An actor from a successful indie film is paying the bills working in the restaurant at Hollywood's upscale ArcLight Cinemas complex, while upstairs an AFI Fest filmmaker is taking a few days off of work as an underpaid set P.A. to double as a "real filmmaker" while his latest film screens at the festival. Meanwhile out in Santa Monica, would-be producers trade business cards and buzz inside the crowded lobby of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel at the American Film Market. Here in Los Angeles, more than in any other American city, the dream of making it in the movies seems to be on display everywhere you turn. Sit by the pool at your hotel and eavesdrop on guests talking about their screenplays or listen in on informed analysis of the "Borat" box office grosses during Sunday brunch. Of course, none of these are groundbreaking revelations about life in Los Angeles, but it's often a bit surprising to the occasional visitor.
Overall attendance at AFM has jumped by more than 15% since the American Film Market moved to November, coinciding with the annual AFI Fest in Hollywood. More than 435 companies are screening nearly 600 films at the market and 54 of those movies are also showing at AFI Fest in Hollywood about 14 miles (and sometimes an hour drive) away. Of the 8,200 attendees participating in the AFM, organizers estimate that more than 1,500 are buyers from 61 countries in Santa Monica this week, while many of the others on hand are aspiring producers and filmmakers trying to get their projects (and careers) off the ground.
Sometimes a feeling of desperation invades a conversation as the more aggressive market attendees shove promo materials in the hands of anyone who they pass in the narrow hotel hallways that connect suites rented by international buyers and sellers. Established insiders typically dismiss the newbies and hypesters as simply part of the local color at an event that screens projects ranging from acclaimed art house films to straight-to-video genre fare. Beyond the hundreds of movies screening throughout the day at various Santa Monica movie theaters, legitimate and aspiring producers of all stripes brush past each other inside the Loews and adjacent Le Merigot hotels, before and after meetings aimed at drumming up financing for their new movies.
Calling this "one of the best moments ever for funding American independent cinema," William Morris' Cassian Elwes had the tongues of attendees wagging Sunday afternoon during an AFM panel discussion about luring investors and packaging films. An overflow crowd jammed a downstairs conference room at Le Merigot Hotel on a beaufiful, warm autumn afternoon. "There is so much money floating around right now," Elwes added, explaining simply that numerous groups are heading to Hollywood to fund slates of films, feeling that backing 6 - 10 movies might yield a break even position in the end, perhaps even with a slight profit at the end of the day.
Speaking to a mix of emerging and established industry types in Santa Monica, Elwes dispensed pearls of wisdom alongside former IFC Films exec Holly Becker of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Cherry Road Films' CEO and founder Bo Hyde, and Participant Productions' EVP of doc production Diane Weyermann.
Moments after his optimistic statement though, the veteran agent and sales expert cautioned, "The independent film business is not a good business to be in," warning ambitious fundraisers about taking "dumb money" from unsuspecting investors who don't know what they're getting into and may be unaware of the instability of the industry.
"We advise people [about] how to finance in a smart way," Elwes told the S.R.O. crowd at the session, "So that they will come back and do it with us again. We don't deal in dumb money, we want this business to expand."
Later, Elwes reflected on his own dual agenda. His goal is, of course, to make money, but also, "We want to do stuff that is prestigious. We are creating an aura for the Agency that will bring new clients. We want to do things that we are proud of being involved in." Citing AFI Fest's opening night film "Bobby," which he packaged, Elwes added, "The classy nature of the movie is going to attract people to us."
While Elwes emphasized that entertainment is first and foremost a business, he also explained that smart investors are drawn to put their money into the movies because of the allure of Hollywood; investing in film is sexy and can be socially rewarding for those with money. But, he cautioned those in the room to consider their priorities.
"Making film is really hard," Elwes said, "But it's also really fun." He concluded, "This is not just to make money. This is to do something that is socially impactful and a lot of fun."
[The American Film Market continues through Wednesday and AFI Fest runs through Sunday night in Los Angeles.]