Independent Film Distributors Gear Up for AFM as Film Market Opens Today

Independent film distributors, whose target audience primarily watches movies at home, are gearing up for the annual American Film Market (AFM), which starts its six-day run today (Oct. 31) at Le Méridien Delfina Santa Monica (530 Pico Blvd.).

Andreas Olavarria, president and CEO of Level 33 Entertainment, said he’s “looking to meet with sales agents and discover some good feature films for our 2024 slate of theatrical and on-demand releases. We are open to content in all genres, but typically look for movies with a strong hook and known cast/elements. We also are selling several wonderful feature films from festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca at the market this year.

Olavarria said he’s attended AFM for more than a decade “and bought many films over the years. We acquired the movie Simmer from Sublimity Entertainment, and it went on to air on HBO and Max after a successful VOD and DVD release. Deadly Cuts is a film we acquired from Myriad Picture at AFM, and it is currently on Showtime and Paramount+. We were approached last year by the director of the award-winning film Waikiki, which will be released in select theaters in November and on demand beginning in December.”

Ed Seaman

Ed Seaman, CEO of MVD Entertainment Group, a family-run business that has been releasing music and film to home viewers since 1986, also will be at AFM 2023.

“It is a great opportunity to spend face-to-face time with clients and customers, to have some time to be cerebral and creative with our trade partners,” Seaman said. “We are not so much looking to buy films here but strengthen our relationships, and build new ones. So often we think we know what our trade partners do until we have some unstructured time, and we find there are new ways we can help each other.”

Another indie who will be at AFM this year is Richard Wolff, CEO of Breaking Glass Pictures, which licenses about 30 titles a year and produces 10 films annually for worldwide distribution. “Yes, we are attending from the beginning to the last day,” Wolff said. “We’re looking for films of all genres – we’re hoping to secure about a dozen pictures.”

Wolff, too, is a longtime regular at AFM, “beginning when the market was in February. We always made great deals, as this is the last market of the year. I’m curious to see how the new venue fares – and the condition of the elevators!”

Bill Sondheim will also be at AFM this year. A veteran home entertainment executive who once was president of PolyGram Video when the company was approaching the ranks of the majors, he now runs Greenfield Media LLC, a content consulting company that helps content creators find distribution and financing for their films before they are made, helps producers develop and package films, and represents films already made for licensing deals.

“I am going to AFM and looking forward to a busy few days,” Sondheim said. “I have several films at various stages of development that I will be pitching to distributors. I also represent some distribution companies, and I will meet with program suppliers that might benefit from added distribution capabilities. This show allows me to meet with dozens of content companies in a pleasant and convenient meeting area.”

Bill Sondheim

Sondheim said he’s gone to AFM “for many years and always found it productive. Last year I sold two films as a producer that started with dialogs at AFM. I also got a new representation deal due to meetings at last year’s AFM. Going to the show is a very productive time.

Mitch Mallon, the founder and CEO of Stadium Media, also is attending the show. “We attend to continually measure where the business is and possibly progressing to, as well as to meet and establish initial relationships with some of the newer suppliers from the United States and around the globe.”

Stadium Media is a global distribution company established in 2015 with a catalog of over 400 titles. Mallon and his team work directly with most digital and OTT platforms throughout North America “and the ever-expanding global digital landscape,” Mallon said.

“I have been attending AFM since our launch and have met, and developed relationships with, several suppliers that we still work with to this day in releasing digitally. AFM is where I began to formalize what Stadium Media might become.”

Absent from AFM this year is Michael Rosenberg of Film Movement. “We went last year, but decided to skip it this year,” he said. “We’re in regular contact with everyone and saw a bunch of sales agents in Venice, at TIFF, and in Karlovy Vary. Also, we have a lot of films in the pipeline already at this time.”

Another no-show is Dan Gurlitz, the founder of Soundview Media Partners, which specializes in independent films as a sales agent, represents films for non-theatrical exhibition licensing, and publishes The Sound View: Independent Film Digest, a monthly publication focused on the release of unique films, both classic and contemporary.

AFM, he said, “is not a show that caters to the kind of films Soundview Media Partners traditionally specializes in. More importantly, business has been extraordinarily strong. Leads and new clients come in mostly via word of mouth, so there’s little need to attend a show like this at this time.”

AFM 2023 has lined up 245 exhibitors, according to organizers. Film screenings will be held at theaters throughout Los Angeles, while the AFM’s conference series will take place at The Hilton Santa Monica Hotel (1707 4th St).   

The exhibitor list features independent film and TV production, sales and distribution companies as well as national pavilions from China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Thailand and the United Kingdom. International trade organizations, film commissions and production service companies also have a significant presence as part of this year’s enhanced LocationEXPO exhibition, according to organizers. 

Registrants include buyers from more than 65 countries, according to organizers.  

Russell Wolff Upped to GM of Streaming Platform ESPN+

Longtime ESPN executive Russell Wolff has been named EVP and GM of ESPN+, the branded over-the-top video streaming service, it was announced Oct. 31 by Michael Paull, president, Disney Streaming Services, to whom Wolff will report.

In his new role Wolff will be responsible for managing ESPN+, which recently topped 1 million subscribers, in addition to collaborating on the overall management and commercialization of ESPN-branded digital products.

“His strong business acumen and exceptional leadership qualities make him the perfect leader to advance the growth of ESPN+ as we continue to evolve the service,” said Paull, a former senior executive at Amazon Prime Video.

Most recently, Wolff served as EVP and managing director, ESPN International, where he was responsible for all of ESPN’s international businesses, which grew to reach multiple countries and territories across all seven continents.

As part of his previous role, Wolff guided ESPN’s digital expansion around the world, including the launch of mobile, online and streaming platforms, helping it establish a position as the number one digital sports brand globally. He led ESPN’s digital media teams to grow their global digital media portfolio, which included more than a dozen localized editions of ESPN.com and the ESPN app, ESPNFC (global football vertical), ESPNCricinfo (global cricket vertical), ESPN’s streaming platforms (including WatchESPN) and multiple other digital initiatives.

He also was a key driver of ESPN’s continued growth and leadership in Latin America. Under his direction, ESPN’s offerings grew into a multimedia business that includes 13 television networks, the most diverse portfolio of programming and sports events, and the operation of production facilities and offices in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

Wolff first joined ESPN International in 1997 as vice president, managing the company’s business interests in the Pacific Rim.  In 1998, he joined ESPN Star Sports, as VP of programming and event management and was later promoted to SVP.  Wolff returned to ESPN in 2000 as SVP, overseeing programming, marketing, and the company’s businesses in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

After graduating from Dartmouth College, Wolff began his career at the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago.  Shortly afterwards, he returned to Dartmouth and received his M.B.A. from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration.  He will continue to lead ESPN’s involvement with the Special Olympics.