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February 28, 2006

Meat and greet: At American Film Market, you want to hear buy, buy, not bye-bye

By TOM WHITUSSANTA MONICA, Calif.—I’ve been in the film business full time since 1998 and directed four films between 1998 and 2002. But it had been nearly three years since I went to the American Film Market with a film to market, so it was especially exciting late last fall to attend the event with “The Devoured,” a low-budget horror film my company co-produced with Louisville-based KDM.Granted, the film was shot in October and was nowhere near completed, but we had artwork and a promotional trailer, both more than good enough to spark interest from sales agents at this genre-dominated market.Horror films are a great low-budget product, because you can cast unknown non-union actors and generally use one or two scary locales. And, because fear is a primal human emotion, horror films sell worldwide — from Wild and Woolly Video here to late-night television in Prague and pay-per-view in Thailand.I attended AFM with “The Devoured” producer Sheila Frampton and KDM business manager Brad Allen. It was their first time at AFM. Since I remembered my first time walking through the lobby at the Loews Santa Monica in early 1998, I felt compelled to walk them through the process. As it turned out, they were more than up to the challenge of taking it all in and marketing “The Devoured” to the sales agents.For the uninitiated, the American Film Market is in its 26th year, and is held at a luxury hotel in which the rooms are emptied of beds and tables and turned into offices for sales agents and distributors from around the world.One thing to remember at AFM: The drinks at the lobby bar are too expensive. So I made sure they joined me across the street at Chez Jay’s, a dive hangout bar and restaurant with great food, affordable drinks and saloon doors. Across the street from the Santa Monica Pier, Chez Jay’s has been open since 1958 and has hosted some pretty hip cats — Frank Sinatra, Eva Gardner and Warren Beatty, to name a few.I was there last year with Jim Petersmith, an old friend and actor in many of my films, when Adam Goldberg showed up. Jim had acted in “The Hebrew Hammer” and knew Adam, so we talked for a little while. Nice guy.I can’t say as I’ve had any other sightings at Chez Jay, but I go there for the food anyway.Speaking of Petersmith, he was in “The Devoured,” along with Nathan Todaro, both of whom have homes in Los Angeles and joined me in hanging out at the market — Jim because he likes the beach, and Nathan just to soak in the scene and learn some things about the film business.That said, most actors at the market are looking for work. Combine that with directors and producers looking to sell the films they’ve made to sales agents who are looking to sell the films they’ve already got and, well, it can get a little convoluted.The top of the food chain, therefore, is the buyer. Every sales agent wants the buyer to stop by his or her booth, and will only meet with filmmakers as time allows. Every filmmaker wants to meet with a sales agent, and will talk to actors about future projects — only when time allows. It’s fun.So I’m walking around the lobby of the Santa Monica Loews, a large area that smells faintly of overpriced cologne and desperation (a heady combination), when a talent manager stops me in front of the Mercedes product placement booth.I’d known her when she represented Diane Ladd and Sean Young, both of whom I had cast in earlier films. Those days behind her, she was repping Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and wanted to know if I had anything for him.That led to a sitdown with Fred, a nice guy who produces as well as acts. He’s perfect for the AFM crowd, a “name” who has worked with Tarantino and Rodriguez but who is still approachable.After a quick chat with Fred in the lobby, I was back to speaking with some of the sales agents about “The Devoured.” Meanwhile, Sheila and Brad made some great new contacts before the day ended at 6 p.m.Somewhere along the line we all scored passes to a party that night, hosted by a sales agent who was marketing a horror film that seemed to be shot entirely in the daytime. Maybe not, but it sure seemed that way. Good party, free drinks and it was on the Promenade in Santa Monica. Which meant it was close to the King’s Head Pub.Where, as the veteran AFMer, I was compelled to take the gang. It is widely known that when visitors from the United Kingdom fly into LAX, they promptly get to the King’s Head Pub. Horsehair dart boards, pints of Guinness and football (soccer) from some stadium in the UK playing on the tele. And, as Sheila found out, no shortage of vomit on the floor.My sightings at the King’s Head include Robert Forster and Bryan Brown, both of whom are nice folks and who didn’t mind sharing a drink and a little conversation. I met neither of them on this particular night, but I did enjoy a Stella Artois.Just so the reader doesn’t think I spent the entire AFM on some drunken tour of Los Angeles, I must point out that every day was spent in the search of a sales agent who can make the most of the “The Devoured” when it is completed in early 2006. Speaking for myself, I do some of my best work when slightly hungover.Brad and Sheila, meanwhile, were the picture of professionalism, taking it easy at night and working hard during the day.Overall, this AFM was a great success for those of us from Louisville who made the trip. I got to see how my other films were doing, and I saw some films that were made locally, from Vin Morreale Jr.’s “Breaking and Entering” to “Forbidden County,” made by locally based Cine-Vera Motion Pictures.I was also able to speak with some of the folks who made “Death Tunnel,” a locally produced horror film that is doing very well in the marketplace. It’s one of those success stories that make me believe we’re on the right track with “The Devoured.”Lastly, I can’t say a word about AFM without mentioning a conversation with local-guy-made-good David Heavener, singer-actor-director-producer (you name it), graduate of the old Durrett High School and a renaissance man of sorts. Heavener has been at the AFM game for years, and he, too, hopes to make a film in Louisville one day.And that was the theme of the market, I suppose, at least for me. All of the filmmakers wanted to make a film in (insert hometown), the actors wanted to act in said films, and the sales agents wanted to sell them.That left the buyers, again at the top. For them, it was buy, buy. Or bye-bye. Tom Whitus is a Louisville filmmaker and freelance writer. Contact him at leo@leoweekly.com