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No one wanted to be here. But, nearly two years after the start of the global coronavirus pandemic, the world has not returned to normal. So, as it always has, the independent film business has adjusted. While production has accommodated new safety measures, and the costly COVID insurance that goes with it, international film markets have become digital-first movers, shifting their brick-and-mortar operations online.
The 2021 American Film Market, the second virtual AFM, kicked off Monday and runs through Friday. AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf spoke to The Hollywood Reporter European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about COVID’s lasting impact, the challenges of running an online-only market and why he thinks in-person events will still play a key role in the business post-pandemic.
This is your second all-digital AFM. What worked from last time and what didn’t?
Last year, we started with the premise that no single technology or service provider could deliver an experience that met the needs and expectations of buyers, sellers, producers, and everyone in the independent film community. Instead, we knitted together six unrelated platforms to create a valuable and exciting experience for all of our stakeholders. This worked very well. From screenings to networking to sessions to exhibitor booths, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
The one area that needed improvement was our Networking Building. While it got rave reviews for being unique and creating real engagement, it was underutilized because we hadn’t implemented a dedicated schedule for curated meetups.
Where have you made improvements and what experiments have you ditched for this online-only version?
Last year our sessions only had a 15-minute break between them. This was challenging for our team to administer and didn’t give our participants enough time to network and explore other areas of the market. This year the breaks between sessions will be 30 minutes.
And as mentioned earlier, we have revamped the attendee experience for the Networking Pavilion, scheduling five meetups every two hours, each with a specific focus. Topics will include female filmmakers, co-productions, Producers Meetup, U.K. Meetup, self-distribution, horror, faith & family and a couple of dozen more.
Why is the AFM making diversity a key theme at this year’s AFM sessions?
We’ve always looked at our Conference program as the place to present information and themes that are timely and need to be spotlit and discussed. Hosting sessions online gives us a wonderful opportunity to bring in diverse voices from all backgrounds and areas of the world that can’t always travel to Santa Monica, and also program more sessions than are possible during the in-person event. So we’re taking advantage of it with live speakers participating from across the globe including France, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and many other countries.
We have also amassed great relationships with many leading organizations such as NAACP and NALIP and are thrilled to work with them to bring important voices and topics to our audiences. AFM is a global event and this year our sessions are truly providing a global experience.
How has the pandemic changed the business of film markets?
Setting aside the obvious — we’re online for the second year — the pandemic has accelerated everyone’s use of technology and comfort with remote meetings. But I don’t see fewer people attending markets because of this. Quite the opposite — it has made it even more clear the critical role markets provide to the industry. The market organizers — AFM, Berlin and Cannes — will likely all provide new tools and services to engage companies and participants that historically could not attend every market.
What aspects of AFM do you expect to come back post-COVID (whenever that is) and what has now become a permanent part of AFM?
Everything we offered in Santa Monica will return. If there are changes to the AFM, they will be driven by changes in the marketplace, not by the pandemic. We are already looking at 2022 and will launch new programs and services to engage the remote participant.
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