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On Location: AFCI's Martin Cuff touts role of film commissioners

February 14, 2012 |  3:19 pm

Martin Cuff, who has run film commissions from Colorado to Cape Town, South Africa, and built up film programs in Bosnia, Turkey and Serbia, was recently tapped to be executive director of the Association of Film Commissioners International, which hosts the popular annual Locations Show. A native of England who lives in South Africa, Cuff talked to the Los Angeles Times about his new job and the upcoming expo, to be held June 15 and 16 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

What role do film commissioners play in today’s global market?

Film commissions are set up by governments to be the custodian of economic activity. That involves attracting international production to the destination, because it obviously creates jobs and stimulates small business growth.

But the job of film commissioners also is to support film festivals to make sure that money circulates in the local economy, develop film audiences, support local filmmakers and connect with film schools -- in short solidifying all aspects of the industry and creating platforms on which the global film industry can continue to grow and be sustainable.Martin Cuff AFCI

So how will this year’s trade show differ from last year’s?

For the first time this year, the Locations show will also run concurrently with the opening weekend of the Los Angeles Film Festival, a 10-day event produced by Film Independent. It’s a natural tie-in for us because we will get a whole base of independent filmmakers who need this kind of information.

We will offer networking events, workshops, seminars, discussions and presentations -- all geared to sharing the most current, dynamic and effective body of knowledge about working on location throughout the world.

Last year you partnered with the Producers Guild of America. Did you have a falling out?

We didn’t get to manage the program and we needed to generate a certain amount of income. It was purely a financial decision. It was all very amicable.

Some critics in the past have dubbed the AFCI show a poacher’s festival, saying it encourages runaway production. What do you say to that?

Film commissions are not just blood-sucking vampires out to steal business away from California, but a dynamic gateway to the world. I'd like to think that the presence of film commissions will connect Californian producers and filmmakers with new markets, new finance and funding, new business relationships and new audiences.

China is just producing its first $100-million movie. Brazil's economy is bigger than California's. The TV audience in India is 600 million people. Africa's economy as a whole is growing faster than China's. There is business to be done in the international marketplace, and film commissions can provide an additional, impartial and completely free platform with which to begin that business outreach.

Serbia isn’t an obvious film market. How did you end up working in that country?

I was a consultant with the AFCI and they reached out to me to help develop their film program. Serbia was cheap but it was perceived to be risky, not so much because of war, but lack of information. So we had some challenges. We established a film commission and film incentive program, formally introducing to 14  municipalities nationwide the kinds of processes, protocols and responsiveness required by production.

My proudest success was probably a Serbian film function we held at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Bosnia, where hundreds of filmmakers from across the former Yugoslavia came together to celebrate the future.

You’ve spent years in South Africa. What brought you there?

I was living in London with some South Africans who persuaded me to go with them to South Africa when (Nelson) Mandela was released. I started working for a casting director’s office and later went to work for the Southern Africa International Film & Television Market. In South Africa, we had a young black film industry looking to try to create sustainable ways to tell their own stories.

We managed to create a small film fund to support a number of filmmakers to create their own movies and provided work space where they could use computers and read film textbooks. The experience taught that as a film commissioner your job is to create economic development and opportunity.

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-- Richard Verrier

Photo: Martin Cuff was recently tapped to be executive director of the Association of International Film Commissioners. Credit: Francois Botha

Where the cameras roll
Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita and Pasadena. Thomas Suh Lauder / Los Angeles Times
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