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The American Film Market (AFM) descends on Santa Monica every autumn, converting The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and the Le Merigot Beach Hotel into a busy marketplace for filmmakers and purveyors of all varieties of production-related services. Films screen almost continually at the various multiplexes on the Santa Monica Promenade, as well as other venues in the community. Approximately 500 movies screen over the weeklong event, the majority of them world or U.S. premieres. Titles range from big budget blockbusters that will be released by the major studios in the U.S., to low budget art-house and genre flicks. The films range in quality from outstanding to downright awful. There is a great deal of sizzle at AFM, and distributors, not to exhaust the metaphor, are constantly on the hunt for steak, in more ways than one.

The basic AFM narrative is consistent year in and year out: producers and sales agents repping films rent suites and display their wares via trailers, VPKs, and various forms of printed matter. The films are mostly genre-driven (horror, thriller, teen comedy, etc.) and usually feature “B List” actors. Producers and aspiring filmmakers also attend to foster interest in their projects that range from finished features, to three-minute “sizzle reels” to nothing more than a package consisting of a script, director, and actors. These deals are referred to in the industry as “presales”: producers pre-sell various territories in order to raise production funds to get the film to the break-even point prior to completion. In most cases, producers will sell off the foreign rights, and retain North America and DVD rights in order to turn a profit. For years, this was a successful business model that allowed a good many films that would otherwise never have gotten off the ground to get made. This year, however, pre-sale money was scant, a bellweather indication of how the global economic turndown has affected the independent film industry.

The pre-sales well certainly did not dry up overnight. Years ago, a proven genre such as action or horror might have been enough to get a deal. As funds tightened overseas, at least one actor of note was required to pre-sell a movie. In 2009, pre-sales proved, if not impossible, hugely difficult. “Nobody is willing to spend any money,” complained an independent producer who asked to remain nameless. “The Avi Lerner model is dead.” (Avi Lerner is the Hollywood producer who pioneered the use of foreign presales.)

On a local level, AFM acts as a vivid de facto reminder of the ever-increasing amount of “runaway” film and television production in California. Following the examples set by New Mexico and Louisiana, nearly every state in the country now has a program offering cash rebates and/or tax incentives that total anywhere from 25% – 40% of a given project’s production budget spent in-state. These incentives are considered bankable paper, and are often used to leverage or secure other funds. Various states and foreign countries set up impressive booths and displays offering filmmakers discounts, concierge services, and locations that were, variously, individually unique and could also credibly double for domestic or oft-used film locales (New York City, etc.). Amongst those hawking their home turfs were Quebec, Canada (41% cash rebate), West Virginia (31% tax credit), the island of Fiji (35% cash rebate), as well as the nations of Colombia and Jordan, both of whom offer experienced film crews to help visitors negotiate the difficulties of shooting in, say, the rain forest or the desert. California better get its proverbial act together to prevent the further erosion of the multi-billion dollar film production industry, as producers of everything from studio blockbusters to art house indies with budgets under a million dollars are fleeing in droves, seeking venues where their bucks will get more bang.

There are far too many film companies at AFM to mention in this article, but Vision Films (visionfilms.net), a sales agency located in Sherman Oaks, is worth mentioning for their extensive catalogue of feature films, documentaries and concert DVDs. A particularly enjoyable little gem is a documentary on Led Zeppelin entitled “Dazed and Confused” that features lots of rare footage and interviews with the band and various people associated with them. One such gem: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton meeting the Queen of England, who had apparently never heard of any of them. As Mr. Clapton graciously explained their 40 years as professional musicians to Her Majesty, Page and Beck seemed to barely suppress a case of the giggles. Enjoyable and well put-together, other than some occasionally tinny sound quality, the film should appeal to Zep’s multi-generational legion of fans.

So deals are not being made at AFM the same rate as in previous years. So what really goes on, especially in an off year? A lot of hanging out by the pool. A lot of 60-something “producers” buying over-priced drinks for 20-something women hired for the day to shill for a particular film or product. A lot of sunglasses and silicone. A lot of silliness, but fun, movie biz silliness.

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