Lessons Learned from AFM 2023

Written by: Chris Cookson & Mackenzie Paynter
Published: Nov 14, 2023

InkTip attended the 2023 AFM, and we want to share with you the top take-aways we had from our experience. Although AFM is a market for filmmakers, many of the tips sales reps dispensed to eager producers and directors apply to screenwriters as well. We’ve distilled it down to the core 5 for you.

1. Quality of Scripts Matters

As a screenwriter, this will seem like a no-brainer to you. However, there was a time a few years ago that international markets would buy anything and everything that was filmed as long as it had an A-list actor. Distributors and sales reps had no issue selling a less than average film. It didn’t matter how campy, riddled with plot holes, or unoriginal a film was. That time has ended.

Over and over again, panels at AFM said that the writing matters more now than ever. Mark Padilla with Jackrabbit Media stated that audiences are more sophisticated and savvy compared to those ten years ago. They can quickly pull up movie reviews on their phones. They have streamers, theatrical releases, and YouTube content all competing for their attention. To grab a viewer you need quality, and that starts with a great story. Audiences are also tired of seeing the same thing. The panelists didn’t mean superhero movies. They meant all derivative films. Schlocky horrors aren’t what audiences want, which is why films like A Quiet Place and Talk to Me have had huge success. 

Still from A24's Talk to Me

Sales reps also mentioned that the quality of scripts will impact casting. As a writer, this may not seem like something you need to think about, but if you want an A-list actor in your film, you have to consider it. Paul Scanlan with Legion M stated that actors care about what they are in. They want to make films they are passionate about, stories they haven’t had a chance to perform in before, or work with directors who inspire them. Indie filmmakers can’t afford A-list talent, so they need a reason to bring them onboard. This starts with a compelling script that an A-lister can’t say “No” to.

2. Value on Every Page

Juliet Berman with Spiral Stairs said that indie filmmakers need to consider every dollar that they spend on production and ask themselves if it will add value to the film. The same can be said for writing. Every piece of dialogue, every scene, does it propel the plot forward or provide insight into the character? 

Be willing to kill your darlings.

Say for instance you have voice-over, narration, or even dialogue happening in a noisy outdoor environment. Those would require ADR (automated dialogue replacement), which means dialogue is recorded in a studio after filming. That ups a budget because now you have to schedule hours in a recording studio, as well as paying the actors for additional time. It's always best to be as economical with your storytelling as possible. You only have around 90-110 pages to tell your story. Make each page count.

3. Understand the Market

It’s essential for filmmakers to understand the market so that they can sell their film. It’s equally as important for writers. Know the market. Read the trades. According to the sales reps at AFM, high concept, original stories are selling. For producers and directors, the most important audience is the distributor. Filmmakers have to make films that distributors want to buy and can get out into the world. The same goes for writers. If you want to sell a script, you have to write a script that filmmakers want to make, which means your script has to transform into a film that they can sell. 

Understanding the market also means understanding the new age of streaming. Netflix and Amazon Prime don’t support the indie film market. They care about subscriptions. Big releases bring in the subscribers, not indie flicks. Therefore, when you write for the indie market consider where it may sell. AVOD (advertising-based video on-demand) is growing and may be the future of distribution as the structure of subscription streaming platforms could potentially implode.

Make sure your story stands out.

Also, keep in mind with films being advertised on cell phones, you have to captivate an audience on a screen the size of your hand. 

4. Professionalism

In a panel with sales reps, the word “professionalism” was brought up a few times. An audience member asked, “What do you mean by that?” They said it’s quite simply being respectful. Answer emails on time. Know the industry. Put your contact information up on IMDb. Be polite. Understand that if you are a first time director you should not fight for your film cut to be 3 hours long. It won’t sell.

The same advice is applicable to writers. Study the craft of screenwriting. Format your scripts correctly. Be polite in emails, even when you received a rejection and want to go off on a producer. Save that for your writers group. Know why scripts have to be 90-110 pages. It has to do with the runtime of the film. Distributors cannot sell a 240 minute film. One interesting reason comes down to international sales and dubbing. When dubbing costs for a film comes into play, the longer the runtime significantly increases the cost, which means less revenue. Therefore, stick to 90-110 pages. Cut that extra dialogue that isn’t moving your plot forward. Be flexible and willing to take re-write notes from your producers (especially as an unproduced writer), as they know which stories will sell and which will not.

5. Be Passionate and Delusional

Juliet Berman with Spiral Stairs said that one of the main things she considers when deciding whether to come on board a project is how passionate the creatives behind it are. She said that they need to be able to answer the question “Why do you want to make this movie?” with confidence and passion, and not just because other similar projects have done well. You need to be the biggest, most convincing advocate for your project in order for it to succeed.

Nadine de Barros from Fortitude International said, “If you’re not delusional, you won’t make it. You will hear ‘No’ a lot and have to keep believing in your movie regardless.” There is a fine line between perseverance and a fool’s hope, but if you stop writing or give up marketing your script - you will never succeed. 

If you haven’t experienced AFM, we recommend scheduling it into your calendar for a future year. Even if you don’t have a film to sell, you can network with hundreds of producers and directors. Try to grab a badge that allows you access to their panels. The wealth of knowledge is indispensable for creators at all levels in the industry.