An Interview with Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director of AFM


Jonathan Wolf is Executive Vice President of the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA) and Managing Director of the American Film Market (AFM). The Independent Film & Television Alliance is the global trade association of independent distributors and producers of motion picture and television programming. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the organization represents and provides significant entertainment industry services to more than 160 members from 22 countries.

The American Film Market (AFM) is the world’s largest motion picture trade event.
The AFM is a global marketplace where more than $800 million in motion picture and television production and distribution deals are closed annually. Participants come from more than 70 countries and include leaders in production and distribution, directors, agents, writers, lawyers, bankers, festival directors, film commissioners and trade groups.

Since his appointment in 1998, Mr. Wolf has guided the growth and repositioning of the AFM, which now hosts more than 8,000 industry leaders and screens more than 500 feature films. Most recently, Mr. Wolf helped craft the strategic relationship between the AFM and the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival (AFI FEST). The two events have joined forces in marketing, sponsorship, scheduling, and a variety of other initiatives allowing unlimited opportunities for both to expand while creating a new marketing platform for producers and distributors at AFM.

Wolf joined the organization in 1993 as Senior Vice President of Business Development. His primary responsibilities were to identify new revenue resources for IFTA member distribution companies to support association programs. Wolf established IFTA Collections, which now administers the international levy rights to more than 20,000 titles and has distributed over $45 million to participating members.

Before joining the Independent Film & Television Alliance, Wolf spent two years as President and Chief Operating Officer of Studio Three Film Corporation, a U.S. theatrical marketing and distribution company. From 1986 to 1990, he served as Chief Financial Officer of New World International where he oversaw all financial aspects of the company’s international operations. Prior to this, Wolf held finance positions with CBS Inc. for six years, culminating as Director, Finance with CBS Broadcast International in New York. Wolf began his career in 1978 with the international accounting firm of Deloitte Touche.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us a little bit about the history of the AFM and its present status.
Jonathan Wolf: In 1980 a group of sales agents came back from Cannes and finding that the market there was so expensive that they felt the industry would benefit from a less expensive film market in Hollywood. So they formed a non profit organization called the American Film Marketing Association (AFMA) to launch the American Film Market trade show which took place in the spring of 1981. It was very successful but everyone a month later went to Cannes anyway, because there was just too much of a draw and too many economic and marketing benefits to risk that event. Since this was right in the beginning of the explosion in home video and the industry was growing dramatically, the American Film Market in 1982 shifted its dates to February and fell into a very comfortable position between MIFED in Milan in October and Cannes in May. The Market continued to grow for the next twenty-three years, and in 2004 we moved the market from February to November so that we could affiliate the AFM with The American Film Institute’s (AFI) film festival, AFI FEST, and offer the industry both a world class film market and a festival focused on excellence in global film making, all in one place. The Market growth accelerated and in 2005 we had more buyers and more sellers and more films than previous Markets in our twenty-seven year history. And right now, in 2006 is running ahead of those numbers.

Bijan: Since you joined AFM what changes you made to improve the growth its growth
Jonathan: When I took on the AFM in 1998 the first thing I asked my board of directors was, what don’t you like about the Market? In different words they all said the same thing: that it was boring. Because up until 1998 the market was a pure import/export event, meaning that if you were a buyer you were welcomed with open arms. If you were a seller you were welcomed with open arms, but if you were anyone else it was difficult for you to even get in the door. We also did not allow any of the sales companies to do any marketing, not only inside the AFM, but even in the city of Santa Monica. There were rules to prevent this to keep the costs down. So what we had was hundreds of marketing companies who were essentially hand-cuffed and unable to really go out and show what they could do. So we changed two types of rules. First, we allowed the companies in the show to actually market their films, put up banners, take advertising, do all sorts of things to create visibility for themselves and their films. The second and probably more important one was that we made the AFM over the years, much more inclusive. That means inclusive to those involved in production. We made a number of changes; the first and probably most notable one was that we established what we call the half market badge. Up until about five years ago, if you wanted to come to the AFM you had to spend $775 dollars to buy a badge to come into the door, very expensive for anyone involved in production. Ultimately, the first few days the people in the offices don’t want to meet with those in production; because they are busy selling the films and packages that they brought to the market. So we established a half market badge with a discount, only $295 dollars instead of $775. This begins on Sunday, Day 5 of the market, and is designed to draw in and provide value for those involved in production at a time when the distribution and production companies have time to meet with them. The second step we took was inviting and continuing to invite industry organizations to come to the AFM to program seminars on whatever topic interests them. Whether the organization is, the Writer’s Guild of America, West, the Director’s Guild, Film Independent, Women in Film or the American Society of Cinematographers, because we want the breath of that activity to be at AFM. But something else has also happened. In the last ten years the industry has understood more and more that the AFM is not just an export/import event. The AFM is where productions get financed, deals get closed and films get green lighted. Now we also see more than a dozen film commissions coming to the AFM just to talk about their production incentives. Since more than half of the business at the AFM is done on films that have not started shooting yet, we estimate this year it will be more than 400 million dollars. The AFM has become more and more important to those involved in production.

Bijan: What was the reason behind merging with AFI Fest? Has it helped both AFM and AFI Fest?
Jonathan: Absolutely, the reason was a very narrow and specific one, If you look at the AFM screening schedule, last year we screened 535 feature films, it is 30 films every two hours. It is very easy for a specialty film, an art film or a non English language film to get lost among 30 films screenings simultaneously. It is easy for a company like New Line or Focus Features or a company with its standard action-adventure films to find its audience of buyers. But a smaller specialty film may have difficulty just simply because of the crowd within the market. If a festival is taking place at the same time as the Market, and if a film like this is fortunate enough to be programmed in the festival it has two immediate benefits. The first is it creates an additional marketing platform and extra visibility for that film. We note such films as a “festival selection” on the market screening schedule, there are press releases and other interesting information that comes out about it. When a buyer is considering what film to see at a specific time and notes that it is one of the films in the festival selection, the buyer may be more interested in that film. And it does a second thing for the film. Most distributors and filmmakers who are putting their films in the festival circuit, submit their films to many festivals. It is common for a film to be in five or even ten festivals. The distributors cannot afford to send the actors, director and producer(s) to every festival, it is not practical. The producers need to carefully consider which festival to leverage and invest in. When they are looking at the calendar of festivals that a film might be accepted in, and find that one of the festivals, AFI Fest is taking place at the same time, in the same city as one of the world’s two major film markets, it automatically becomes the festival of choice to send your talent to, to send your producers and directors to. Because now it is so easy to bring that talent together with the international buyers or bring the buyers to a party where you might have your talent, to bring them together physically, where you don’t have that opportunity at any other festival. Our mission in connecting with AFI fest was to provide benefits to those films that are fortunate enough to be selected in the festival and also be in the market. In the last two years it has been between forty and forty-five films that have been in both the festival and in the Market. A big reason for this relationship has been to support those films.
Bijan: Do non-English language movies have a strong presence at the AFI?
Jonathan: Last year we screened films in 35 languages. I believe 35 or 37 percent of our films were non-English language, we had sellers from 34 countries, and we had buyers from over 70 countries. This is a world film market that happens to take place in Hollywood, but this is not a Market about American films only.

Bijan: What new we should expect to see at this AFM 2006?
Jonathan: When you have a market that only takes place for eight days every year, changes are gradual, and it is easier to look at them over multiple years. We have added another floor of offices to be the largest in terms of our physical space that we have ever had. We have added more seminars to reach a wider breath of the industry, but in terms of long term trend, this growth is the primary result of increased production in non-English language countries. We are seeing more and more producers and distributors coming to the AFM with films that were not produced in English and not following the US and British business model, and we are seeing an increase in films being screened. The production values and the quality of the story telling around the world is continuing to grow and the trend that we are seeing is more and more non-English language films that travel and are not just targeting a local or home country audience.

Bijan: Is there a competition between AFM and Cannes markets? Is it true that AFM larger than Cannes?
Jonathan: The AFM and Cannes are bookends, we are six months apart. Cannes is the largest and oldest film festival and the grand daddy of them all. The AFM is in Hollywood and is the annual stop for filmmakers and distributors and producers around the world. They plan their Hollywood business meetings at the time of the AFM. We are not in any way competitors. We meet at every market, we trade data, we trade lists, we trade information, and we work together to help serve the industry. Each of us call ourselves the largest film market and frankly both of us are correct. We measure the AFM the way trade fairs measure size which is by exhibit space, How much space is taken by companies that come to the show. This is the standard way of measuring the size of an event, within the trade show industry. Cannes measures its size by the number of credentials it issues. Cannes sells about twenty percent more credentials then we do and we sell about thirty percent more space then they do. We can both honestly claim to be the largest, and the reader can make their own determination about how they feel about that, but neither of us are competitors. Cannes tends to draw more attendees because it is so easy for filmmakers from throughout Europe to take a four or six hour drive and be in Cannes for a short period of time, but they do not have the physical facility to serve all the sales companies that we have. Both are very large significant events. There are other events throughout they year which are worth mentioning briefly. In Berlin there is a market that is growing that is attached to the Berlin film festival, it may grow into a larger market. There is also a fast growing market in Hong Kong in March called Hong Kong Filmart. It is nine years old and now that AFM has moved away from its February slot, Filmart is probably the fastest growing film market of all.. It is the premiere film market in that region of the world. So these have become much more active venues then they were maybe three or four years ago


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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