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Sweaty Suits: Brutal Realizations from a Freshman Exhibitor at AFM 2006
by Kurtis Estes on Nov 19, 2006
The American Film Market broke like a great frothing wave over Santa
Monica, California this year. Buyers in expensive suits met with
exhibitors in sweaty ones, and the whole market teemed with the smell
of money and celluloid. With over 500 registered distribution companies
exhibiting their wares and many more filmmakers attempting to sneak
past security, you could assume that the market was a success, but I
will get to that later.
I was in a suit, one of the sweaty ones—an exhibitor: there to make
I work for a moderately large production/distribution company
based out of Woodland Hills, California. We represented 35 films at
this year’s AFM, two of which were ones produced by us. Of the others,
we carry every possible genre, or rather, every genre that sells:
Action/Adventure, Horror, Thriller, Comedy, Romance, Drama, Family. So
what’s an average exhibitor’s day like at the AFM? Well, a buyer enters
our office with an air of superiority, like a tight-ass walking onto a
used car lot. We sit him or her down in front of our too big plasma
screen and ask questions about what type of content they are looking
The majority, from my experience, answer with the following two
phrases as if our question merely pulled a string coming out of their
backs: “Does it have a name in it?” or “Will it be released
theatrically in the United States?” Multiply that by twenty, and you
have an exhibitor’s average day at the AFM. Now, I truly hope you’re
not thinking, “No name, not a chance?” Well, not so fast. This is not
entirely true. There is a niche for smaller films, but smaller films
obviously carry with them a smaller price tag. This is when knowing the
market is crucial. For instance, if you rep your movies at too high a
price, the buyer leaves with a sour taste in his mouth, not feeling
like bothering to haggle down from such a high peek. If you know the
market, you set your price high, but not mountainous.
Rather, you set
before him a steep yet steady and smooth route on which to descend
from. Early on in the market I realized that distributing a film is
similar to selling a car. This similarity made feel like I should have
had a much cheaper suit on and much more gel in my hair. For example,
the buyer comes into our office and we show them a couple of floor
models based on what they say they want, maybe throwing a curveball at
them to see if their attention perks. When we give a screener, which is
an actual copy of the film, the buyer leaves our office to take a test
This, however, is one fundamental difference between film
distributors and car salesmen. In our market the buyer almost always
leaves without making their decision, going against everything a
car-pusher learns: if you keep them on the lot, they will buy; don’t
let them leave. However, at the AFM there is a subtle way of keeping
your buyer on the lot—screen a film at one of the many theaters on the
Santa Monica Promenade.
The cost is steep and the attempt may prove
worthless if no one shows up, but this is a chance we take in order to
keep buyers close to our movies.
This year the company I work for screened four films on the Promenade.
And we advertised the hell out of them. With the cover of several
magazines promoting our product, we were essentially revving the car’s
engine while our buyers walked off the lot. They heard the roar of the
pistons, thought of themselves cruising down the road on a sunny day,
top down and finally living—they wanted that drive.
Some of them took
it, came back into our office and purchased the rights to our film.
Still more took the drive and realized that a convertible might not be
the best thing for a bald man. But hey, that’s life, and that’s sales.
Sometimes you got what others want, and sometimes you don’t.
Speaking of having something that others don’t want, on Saturday and
Sunday of this year’s AFM, I was witness to the invasion of the
These are people who only buy a pass for one
day. They are mostly aspiring writers and film makers, which is a
beautiful thing and should be encouraged. But I could not write this
article without giving them a little bit of advice for next year.
One, don’t interrupt a meeting. We are at the AFM for one thing and one
thing only: to sell movies. From the hallway it might look as if we are
just sitting around watching TV, but you couldn’t be more wrong. When a
buyer is watching a trailer, we are attempting to make them fall in
love with our movie. Our thirty second trailer could make us $30,000
and when you come in asking if we would like to fund your film, or
option your screenplay, you are breaking the buyer’s concentration and
could possibly be ruining the sale for us.
This is not a good first
Two, understand that we would rather have you put together a concise
set of materials for us to peruse after the market than for you to
persistently ask if we could just watch your trailer or hear you pitch
your screenplay. Even if we are not in a meeting, we are still not
there to have you bagger us. We take all materials that are handed to
us, and we really do look at them after the AFM. But, and this should
be the cardinal rule for all Day-Passers, exhibitors are there to sell,
not to be sold to.
So, walk past the office a couple times. If we are with clients, wait.
If we are free and speaking to one another casually, come on in but be
as brief as possible. Here is the best pitch I heard during the entire
AFM: “Hi, I’m Dave. I have a movie in preproduction and just wanted to
give some materials for your consideration on funding. Thanks.” Dave
then left our office and we put his material at the top of our stack.
We did this because we respected how he worked, and that is key when
deciding to fund any project whatsoever.
I know that this all might sound a little harsh. I do understand that
Day-Passers are the pursuers of dreams and that what they are doing is
pretty impressive, but I do also believe that they should do it right
and might have more success if just a little bit of professional
courtesy was extended between them and the exhibitors.
So now, a week after the AFM wave has drawn itself back into the ocean,
I am left to ponder its success. That’s a hard thing to say at the
moment. We really won’t know until we begin the follow-up: send
screeners to those who requested them, ask if there is any interest on
the screeners which buyers took home, quote a price and then haggle. It
is a tumultuous process, but it is an unbelievably important one.
Without markets like the AFM, the independent film industry would not
exist, and the public would only be left with big studio movies based
on comic book heroes, or yet another Arnold Schwarzenegger masterpiece.
So I say, “God bless the AFM and all the exhibitors in their sweaty
suits! God bless the hawkers of film!” For the money they make keeps a
delicate art form alive. And with that, our culture continues its
expression on celluloid, no matter the cost, no matter the names
attached to it, and no matter if it has had a theatrical release in the
April 14, 2021