the film does not have a domestic distribution deal yet. For months, I have been privately mocking the film to friends, but I have to admit the trailer on display here gave me reason to rethink my previous comments. Sure, McConaughey has made some really lousy movies, but his goofy, naked-bongo-playing persona works for his role here as a world-famous surfer who goes into an existential funk when the surf dries up just as his own reality show is about to launch, and stays dried up for months afterward. Along with a hilariously surfed-out Woody Harrelson, “Surfer, Dude” might actually end up being an entertaining surprise.

AFM Tip #1: Those attending AFM, as buyers, sellers or press, get nifty little carry bags. They’re already somewhat stuffed with goodies, most of which are quite impractical adverts for some of the lesser sales agents in the building. Before you make your way around to the various suites, it is best to have a seat somewhere and empty out your bag of everything that is non-essential, which is practically everything thrown into it when it is given to you. You’ll want to do this, as you will be overstuffing this bag with many fliers and promo books that you will be interested in, or at least want to show to friends and family (such as the completely unnecessary remake of “Sanjuro,” using the same script Kurosawa used). After four of five hours of lugging this bag around, you’re going to be in a lot of pain, and making the bag as light as possible will greatly reduce the stress on your shoulders as you lug this brick around.

A personal favorite stop at the AFM is the StudioCanal suite. The French-based production and distribution company always has some of the more interesting titles at the Market, with this year’s titles including new films from Jean-Jacques Annaud, Denys Arcand, Amos Gitai, Agnes Jaoui, Mathieu Kassovitz, Cedric Klapisch and Emir Kusturica. If that doesn’t get you excited, do yourself a favor and get yourself back to your local megaplex and wait for the video wall in the lobby to show the new “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” pal. You don’t need to know anything about “La Personne Aux Deux Personnes,” the new comedy featuring Daniel Auteuil and Alain Chabat about a mild-mannered accountant who suddenly finds himself sharing his mind with a recently deceased rock star with some issues still left to be settled, or about “Paris,” the new Klapisch drama featuring the amazing Romain Duris (for whom this would be their sixth collaboration together in thirteen years).

AFM Tip #2: If you are not a buyer, do not help yourself to the foods and beverages in the suites. These are not for you. And if you do need to take fliers and pamphlets, take only what you need. Do you know why the Writers Guild went on strike? Because distributors and sales agents wasted all these money at film markets like AFM, feeding self-stylized entertainment writers and printing out twice as many fliers as they would otherwise need, and they need to get that money from somewhere.

What many of the writers who cover the American Film Market are unaware of is that the main floor of the Loews Santa Monica Hotel, where the market is held, is not the ground floor but the fourth floor of the hotel, and that there are many smaller sales agents on the floors below. Unaffectionately known as “The Dungeon,” the second and third floors are either populated by smaller upstarts new to the market, companies owned by actor/producer-types who are only selling their own films, or the foreign sales agent who is only handling one or two films. In this latter category, down on the third floor, was United Filmmakers Organization, a Hong Kong-based outfit that was selling but one title, “An Empress and the Warriors,” a romantic action epic not unlike “Hero” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” featuring Donnie Yen from “Hero” and Kelly Chen from “Infernal Affairs.” As the film will be in post-production until March 2008, United Filmmakers could only show a short preview reel, but what they did have on view should make any fan of modern Asian cinema excited. (Not so much the new Tsui Hark film “Missing,” an “Abyss”-like underwater thriller which had an interesting pamphlet bereft of any images from the film, which is never a good sign.) I am looking forward to the day I open my mailbox and find a screener for “Empress” waiting for me.

AFM Tip #3, and a general tip in life: wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking at the American Film Market, going up and down stairs all day (forget about the overcrowded elevators, if you can), and if you can get away with wearing Converse or Nike, do so.

While much of the AFM action happens at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel, there is a second venue next door, Le Merigot, but there never seems to be much happening there, as well as several venues around Santa Monica where hundreds of titles are screened for potential buyers. Utilize the AFM shuttle buses when you can, grab that day’s Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety as you walk in the door and make sure you figure out where you want to go and how long you’re going to stay before you start moving.

It really is the only way to keep your sanity at the Market.