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April Shih of Diversity Hire Ltd. and Andria Wilson Mirza of ReFrame at the American Film Market, Nov. 3.Dan Steinberg/Handout

This year’s edition of the American Film Market, six days of one-stop shopping and networking for the global independent movie industry, opened last week to the deafening roar of labour unrest.

I don’t just mean the months-long SAG-AFTRA strike that has put so much of the multibillion-dollar business in aspic, but also the rows of picket lines formed by hotel workers from Unite Here Local 11, who gathered outside the AFM’s HQ at the Meridien Delfina Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., to call for more equitable wages and decry the alleged hiring of homeless migrants as replacement staff.

The loud, vuvuzela-amplified hotel-workers dispute – combined with the AFM’s shift in headquarters this year from the ocean-front Loews Hotel to the maze-like Meridien, whose only view was of the traffic-choked I-10 freeway – provided such a perfectly metaphorical environment of industrial-sized fear and loathing that even the most crass of Hollywood executives might deem it all too on-the-nose. If you were searching for evidence that the film industry was in a state of crisis, then the 2023 AFM provided an open-and-shut case.

Long regarded as an essential if slightly shabbier date on the international film-biz calendar– not as prestigious as the Cannes market nor as competitive as Berlin’s, but more energetic in its deal-making than Toronto’s unofficial market – the AFM provides space for about 7,000 industry professionals (from development executives and sales agents to filmmakers and financiers) to get production and distribution deals done. While the big Hollywood studios and streamers stay away – and the more blue-chip players such as Black Bear and StudioCanal prefer to hold meetings in private residences near the beach – the AFM has positioned itself over the past several decades as the heart of the independent film business.

But when the hottest productions at the event are either baffling genre retreads (Lionsgate was there selling its Highlander reboot starring Henry Cavill) or questionably expensive vanity projects (Kevin Costner’s two-part Horizon: An American Saga was being pitched to international buyers), then the smell on the floor cannot help but carry the whiff of a sector in pure survival mode.

Blame the SAG-AFTRA strike, certainly, which has already wiped out the first half of the 2024 theatrical-release calendar, and whose trickle-down effects will be felt for years. But that labour action – which appeared inches away from being resolved during the AFM, only for attendees to leave Santa Monica as helpless as when they arrived – feels like a symptom of industry anxiety rather than the cause.

Between the audience behaviour-altering effects of the pandemic and the streaming wars wiping out the ancillary home-entertainment revenue windows that producers once relied upon – not to mention such overall global economic stressors as inflation – and the prevailing AFM mood was helpless shoulder-shrugging. The system of making, buying and selling movies is broken, and nobody knows how to fix it.

“What we’re going through now is a little bit of a re-education and recalibration of what people are willing to spend money on,” Scott Shooman, head of film for AMC Networks, which includes streamers IFC, Shudder and Sundance Now, said during a panel.

Juliet Berman, of the newly formed production company Spiral Stairs Entertainment, was more blunt during her on-stage discussion: “We’re at an inflection point, a breaking point. We want to consume content, we just have to figure out how to make it, how to get it out and how to make it profitable.”

That is easier for some than others, of course. The NEONs and A24s of the indie-film world will be okay for the time being thanks to their track records, back catalogues and private-equity investments. The legacy studios such as Disney and Sony are too big to fail (for now), while Amazon Studios and Apple Original Films have the backing of tech giants whose film-business costs are equivalent to change found between iCushions.

But the rest of the industry relies upon the thousands of indie players annually swarming AFM, from the makers of prestige awards-bait dramas to the genre peddlers whose grade-Z works keep the video-on-demand market flush. And if even the scrappiest of players cannot figure out a new path forward for the film industry – a place where, as Arclight Films chief financial officer Brian Beckmann aptly put it, “art and commerce don’t so much meet as collide” – then how can anyone?

“I’m optimistic about the future but also really concerned – the challenges are bigger than ever, and it feels more dire than it’s ever been,” said Paul Scanlan, chief executive of production company Legion M, which specializes in genre pics such as the Nicolas Cage thriller Mandy. “But for me, there is opportunity here. The industry is not going to go away, it’s just going to change.”

Either courageously or naively, solutions were offered at every juncture during AFM, though they are far from one-size-fits-all.

Taylor Swift was name-checked more than anyone else, with her experiment in directly distributing her Eras concert film to theatres with the help of U.S. multiplex giant AMC cited as a revolution in reviving the theatrical marketplace, while also proving that not every film needs the traditional studio and distribution systems that Team Swift bypassed. Except, well, there’s only one Taylor Swift – even Beyoncé’s forthcoming concert film, replicating the Eras model, is set to perform significantly lower at the box office.

“That’s truly a landmark accomplishment for [AMC CEO] Adam Aron and Taylor Swift, but it’s not a game-changer,” said Kent Sanderson, president of acquisitions and ancillary distribution for Bleecker Street.

Perhaps the answer is instead appealing directly to the influencer crowd. As Sofia Dilley, senior vice-president of Concord Originals, told the crowd, “Distributors know that the audience is on TikTok, and now we’re trying to get that audience back.” How? Scanlan’s Legion M has an innovative approach: By actually casting social-media stars in the company’s coming horror flick, The Man in the White Van. But flooding the market with influencers-turned-actors is also the nichest of niche strategies.

More than once, it felt like half the crowd at AFM was desperately seeking the next John Wick, a franchise that was developed from the primordial goo of countless cheap action flicks yet executed with such a high degree of sophistication that it felt fresh. Then again, as Dilley pointed out, “There are a million John Wicks out there that didn’t get made.”

The one genuine glimmer of hope seemed to be a brave new future that’s being promised by rewinding to what worked in the past: advertising. The growing areas of advertising-based video-on-demand (AVOD) such as Tubi, and free ad-supported television (FAST) such as Pluto TV, boast low barriers of entry and nearly unlimited viewing options. Can they rebalance the economics of a landscape that just a few years ago promised an end to the most annoying aspect of home-entertainment? It was no surprise to many at AFM that, on the second day of the event, Netflix announced that its ad-supported tier had reached 15 million active global users a month, only a year after it launched the cheaper plan to boost subscriber growth.

The one thing that most AFM attendees could agree upon was that the industry will not just up and vanish.

“Cultural experiences are valuable, and people consume content now more than they ever have in history,” said AMC’s Shooman.

And someone has to make it for them – just as someone has to figure out a way to distribute it to them, and ensure they come back to whatever platform (theatrical, streaming, or the next big thing) to keep the machine going. If not, next year’s AFM might see a whole lot of people coming for the beach and not much else.

AFM By the Numbers

5: Number of John Wick rip-offs spotted at AFM, including two starring Aaron Eckhart

1: Number of Barbie/Oppenheimer rip-offs, specifically B-movie impresario Charles Band’s Barbenheimer, which follows “Dr. Bambi J. Barbenheimer, a brilliant scientist doll living in Dolltopia”

10: Number of Russian companies attending AFM (buyers and sellers that were neither state-affiliated nor subject to U.S. sanctions were welcome)

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