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Here’s What’s Wrong With the American Film Market — and Hollywood, Too

Here's What's Wrong With the American Film Market — and Hollywood, Too

I went to the American Film Market and all I got was a lousy poster.

Or maybe that’s unfair. At the 35th edition of AFM, the global film marketplace at the Loews Beach Hotel in Santa Monica last weekend, the $22 salad wasn’t half-bad. And those magisterial ocean views sure beat the early onslaught of the New York winter.

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But what about the movies? AFM, as it turns out, tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of cinema today — and, by extension, tells you everything that’s wrong with it. While dozens of titles, big and small, screened about 45 minutes across town at the AFI Fest, AFM’s heavy lineup featured nearly 700 screenings of 400 films, by its own estimate. But AFI carefully selected its program from hundreds of possibilities. At AFM, the gateway to entry is a checkbook, as only exhibiting companies at the market may screen their titles.

The two events used to have a partnership — the idea was AFI would bring the class, AFM the business — but even beyond the logistical complications of trying to connect Santa Monica and Hollywood, there’s not much of a Venn diagram between the two. (This year, the two events did work together to ensure that 30 films at the festival were available to buyers at AFM.). The cluttered beachside event has a different set of priorities, with throngs of international sales agents and armies of distribution companies from around the globe flocking through one floor after another in search of… well, what, exactly?

AFM is certainly a legitimate home to film companies you’ve heard about: The Weinstein Company, Voltage, Magnolia Pictures and other labels responsible for releasing genuinely good moves into American theaters. They manage to get real business done at the hotel. If you’re a filmmaker, AFM is an alien world, but that frees up buyers to discuss potential deals without hurting quite as many feelings in the process. However, these reasonable operations at AFM are not the whole story.

Companies announce their slates with flashy posters for movies that don’t yet exist (and may never). Occasionally, you might spot a teaser for, say, the developing restoration of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” or another gory samurai flick from prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike. But for the most part, AFM’s natural state is to traffic in dreck.

Posters for genre titles with absurd names and premises predominate. Over the course of wandering the hotel hallways for several hours, I spotted three ridiculous projects about dogs (“Gone Doggy Gone,” “Archie: Robodog” and the animated “Space Dogs: Adventure to the Moon”) as well as cookie-cutter romcoms like “Love Addict” (tagline: “He is addicted. She is the cure.”) and schlock like “Axman II: Overkill.”

Roaming the hallways with no clear agenda felt similar to being stuck in the excessive overload of cheesy pop culture tropes in the brilliantly irreverent viral sensation “Too Many Cooks” — surrounded by crappy excuses for entertainment to a suffocating degree. One has to wonder: Who pays for this shit?

The answer, it turns out, is a lot of people. On average, AFM attracts 8,000 professionals from around the world each year. For companies that operate with low-cost/high-return initiatives, AFM keeps their wheels turning, at least until the next opportunity to sell their wares at Cannes. AFM is defined by the absence of quality. In essence, it emboldens the production of bad movies.

The event also features more promising buyer screenings such as “Politics of Love” (aka “Nailed”), David O. Russell’s uncompleted project that he abandoned two movies ago. (Russell has not approved the version on the market.) Some of the more exciting indie discoveries of the year, such as “Buzzard,” screened for overseas buyers.

For domestic buyers, the opportunity to wander through foreign sales companies’ offices and nab screeners gives them the chance to purchase titles long before their festival premiere dates.

And of course, AFM provides networking opportunities for companies in need of it. Alongside panels on publicity and marketing, the event also allows countries seeking to enhance their economies by increasing the presence of film productions to make their case: Everything from Malaysia to Thailand and much of South America made its presence known.

Nevertheless, you won’t find many filmmakers in these parts, nor any real sense that the business behind filmmaking has any direct connection the prospects of good movies getting made. It’s a microcosm of the global film industry’s continuing failure to incentivize the creation of art to fuel the commerce. 

Of course, the frustrations of AFM are nothing new. The recent documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold History of Canon Films” tracks the wheeling-and-dealing protocol for companies selling trash over the course of 30 years. While liberated by working outside of the studio system, they essentially become miniature versions of its creative void. Part of the problem is that events like AFM, ostensibly designed to sustain the business, instead become “an excuse to go hang out on the beach and act like big-timers,” as one veteran producer put it to me before requesting anonymity. Instead of using the film festival arena to develop their agenda in the context of a genuine film culture, they turn their backs on it.

“It’s not a market, it’s a vacation that’s been billed,” said the longtime AFM attendee. “Everything that is being done there can be easily done now over Skype or emails. It’s bullshit.”
Notably, AFM takes place far across town from AFI Fest. The festival provides Los Angeles with its equivalent to the New York Film Festival — a holistic overview of first-rate filmmaking from throughout the year that prioritizes diversity over premiere status. Even so, it landed a few significant studio efforts to bolster its status in the heat of awards season, including J.C. Chandor’s festival opener “A Most Violent Year” and the well-received Tuesday night double bill of Ava DuVernay’s MLK drama “Selma” followed by Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.”

But these titles were the exception rather than the rule. Much of the lineup featured highlights from Cannes, Toronto and other festivals, with acclaimed films like the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” and the delicate Mexican two-hander “10,000 KM” receiving as much exposure on the program as anything else.

The New Auteurs section, for which I served on a jury with my colleague Anne Thompson, featured an exceptionally well-curated group of international titles that have largely been buried on the festival circuit. Our big winner, the surrealist Israeli drama “Self Made,” was a keen look at two women—an Israeli installation artist and a Palestinian factory worker—who cope with frustrations over their identities, and eventually switch places, with fascinating and unexpected results. Rather than delivering a mawkish, unifying message about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shira Geffen’s remarkable followup to the equally beguiling “Jellyfish” has the alluring weirdness of a Charlie Kaufman movie threaded through the lens of modern-day concerns.

There’s simply nothing else like it, although another title in our section was just as unique: “The Tribe,” which received the VIZIO Visionary Special Award, exclusively takes place in Ukranian sign language. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut, about a young man admitted to a deaf private school who falls in with a bad crowd, forces you to scrutinize each scene to follow its suspenseful plot. A truly cinematic accomplishment, it also manages to avoid taking its scenario for granted, with the plot offering shocking twists every step of the way.

More familiar, but nevertheless just as appealing, black-and-white Mexican road trip comedy “Gueros” tips its hat to the French New Wave with its delightful tale of a young man forced to live with his older brother as the two embark on an aimless quest to find a mythological rock musician, encountering student protests along the way. The tension between the main characters’ apathy and the struggling counterculture around them forms a fascinating contrast that allows “Gueros” to have it both ways: It’s both a paean to the travails of being a slacker and the process of waking up to the bigger picture.

These are all movies that could, with proper exposure, develop fervent supporters in commercial release. They play with traditional genres while offering fresh ideas, but maintain enough fundamental entertainment value for audiences beyond the insular festival world to check them out. Fortunately, “The Tribe” and “Gueros” have found U.S. distribution, with the respective support of Drafthouse Films and Kino Lorber, both resourceful companies — though it’s telling that none of the bigger buyers on the scene bothered. Nevertheless, at AFI Fest, they found welcoming crowds — as did the currently undistributed “Self Made”—epitomizing the consistent interest in quality filmmaking even as the global marketplace continues to focus on other priorities.

Whether it’s studios or smaller outfits hawking junk at AFM, the industry tends to emphasize giving people what they want rather than surprising them with better options. (Even a slick, wildly amusing Marvel production like “Guardians of the Galaxy” is, well, a slick, wildly amusing Marvel movie — with a sequel on the way.) Like AFM, the studio arena puts the bottom line ahead of innovation to such an excessive degree that it has started to scare off the kind of people actually capable of making movies worth our time.

On a massive panel entitled “Indie Contenders” at AFI Fest last Sunday, several filmmakers and actors who work largely outside the studio arena explained their rationales. “When something’s smaller, it allows you to explore,” said Jake Gyllenhaal, currently basking in acclaim for “Nightcrawler,” as well as a career resurgence after his attempts at tackling oversized studio projects didn’t turn out so well. “When a project is smaller, it forces everybody to prepare in a certain way.”

For “A Most Violent Year” director J.C. Chandor, the situation is slightly different: While he’s gearing up for the ambitious studio production “Deepwater Horizon,” he has yet to sacrifice any sort of autonomy. “I have to put my kids through college, but I don’t want to make the kind of movies that studios are making right now for the most part, as horrible as that sounds,” he said. “But that’s a tremendous opportunity for these other films getting made because there’s massive, massive void. It’s just harder making a living when you make those movies. But if you care, you make sacrifices in your own life to do it.”

Tilda Swinton, back on the promotional track for her turn as the eccentric villain in the summer’s indie hit “Snowpiercer,” echoed Chandor’s concerns. “The biggest difference, in my humble opinion from the few studio pictures I’ve been offered, is that in the indie filmmaking world you make friends with chaos,” she said. “In the studio world, you don’t need to.” 

At that point, somebody needed to offer a semblance of hope, lest the group were to agree that the prospects of making movies on a larger scale was a permanent loss. The task inevitably fell to the youngest filmmaker on the panel. Damien Chazelle, whose Sundance-winning “Whiplash” has marked one of the breakout successes of the year, had a reason to strike a confident note. Sounding like someone in the midst of whirlwind meetings with agents and executives while sifting through innumerable projects, he chose his words carefully. “I am, in my consistently naive way, optimistic,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of troubling stuff going on, but for me, the biggest challenge is waking up in the morning.”

Responding to a note by moderator Scott Feinberg that multiple risk-taking distributors have gone out of business in recent years, Chazelle took a detour through history. “These things seem to go in a 20-year cycle,” he said. “What happened to the studios in the sixties led to the seventies’ golden age; what happened in the eighties led to the indies in the nineties. We could have another explosion.”

Then he seemed to acknowledge the festival’s purpose. “I think the key is that audience has to be there for these movies and we still see that,” he said. “If there’s a door closing, hopefully there’s another door opening with people out there to watch these things.”

Chandor patted him on the shoulder with a sly grin, either acknowledging Chazelle’s idealism or mocking it, and the crowd chuckled. Just as the problems of the industry come to life at AFM, their fleeting exchange seemed to illustrated a recurring state of uncertainty to which their peers could no doubt relate.

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