Since 1998, Jonathan Wolf has been the Executive Vice President of the Independent Film & Television Alliance and Managing Director of the American Film Market (AFM), the world’s largest motion picture business event. He joined the organization in 1993 as Senior Vice President of Business Development and established IFTA Collections, which distributes millions of dollars in royalties to participants each year.
Previously, Wolf spent two years as President & COO of Studio Three Film Corporation, a U.S. theatrical distribution company. From 1980 to 1990 he held various finance positions within the industry, culminating as Chief Financial Officer of New World International, where he oversaw the company’s international operations. Wolf is a graduate of the University of Southern California Business School.
CFM: What are the highlights at 2017 AFM?
JW: With any trade fair in any industry, I think first you have to look at what product is new and different when it comes to a trade fair.
For a film market, the highlights will be discovered at the market because there will be new films and new projects, and the excitement and creativity that happens when new ideas come together and eventually reach the screen. As a show organizer, we continue to enhance the services that we provide to help people connect, to help them be educated to assist the business.
There are a couple of new things we are doing this year. The first is a new segment of the American Film Market called LocationEXPO. The LocationEXPO is an environment for film commissions and government agencies from all over the world who are promoting their region, country, services, incentives to the world’s producers.
In the first year, we have about 60 governmental organizations and film commissions from all over the world participating. Since we only announced in March that we will be doing this, we are very thrilled at the growth and we think this will be much bigger next year.
This is the perfect place for film commissions and production facilities, because at the AFM, probably more than a thousand films are green lit and the decision to make the film is made at the AFM, the financing comes together, the territorial buyers decide to buy the film. So for a film commission to be present, they have the opportunity to insert themselves in the discussion and possibly be the location for filming.
The other thing we are doing is expanding our education series by adding workshops for writers where we have instructors from the top film schools and Hollywood, teaching about the craft of writing and storytelling. We think this would be an excellent addition to the thirty sessions that we have on our variety of topics.
One other thing that we are doing for the territorial buyers, is we will be launching online screenings in about a week and a half, so that buyers who want to see films at the AFM but might not have time to see them in the theater can view the film before the AFM or in a booth at the AFM, or afterwards. So this is very good for companies that might miss their key buyers at the screenings or companies with lower budgets who prefer the simplicity of online screenings without the cost, as well for older films or library titles or product viewers. We will screen about 350 films at the AFM and maybe an additional 50 with online screenings, so it’s not a big component but it is an important one for some companies to reach their audience.
CFM: Compared with other film markets, what is the uniqueness of AFM?
JW: First I need to say the AFM doesn’t compete with the European Film Market, HK FILMART or with Cannes. They are all necessary. And in fact at every market, the directors of all of the markets meet and we share information, because we are each eager to see the others grow. So we have a very collegial relationship. For example, HK FILMART is a sponsor of AFM. So when we talk about uniqueness, each of us is unique but not a competitor. And the reason for that is film is made every day. Film is given birth every day. When a film is made, when idea comes forward and you need to take your project to a market, you don’t wait for the market that is a year away because it is geographically convenient. You go to the next market wherever it is. Our industry needs to get together about every 3 months or so, because there is so much content being created that they can’t wait. So they are all important.
Each market has its difference. For AFM, we have two key differentiators. One is we are in Hollywood and Hollywood is a key source of global filmmaking; it is an economic source for filmmaking, such as the talent agencies, big studios, financial institution, etc. So for many participants, they are able to come to AFM, the market, but also have meetings and take advantage of the fact that they are in Hollywood, so they get two benefits for their travel.
The second difference is the AFM is the only market in film or television or music in the world that is operated by those who provide the content. The AFM is run by the Independent Film & Television Alliance, and we are the nonprofit NGO, and we represent those who make and distribute films. All of the other markets around the world are run by other organizations, whether they are connected to festival, or connected to trade show organizers.
Those are the two differences. We are operated by those who are creating the films, and we are based in Hollywood.
If you look at the others like the one in Cannes, their big differentiator is they are attached to the largest and what most would say the most prestigious film festival in the world, a film festival that is designed for industry professionals, not necessarily for the community. And then when you look at Berlin, you see the European Film Market, yet another market attached to a major festival. When you look at FILMART, it’s attached to a week and a half of the HK Entertainment Expo, and all of the various things that go under it.
So each of these events is different but we are all very collegial and we share information and we are not competitors. I think if there is a problem with someone else’s market, I will have that problem next. And if they have success, I will too.
CFM: How do you think about the trend of the budget of films traded at the market every year?
JW: What we are seeing is what I’ll call a bifurcation in film budgets. They are getting bigger and they are getting smaller. We are seeing more films made at bigger and bigger budgets with bigger stars and bigger special effects. And we are seeing more and more films made at much, much lower budgets with very nimble filmmakers who understand how to find a small, niche market for their films.
What we see is the middle range of budget is becoming more difficult, because the middle range of budget doesn’t have enough element in it for a theatrical release to have the consumer go out to the movies and pay lots of money, but it’s too expensive to rely solely on different forms of ancillary, whether it’s video on demand or subscription, or things like this.
So we are seeing budgets getting bigger which doesn’t seem to be a problem; and we are seeing budgets getting smaller which is working well for companies who know how to do it. It’s like looking at houses. Some people know how to build big homes but can’t build a small one. They don’t know how; and some can only know how to build small. It’s the same with film. So the market place wants either very small or very big.
But when I talk about big and small budgets, it depends on what country you are in. If you look at India and China, most films are made for the domestic market place, so the budgets are determined based on what works domestically. If you look at other countries, like United States or Italy, you might see budgets that are based on how the film can play globally. If we are talking about Nigeria, where they make thousands of films every year, but my car costs more than some of the films that are made in Nigeria. But it’s actually a business and they do well.
So the differences depend on the country and it depends on their export potential.
I’m not an expert on China, so my opinion is only from a distance. From a distance, I don’t see China films in the cinemas of the United States. When I talk to those who are experts, they tell me this is because the local market is so big, if they can satisfy the local market, they have a wonderful business. And it’s the same in India. The percentage of films that travel outside of India or China is very low. We hope to see it grow but that’s really a decision for the filmmakers and the entrepreneurs in each country.
CFM: Chinese film industry is paying more and more attention to AFM. The attendance of Chinese delegates is said to hit the record this year and become the second largest national group. How do you think of this growth? Drawing from past experience, are there any parallels to this trend? How do you anticipate the trend in the next few years?
JW: We’ve seen the trend continue to be up and I expect that trend to continue for a few reasons.
One is the size of the market place in China. It’s a big country. There are many consumers and business people. So just by the nature of its size, we expect it to grow. But the second reason is there are many new businesses being formed. And when new businesses are formed, it’s important for them to be everywhere, to be visible, to connect, to have new relationships. Mature businesses can sometimes stay home and say “you call me”, but for new entrepreneurs and businesses, it’s vital that they meet and connect. So with the growth of new businesses in China, I think this is helping drive attendance at AFM.
The only parallel maybe happened in Korea in the 90s before there was consolidation. There were so many video companies that every video company was coming and the size of participation was out of balance with the size of the country.
At a trade fair in any industry, all I can see as the operator is how many people are present. I cannot see how much deal making, what the turnover is, what the sales are for each person. So we could look at a country that is consolidated tremendously like Australia and see low attendance, but the people who attend do a lot of business because the companies are very large. We could look at the other countries which have not consolidated so there are many small businesses, and we see more people. So attendance alone at any trade fair is not the best indicator of how much business is actually happening.
So clearly there is going to be growth in China because of its size but it’s too soon for us to interpret what that means for business. It will be very interesting to see.
CFM: Considering the international markets, what would you suggest Chinese filmmakers keep in mind during film production?
JW: You always face the audience. Some filmmakers are artists. They don’t face the audience; they only face their canvas. They make what they like, they put it out there and if nobody likes it, that’s ok. They make something else. Other filmmakers, producers look at the audience, and they make movies that will travel and sell. So the advice always is if you want to be successful in film, you need to connect and touch and move an audience. And that means if you want your film to travel, you have to have a good understanding of the international audience.
CFM: At this year’s AFM, how would you suggest Chinese films and companies to get prepared for international communication and make use of the platform AFM provides?
JW: It depends on what they are coming with. If they are an exporter, then you are a sales person. Your message is showing the buyer how they will profit from acquiring your film. The AFM is not about culture. It’s not about charity. It’s strictly about business. So every sales person of every film coming from every country, when they are selling the film, the message within the sales pitch is how the buyer will profit from acquiring and distributing the film. Many salesmen will include ideas for marketing campaign-which audience to go after, where it should play, what platform, what theater, what release pattern-all to show the profit.
For the film commissions and production facilities that come to the AFM, the message is about how filmmakers will benefit from shooting in China, whether it’s the cost, the skill of the crew, different locations or other resources.
Everybody at the AFM is either buying or selling. Whether it’s a producer selling a script, another company buying a script, or a film commission selling their location, a buyer coming to acquire a film for distribution. The advice is if you are selling, make sure you’ve targeted your audience whatever it is; and if you are buying, do your homework, because 7 days go very quickly, and there isn’t time to meet with everyone. And the knowledge is to acquire what you need and use the time wisely. The AFM is very much about advance appointments. It’s not like a trade fair in most industries. When the doors open at AFM, I would say 90% of the first day has already been booked before it opens. Everybody’s calendar is full. AFM is about meetings and deals. It’s about appointments. So the advice is to start scheduling now.