Dialogue: AFM managing director Wolf

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The American Film Market regularly sees more than $800 million in dealmaking being done at its annual Santa Monica gathering. Films in no fewer than 34 languages will be represented on the screening schedule at this year's AFM. Orchestrating this perfect storm of global interfacing is Jonathan Wolf, executive vp of the Independent Film & Television Alliance and AFM's managing director since 1988. Wolf, who has a unique perspective on the global independent film sector and AFM's role within that, recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter international editor Steve Brennan.

The Hollywood Reporter:
AFM seems to have been on a continual growth curve for years now, with extra exhibition floors being taken on at Le Merigot Beach Hotel. Will the expansion continue into other beachfront venues?
Jonathan Wolf:
I think the market will be slightly bigger than last year, but we are not expanding physically anymore. We have taken the decision that enough is enough, and we can serve the industry properly by using all the Loews (Santa Monica Beach Hotel) and the three floors at the Merigot. Remember that each time we take a floor (at the Merigot) we are taking sleeping rooms away from key buyers. I think we have found the right balance.

THR: You have been managing director at AFM since 1988. That's a lot of history. What are some of the cores shifts in the industry that you are seeing?
Wolf: The growth in the amount of business being done for non-English-language films. Let me provide some background. If you look back 30 years, most countries in the world had only two or three TV stations that were (usually) state-run and controlled. Then you had a period from the late '70s to the early '90s where the world went through technological advances and deregulation of the TV landscape, and you saw what I broadly call the filmed entertainment industry grow dramatically in most countries as a result. Whether it was film, variety or news, suddenly you had an industry come up that didn't exist before.


THR:
How did development lead to today's situation?
Wolf: It was a training ground. In the past five to 10 years, people matriculated from that (environment): trained and skilled directors, producers, cinematographers. And you have local film industries evolving out of that because you have a cadre of artists who are now skilled in their fields. You also have cultural funding (tax breaks, direct funding, etc., for film) and along with that funding comes guaranteed distribution in all media. Marry that to the fact that the above-the-line economics are very different in these markets where the cost of a star or the producer and director fees are completely different (than in the U.S.) and you find a lot of product coming to the export markets. Also, they are coming in with a different business model than the U.S. model. They may come in with most of the budget in place, and so their needs and measurement of success are different.

THR: Who is buying all this product?
Wolf: I can't tell you -- but there is an audience for every film. It's just a matter of identifying that audience and as a seller pricing it accordingly. It may be that some may end up on PBS-type television ... it could be just for an expatriate market. But they are not coming to AFM looking for or needing 50 deals. They may be happy just getting a half a dozen deals, and that's what's so much different today.

THR: AFM is always a hotbed of industry chatter about the latest trends and latest woes to beset the film sector. What will be some of the hot topics this time around?
Wolf: I think a lot of people will be talking about the labor issues because that's what's on many people's minds today. I have no doubt that some will view (the possibility of WGA strike action) as an opportunity. Remember that we have distributors selling product from more than 30 countries, and some may see a strike as an opportunity. We always have to be sure not to take a U.S.-centric position. Here in Hollywood, our friends and family work in the business. But that's not so for many others. The independent film business is global.

THR: There have been indications from some other U.S. industry events that attendees from certain countries, including China, have had difficulties obtaining visas under the current post-Sept. 11 security scrutiny. Has that been an issue for AFM?
Wolf: No. it's not a problem. Six years ago we had just eight sellers from Asia. This year it's closer to 60. In June, right after Cannes, we send out a letter that is formatted in a manner that is directed to the State Department to every buyer who is not in a visa waiver country inviting them to AFM. It says "here is your invitation, and you can attach your visa application." We also send out e-mails reminding buyers about visa requirements. Buyers are told that if they don't know the rules for their country, they can find out on our Web site.

THR: Film premieres have become a talking point for you. What is your approach now to premiere events?
Wolf: Throughout the '80s and into the '90s, when you went to major markets, the phrase "world premiere" was common. Then in the mid-'90s, the industry started using festivals as opportunities for business-to-business activity with world-premiere events. Buyers felt that if their competitors were at the festival, they had to be there also. By the late '90s, the phrase world premiere had melted from the vocabulary and the phrase "market premiere" came into being. Festivals do play an important role for some films. I just believe that they are being overused to the detriment of the seller. So what we are doing at AFM is adding a little benefit for those films that are true industry world premieres. We are doing that by highlighting them on the Web site so that a buyer can click one button and you see the screening schedule for those films. Also, in the press releases that are coming out of AFM, we have only put in world premieres. We will not do anything to punish firms that have some festival exposure before AFM. But if you have 350 market premieres and only 100 of those are world premieres, I am going to choose the world premieres to highlight.
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