A film market is not the same thing as a film festival. We should start there: a film festival is an event generally open to the public where filmmakers screen their films for audiences with the goal of getting their work reviewed. If the reviews are good then the film might catch the interest of distributors and Come Soon to a Theatre Near You.
By contrast, a film market is more like a giant sales convention. The films that are being bought and sold at a film market often do not even exist yet. Film Futures. A film market is a cross-roads where the film producer and the film distributer meet for a sit-down and agree on what kind of film will be made. What genre will it be? Who will star in it? What audience will it reach? How much will it cost? When will it be finished? The goal that both the Producer and the Distributor are working towards is a "Pre-Sale".
Pre-sales serve two purposes. The first of these is to fund films- chiefly independent films- and to assure the Producer that his or her film will reach a particular audience. The second of these is for Distributors to get films at a discount. A completed film is a lot more expensive to put into theatres. There is an element of risk that comes from putting money towards a film that doesn't yet exist but it is balanced by the input that the Distributor has in the kind of product they will be receiving.
To a large extent the Distributors in question at a film market are for foreign territories: countries throughout the world eager to see movies that speak to their particular audience. As a result, many film markets take place overseas, except, of course, for the American Film Market which goes on for one week and which is going on right now.
Imagine, if you will, walking into a lavish beach-side hotel in Santa Monica. The lobby is swarming with film professionals from all over the world. Television monitors loop film trailers and sizzle reels. Posters cover every wall, podium, and span of railing available. To stand in the middle of the lobby and to look upwards into the atrium where the upper floors open onto balconies- all festooned with film titles and production company names and territory names- is like looking upwards into the spiral of Dante's version of Filmmaker Heaven. Everyone is talking on a phone. Everyone is wearing sunglasses.
This is where the business of the entertainment industry is taking place. This is where Independent filmmakers and Hollywood filmmakers work to accomplish the same goals: turning their film from concept into reality. This is where seasoned professionals stake their reputations on their work.
For a humble independent filmmaker who is just starting out it is equal parts intimidating and inspiring. To get to the upper floors, where the real deal making is happening requires a badge. To get into the door where the talks are taking place requires something less quantifiable, but that is no reason not to go. The lobby is free. This place, in the lobby of this hotel in Santa Monica during this week in November is a place where every serious filmmaker should stand and look upward.