So, what is it?
The core of the conference is in the beautiful Loews Santa Monica hotel, just minutes from the world-famous Santa Monica beach. The hotel's vast atrium is lined with exhibitors and the conference rooms around the atrium are also full of exhibitors. The exhibitors however aren't looking to sell new toys, most of them are looking to entice filmmakers into shooting their films there. Their booths are lined with photographs showcasing their variety of film making locations, both natural and artificial, and their representatives are happy to discuss incentives, co-production opportunities, and resources.
The suites throughout the hotel are occupied by filmmakers, production companies, and distributors, including larger ones like Magnolia and A24 along with smaller startup distributors like UrbanFlix and Quibbe. In the AMC Santa Monica and the ArcLight there is an extensive lineup of film screenings open to all AFM attendees. These are great if you're looking to buy distribution rights, take a break from the conference, or network with other filmmakers. Fortunately, there's also a selection of films available on the AFM On Demand web site, but quite a few films that were screened in one of the theaters weren't available on demand.
There are a few events for networking as well; every attendee gets a pass for the Carousel Cocktails event, which takes place at the carousel on the Santa Monica Pier. Drinks, finger food, and desserts are complimentary. Free food and drink naturally draw quite a crowd, so there are pleny of folks to socialize with there.
There is also a full schedule of workshops, some of which are included with the basic Industry badge and take place in the Loews, and some held off-site that are included with the Industry+ badge, or available a la carte one workshop at a time.
Should you attend?
That's a tough question now. Just a few years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “Yes!” but with the proliferation of streaming providers, the entire film industry is going through a big change. While Hollywood continues to be a a major hub for film production, it's getting a lot easier to to get in touch with the same people online. Quite a few producers who attended last year chose not to attend this year because of this; they felt that they didn't need to be there in person to get what they needed.
While a personal meeting still carries weight, it's no the only option any longer. One attendee that I met who was staying at a neighboring AirBnB said that he came to Santa Monica to meet some producers, but didn't register; he took advantage of the fact that the people that he needed to meet were going to be in Santa Monica and arranged meetings with them near the Loews rather than in it.
Another option is to search the list of attendees. Looking for a producer? Search the attendees list and contact the ones that might be a match for your project online. A phone or video call can accomplish the same thing that a visit to AFM could. While less personal than a real meeting, it's also true that there are quite a few people at AFM, so it's easier to get lost in the crowd and forgotten after the conference – especially if you don't follow up.
Film Markets are a great place to make connections. One producer/director that I have been working with for some time found a distributor for his film there, and also made friends with a VFX producer for a company that does VFX for series such as Supergirl. Through her he's gotten in touch with some investors who are interested in some of his future projects.
If you have a completed film, then it's quite possible to return from AFM with a deal. If you're looking for a producer, you'll most likely need to take time to build a relationship with several producers and production companies in order to get your film funded.
Also look at the presentation schedule; there might well be some organizations presenting that are well worth researching and contacting, such as the North Star Film Alliance and Roskino.
Many countries are aggressively seeking to encourage filmmakers to bring their films to them for production, with a combination of services, resources, co-production opportunities, and naturally incentives. If you're planning to make a film, it's worth a look; for films under $250,000 the rebate might not be enough to offset the travel expenses, but as the budget gets into the millions, the tax rebates alone could amount to a huge savings, on top of savings from exchange rates, lower cost of living, and the like.
AFM is a great conference to attend if you're looking to get a film into production and need funding, locations, or production assistance, but attending in person doesn't carry the same weight any more. This year's show will be held on the 4th-11th November.