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Tuesday, 12 June 2012 12:16

A Conversation with AFCI Executive Director Martin Cuff

Written by  James Thompson
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A Conversation with AFCI Executive Director Martin Cuff

Now more than ever, film commissioners are playing a vital role in the production process. Martin Cuff, the executive director of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), has worked extensively in economic development and provided strategic support to governments on many continents at national, state, provincial and city levels. He now has the arduous role of managing the organization that sets the standards on how film commissioners work and service the entertainment industry. Comprised of more than 300 film commissions from around the world, the AFCI is a non-profit educational association whose members serve as city, county, state, regional, provincial or national film commissioners for their respective governmental jurisdictions. 

In preparation for this month’s AFCI Location Show in Los Angeles, Calif., P3 Update Editor James Thompson spoke with Cuff about the AFCI, film commissioners, and the future of the entertainment industry.

P3: What role do film commissioners currently play in the production process?

CUFF: The traditional role of a film commission is to coordinate and develop film industry capacity at a local level, and then to sell that unique value proposition to the producers of film, television, TV commercials and new media productions worldwide. The primary rationale for doing so is that by attracting film and video production to an area, it is possible to accrue significant economic benefits - from the hire of local crews and talent, for instance, or the rental of local equipment, use hotel rooms, rental cars, catering services, or any number of goods and services supplied on location.

P3: Has the job of the film commissioner changed? What's different about the way they work?

CUFF: To begin with, the role of the film commissioner was largely about selling great locations. That’s now just a fraction of the work that most film commissioners undertake. In response to the growth of on-location filming, film commissions now provide a gamut of free services, from scouting locations within their area to trouble-shooting with local officials and helping cut through paperwork and bureaucratic red tape. Others offer a variety of essential free services, like research for screenwriters or liaison work with local government agencies.

However, the biggest change to the skill set demanded of film commissioners is related to finance and particularly to incentives. With the decline of certain film-finance models, the ability of states, regions and countries to contribute to the film-production process through the provision of financial incentives has been game changing, and few inquiries these days begin without the words “What are your incentives?” 

Interestingly, as incentive offerings began to affect competition, more progressive film commissions began developing an even broader scope for their activities, not merely trying to attract international production but by being the hub and thrust of all film-related activity within a jurisdiction. The role of this new generation of commissions often includes encouraging the development and distribution of local productions; increasing audiences for film product, particularly via film festivals; encouraging the study of film and the acquisition of film-related skills; and supporting a climate of local entrepreneurship.

P3: What’s the current status of the AFCI? Has it changed? And what are you doing to increase the AFCI’s role in the production process?

CUFF: Like many businesses and organizations, the Association of Film Commissioners International has not been entirely unaffected by the international financial crisis. Although our membership numbers have remained constant, over 85 percent of our membership is drawn from Europe and North America, regions worst hit by the downturn. So there has been some reduction in member uptake of our core activities, as well as an increase in the cost of providing those services. Fortunately, we’ve been tracking the trends for some time, and this has placed us in a position to respond proactively in a way we believe will shepherd the AFCI’s resources most wisely and ensure our sustainability in the long term.
In particular, the AFCI began a complete overhaul of the organization’s professional-development offering starting immediately after Location Show in June. In this process we will be looking at ways to make many of our educational programs and master classes more affordable, more accessible and more regularly available. We’ll be determining new ways to set qualifications and new ways to facilitate members to achieve their educational goals. We are looking at on-demand, online models, not just of existing courses but of a range of new and exciting educational offerings, ranging from full-length courses to five-minute refresher courses, Webinars and even key speaker presentations that people will be able to download and take at their convenience. And we’ll be looking to provide these in international languages too, so that we don’t restrict participation and uptake. At the same time, we’ll be looking at ways for us to be able expand our face-to-face offerings, possibly aligned to major film-sector events, so that the AFCI network, peer support and human contact that’s so valuable is not lost along the way. Ultimately, all of this is designed to make our members better prepared, more agile, more relevant and more valuable to the production industry generally.

P3: How is technology helping producers and directors select regions to tell their story?

CUFF: Technology is affecting everything that we do, some of it positively, some of it negatively. Film commissions are now able to achieve a greater marketing reach using a combination of traditional Websites, mobile apps and essential social-media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. These also make it much simpler to maintain relationships into the long term. I’m a big fan of some of the Web-based location management and permitting services too, and I think there’s an exciting future for incentives apps. 

However, there is a negative, and that’s when technology is the only means of contact between the film commission and client, when the producer uses the Website, and only the Website, for his or her research. I think it’s always important to “go beyond the Website” and speak directly with film commissioners about what the information you’ve gleaned from their Website means for you and your specific project. Their job, for which they’ve already been paid by someone other than you, is to help you get your project made, and their insights into the options and opportunities available to you may surprise and delight you.

P3: What do you believe the future holds for finding and securing international locations?

CUFF: One of the main changes to the world of film commissions is the rapid growth of globalization of the film industry. By globalization I mean not just the spread of products, people or practices from one or a few countries, but also the interconnectedness between a multitude of countries, leading to their integration into one or several global economic, cultural and, to some extent, also political systems or networks. I think this “new reality” will continue to affect the film industry and film commissions too.

Globalization of the film industry manifests itself in a number of interconnected ways, including that filmmaking is rapidly becoming a much more globally ubiquitous activity. Every country, everywhere, is producing films and TV programs, obviously at differing degrees of output. This means that in the future it will be as important for film commissions to target Chinese or Brazilian or Russian or Indonesian producers as it will to just have a Hollywood focus. There’s also the increasing globalization of production, where film projects cross national borders. Formal co-productions, for instance, are experiencing a recent boom. And, of course, there’s globalization of consumption, meaning that the most successful films will also be turning over box-office revenue from Nigeria to Kazakhstan. Even smaller-budget, niche productions benefit from globalization, because it’s now easier to corral niche audiences in multiple countries.

And then there’s global organization. The most obvious reflection of this are global media corporations. But because product innovation in the film industry is undertaken in temporary projects, the industry also relies on informal social relations of people who know each other through previous projects, and who often re-use previously built trust for future collaborations. With a greater number of film productions now working globally, and with a higher mobility of talent between countries and film clusters, such social relations now also increasingly span globally.

The AFCI, of course, is a global organization of 325 film commissions in more than 40 different countries, with a broad base of responsibilities as the hubs of production in each of their respective areas. Our members take care of production, distribution, relationships and networks on a global level and, of course, our services are free. Bearing all of the above in mind, I believe that the AFCI is a perfect platform for the film sector to deal with and respond to the burgeoning globalization of the industry.

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