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Taking the Long View, He Changed the Way Independents Do Business

March 03, 1998|MARK SAYLOR

"Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs in life."

--From the poem "Youth"

by Samuel Ullman


At the age of 83, after 60 years in the movie business, Jonas Rosenfield is producing a film for the first time. It's a modest film, a documentary, and the subject is his grandfather Samuel Ullman, an Alabama merchant who became a poet late in his life.

It's about as far as can be imagined from the kind of project that would become an international blockbuster--the film that seems to define the movie business today.

But that's in keeping with how Rosenfield has spent the last 15 years of his career, as a leading organizer and spokesman for the American independent film business.

Rosenfield retires this month from his position as president of the American Film Market Assn., the trade organization of independent filmmakers and sponsor of the annual American Film Market taking place this week in Santa Monica.

The association represents a business of both art-house and exploitation films that are typically funded outside the major studio system through pre-sales to local distributors around the world.

It is a business that is flourishing, in some measure due to the efforts of Rosenfield and his organization to professionalize the way films are bought and sold. AFMA members reported sales of $1.8 billion last year.


Rosenfield is the poor man's Jack Valenti. Valenti heads up the Motion Picture Assn. of America and has become known around the world as the voice of the U.S. film industry. But as Rosenfield frequently points out, Valenti represents the entertainment conglomerates, the huge studios with the greatest economic clout, not the entire film business.

Rosenfield spent most of his career working as a senior marketing executive for such studios as Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox. His first movie-industry job, in 1936, was in the advertising department at Warner Bros.

"I have seen the major studios transformed from being solely in the movie business to being multimedia, multinational conglomerates," Rosenfield says. "Now the independents are the only section of the business that's only in movies."

After retiring from his studio career, Rosenfield became AFMA's executive director in 1983 and president in 1985.

He joined the trade association at a time when the independents were a particularly unruly bunch, flush with cash from a rising video business so lucrative that it was possible to justify almost any modestly budgeted film. It was also a world of scam artists and people of mixed financial reputation.


Rosenfield saw AFMA's major task as standardizing the way business was done so that banks could provide financing based on clear legal understanding. The association created model contracts for movie sales, compiled books of information so buyers and sellers would have ready access to market information in 50 or so countries, created a system to evaluate the credit ratings of buyers, created a title-verification service to help buyers determine if a film is pirated, hired a full-time representative in Europe and established an arbitration system to settle disputes between producers and distributors.

Those changes helped make the American Film Market the largest film market in the world in dollar volume of sales.

The Santa Monica market started in the early 1980s as a reaction to the rising cost of doing business at the Cannes Film Festival, a chaotic marketplace with few protections for buyer or seller.

AFMA created a protective umbrella for those who want to be long-term players in the movie business. "Our logo is a badge of respectability in a bazaar," Rosenfield says, explaining why companies want to go through the process of getting AFMA membership and support.

Much of the fare produced in the independent film world has been scorned as exploitative B-movie product. And much of it is. But Rosenfield says the mix has shifted.

He prefers to think of the independents as the producers of such films as "The English Patient" and "Sling Blade."

"The quality of film is going up," he says. "It used to be mostly exploitative films. Buyers today don't want this kind of product as much."

Rosenfield himself is a devotee of foreign films. He was an executive with Italian Films Export after World War II and today serves on the Motion Picture Academy's nominating committee for foreign-language films.

"I enjoy that very much," Rosenfield says, noting that as AFMA president he's more likely to be arguing the fine points of cable retransmission rights in Europe than relishing the finer artistic points of filmmaking.

There is often a wry humor in his conversation. Rosenfield has a gentle, even voice, with the occasional touch of a Texas accent from his youth.

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