On the AFM

It’s now two weeks since I returned from the AFM (American Film Market), and I’m only just returning to reality.

It is, I concede, a curious hobby for a science fiction novelist – being a film producer, going to Film Festivals, and pitching movies.  But producing is something I started to do before the Debatable Space book deal. And it’s a phase in my career that emerged quite naturally being a screenwriter;  because when I worked in television I was also involved in script development and creative producing, as well as working as a head of development and head of drama of a small indie company.

And so these days, when I write a screenplay, rather than waiting around for producers to snap it up and steal all the fun, I tend to actively market the project myself. My company Afan Films has a small slate of projects, most written by me, but also including a wonderful and highly commecial family movie called The Big Bad by Emma Adams (already part-financed).

Until now, however, my film producing activities have been confined to meetings in London, and trips to the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals.  The trip to the AFM was an attempt to break into the largest and most powerful market for movies in the world – Hollywood! 

And oh boy, what a nerve-wracking, and exhilarating, and amazing experience it turned out to be.

The key to all such movie pitching events is planning; and in my case the work began in July of this year, when I recruited an Associate Producer aka Guy Who is Smarter Than Me At Such Things based in the US.   His name is Jay – hi Jay! – and he’s a New York/Maine writer/producer/director/ web producer/man-of-many-hyphens.  We connected over Debatable Space – he sent me an email to say how much he’d enjoyed reading it back in January – and we’ve been planning this US trip for about five months.

Step 2 was getting organised. I am not, as my wife will tell you, at the drop of a hat, or even without the hat-drop, the world’s most organised person.  I often turn up on holidays without shirts or underpants.  I rarely organise family trips, I never know where my passport is, and I have so little sense of direction, I often get lost in my own street.

But to go to the American Film Market – possibly the largest and busiest market for feature films in the world – ferocious organisation is required. So I had check lists, I had files, I had folders, both paper and electronic.  And as the rest of my life turned to rack and ruin due to my inability to open letters from the bank marked URGENT, in this one small area of my existence, total efficiency ruled.

The next stage was the Cold Calling.  This was somewhat tricky for me – because writers and producers who have an LA agent would expect to get all their meetings arranged for them.  However, although I have two superb and unsurpassable British agents – one for books (hi John!) and one for drama (hi Meg!) I don’t yet have an agent in the States. So, I realised, there was no dignified way of doing this thing.  I had to just pick up the phone and call.

And there  is, I learned, an art to Cold Calling Hollywood.  You have to be persistent. You have to be shameless. You have to be nice. And you have to schmooze.

To my relief, Jay ended up doing the lion’s share of the cold-calling; but when his day job became a monster, it was up to me to finish up organising the meetings. At 6pm every weekday, I picked up the phone…and transformed myself from being Taciturn Writer Person with No Social Skills to being Smooth Talking Movie Guy.

And overall, we did amazingly well. We got meetings with major Hollywood companies, we got scripts sent across, after signing Hollywood Release Forms, we fixed up an encounter with a leading Canadian entertainment lawyer, and we got a cluster of meetings at the AFM itself with British and American producers, sales agents and distributors. I also sold two mobile phone contracts and a free holiday in Bahamas, but I think I was a bit crazed that day, and I hope those guys never get back to me.

Next stage was Assembling the Crew. (You’ll appreciate, of course, that I was treating this like a heist movie; but fortunately, we never got to the Double Cross bit….)  Once I got to LA, my Crew was both virtual and real.  I had my agents back in Blighty, responding to my increasingly crazed emails, together with Carlo, a bona fide film producer who gives me calm and wise advice on all matters difficult, and there was my Board - hi guys! – the really quite distinguished business people who hold Afan Films together.

But first and last, in my ‘real’ world, there was Jay.  Jay, for reasons best known to himself, had rented a black station wagon that was undeniably the least cool vehicle on the LA freeway.  We christened it the Bluesmobile, and toyed with the idea of wearing black suits and dark glasses and pretending we were the Blues Brothers. Tragically, however, neither of us was tall enough or lean enough to pass for Elwood; so we both had to be Jake Blues.

Next came the Briefing.  I had come, as I have explained, and to my wife’s total astonishment, extremely well prepared. (Shirts! Underpants! Files!) But Jay was uber-prepared. He had spread sheets and colour charts, he had a laptop with a powerpoint presentation, he even had a talking GPS who we christened Doris to get us to those vital meetings. (Since Jay, too, turned out to have a pitiful sense of direction. Is this a writer thing?) 

I’d suggested that we should hold our briefing session in a chic LA bar where we could hob nob with famous movie directors and movie stars and possibly make eye contact with Halle or Nicole or Brad or Angelina.  Jay sadly misheard, or misunderstood, or probably wasn’t even listening to me in the first place; so we ended up in a Boston Irish Red Sox bar off Santa Monica Boulevard, where we found ourselves in a the midst of an amazingly raucous karaoke session. (The highlight was that fabulous girl who sang ‘Whole Lotta Love’.) 

I loved it there, of course – that’s what I call a bar. And by this point, I was beginning to realise a profound truth about myself; that even in the midst of Hollywood glamour, I am essentially still just a Welsh bloke who likes a pint.

The next day, we Cased the Joint.  The American Film Market isn’t actually in Hollywood, it’s in nearby Santa Monica, a stunningly beautiful beach resort which has a famous fun fair with illuminated ferris wheel.  And the Market is spread between two high-class hotels, Loews and Le Merigot.  When we entered Loews, we found ourselves engulfed in ultra-cool hubbub.  Unknown film directors were being interviewed, meetings were being held in corners, guys with badges saying FOX or WARNERS were being followed Closeau-style by bug-eyed wannabee producers. An American guy strolled across, befriended us instantly, and told us about his slate of horror movies, then introduced us to his co-producer who owned the rights to a classic soul song written by his dad. Gorgeous young women in halter tops handed out fliers for the movies they had helped to produce; angry men in suits stomped down the boulevard snarling into their Blackberries.

Film Festivals are places of anarchy and chaos where buyers (film distributors, who put movies on in cinemas) haggle with sellers (sales agents, who sell completed movies on behalf of producers) whilst surrounded by a whirling swarm of desperate aspirant film-makers anxious to squeeze money or deals out of unwitting big-shots.

Each floor of the hotel was flanked with booths where bored looking assistants sat in front of often graphic and outrageous movie posters, fending off the desperate wannabees in the hope of, from time to time, encountering an actual Buyer.  And all the luxury suites had been converted into offices where the richer sales agents plied their wares. 

Jay and I had one conversation with a glamorous distributor’s assistant who had set her office up in the bathroom of her company’s luxury suite; her laptop was on the basin surface, next to jars of moisturiser and Dead Sea skin balms. 

Some of the most urgent meetings took place next to the Loews Hotel pool; deals were haggled and re-haggled in a constant buzz of energy, as hotel guests swam lazily up and down in the actual water.

And finally, once we had Cased the Joint, the work began.  We started to Pitch.

Pitching is addictive.  It’s a strange way of talking to people – you bend over backwards to be calm, relaxed, chatty, witty, not desperate, not anxious,  not sweaty; you will yourself to be full of savoir faire and sang froid and other such French things, and all the while you are thinking FUND MY DAMNED MOVIE. 

We spent two days pitching in the market; then two days pitching to actual Hollywood companies in their offices.  We met a fabulous and powerful guy who raises money for movies from corporate sponsors – a dashingly handsome man dressed in a black Oscar Pomeroy suit and a matching Oscar Pomeroy tie, and a black beard flecked with grey, who admitted that Rupert Murdoch calls him the Prince of Darkness – and managed to persuade him to read our script.  (He did; he liked it; and if and when we get a US distributor, he may raise several million dollars to help us make the film – so, Prince of Darkness, blessings to you!) We met the President of a major LA company which has helped make some of the most spectacular movies of recent years, including The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass. We pitched to a charming story editor in the offices of Dean Devlin, producer of Independence Day – and, forgive me bragging here, but this really is the highlight of my producing career to date – we not only saw Dean Devlin enter the office and stand almost quite near us, but we actually saw the valet parking guy park Dean’s car.

(That little story makes me sound rather sad, doesn’t it? Damn!) 

A further highlight was pitching to the company who made Predator - they actually keep the ten foot high model of Predator himself in the lobby, to scare their guests.

At some point in this whirl, I encountered Jay’s friend Rob, who – coolest of things – makes promos for one of my favourite TV shows, The Shield.  We went to see Rob at his editing suite in the Fox headquarters, and were able to have a tour of the Fox lot – acres and acres of offices and studios, featuring a perfect replica of several New York streets.  Every stage/studio is painted with a mural – so there’s the Simpson’s Studio, and there’s the Star Wars Studio, and so on - and yes, executives do actually drive from building to building on golf buggies.

On the last night, Rob took Jay and myself on a guided tour of Los Angeles, and we saw everywhere. The street where O.J. Simpson didn’t, according to the jury, do the thing he was accused of doing. The Viper Rooms.  The hotel where James Belushi died. And, the absolute highlight of the trip, the moment when the car came screeching to a halt and Rob said, ‘You must see this!’ was -

- by the way I have to explain at this point that both Jay and Rob and uber-nerds. Really, they are very very nerdy indeed. I am virtually not nerdy at all next to these guys.  We spent an hour one night looking at photos of J.J. Abrams design for the new Starship Enterprise on Rob’s iPhone. (Way cool!) So, with that bit of vital backstory in place, I can now explain that we saw -

This:

 jay-rob-website.jpg

Isn’t that just amazing? Isn’t that the  most…

What? What do you mean what’s amazing? Can you not see?

Ignore those two guys in the front. (The tall one is Rob, the other is Jake, harumph, Jay.)  But behind them. That black thing. See it now.

It’s the original Batmobile.  And it lives in a car showroom somewhere in LA, I have no idea where (I told you I have no sense of direction.)  The walls of the showroom are covered in movie posters; they specialise in stocking cars that have been used in movies and TV shows; and they do actually have the original Batmobile.

Here, for a closer look of the Bat-vehicle, see this pic (and do ignore that guy on the left, he’s very weird, and he follows me around everywhere):

nice-palmer-batmobile-website.jpg

A few ruminations.

Why do I make my life so complicated? Most writers just write.  They stay at home all day.  They watch Ironside in the afternoons.  They emerge, blinking into the light, to meet their editor or agent from time to time; and such a life has a real appeal for me.

However, if you love movies, you have to hustle. It’s the only way to do it.  You have to meet people, go to Festivals, be around.  And the truth is, I not only love movies, I love the buzz that producing movies gives.  It’s the nearest I get to living dangerously – I’m responsible for making things happen. I have to persuade people to give me money, I have to build creative teams, and know how to get the best out of them. And I get to be a Player, in however small a way.

That’s one reason; the other reason, of course, is that I have movie projects I love, in genres that I love, and I want to see them made.  

And I don’t just want to see them made – I want to be part of the whole process, from fund-raising to casting to being on the set and actually knowing what’s happening. When I worked as a regular writer on The Bill - which in many ways was one of the best times in my career – I used to get hugely frustrated at being so far away from the fun  bits. I’d write a script, drive to the office, drive home,  drive back for a script meeting, drive home; and then the danged thing would pop up on the telly.  Admittedly, I would generally try and turn up at the set for an hour or so when my eps were filming - when I would always be in the way and not know what to do. But otherwise, the camaraderie of film-making, the adrenalin-rush of film-making, the sheer joy of film-making – I knew none of that. 

Writers often miss these best bits of it when it comes to film and television drama.  It’s about belonging.  And I’m determined not to miss out again.

In radio,  however, the process is very different – with every radio play I’ve ever written, I’ve been in rehearsals, I’ve been present for every minute of the recording process, I’ve got to know the actors – I have been part of it. And I absolutely love the moment when the script becomes real; when the actors make the words flesh. 

With novels, it’s different again; for there is no ‘part of it’.  There’s the joy of writing it; the pleasure of having lunch with your editor (hi Tim!), or your marketing executive (hi George! hi Sam!) or your agent (hi John!) But the actual process of making a book – typesetting, printing, driving the books in vans to the bookshops, selling the books – these things are all, let’s face it, awfully boring.  That is an “it” of which I do not want to be part.

But as a film producer – the kind of film producer who helps to raise the money, but doesn’t spend all his time on the set – I get to be part of a magical buzz.  And – damn it all – two weeks after coming back  from Hollywood – I miss it.

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