Whatever the economic woes in the outside world, the American Film Market (AFM) remains in robust health. That was the message yesterday as the 29th edition of the market got underway.

'There are 527 films are screening here in Santa Monica, among them 102 world premieres, the highest we've ever had,' said Jonathan Wolf, managing director of the AFM.

Sales company attendance is marginally down (by about 2% according to Wolf), but the event is still at full capacity.

However, there has been a slow but steady increase in the amount of non-English language screenings at the market. 'This is a slow moving wave that will go on for many, many years, which is the growth of film industries in almost every country of the world where they didn't exist before,' he said.

It seems that the long-running debate about dates of major film markets is now at an end. Wolf and Jean Prewitt, president and CEO of IFTA, both asserted that the AFM will remain in its current November slot for the foreseeable future.

'As soon as we moved the market to November, the number of films went up by about 30%, the number of companies attending went up by about 20%, and our general attendance went up by 15%. The industry voted with its feet and said that was the right move,' Wolf said.

Wolf argued that whereas companies can skip Berlin's European film market 'and not be conspicuous by their absence, if you skip the AFM or Cannes you are.'

As to the idea that the independent film world has somehow escaped the worst of the economic downturn, Wolf described the AFM as 'a delayed indicator.' The films screening this week in Santa Monica will have been financed 18 months ago: distributors who remain in business still need product - and therefore are continuing to come to AFM in droves.

Will next year's market be softer' 'I'd say we'll have a little less product and that prices will be a little more firm. For those selling, I think they'll say it is a better market because we'll have a little less glut.' He anticipated that there may be 5% or so less films in next year's market. 'But nothing dramatic. Production levels around the world are not changing that much.'

A total of 409 production/distribution companies from 36 countries are exhibiting at this year's market.

IFTA top brass also gave a welcome to the election of Barack Obama as US President Elect. Obama, Prewitt pointed out, was a champion of 'net neutrality' and 'media diversity.' 'That is at the heart of what we are lobbying about in terms of new media. He has been less involved with the discussions of vertical integration in the media industry but it is quite clear that he favours diversity of programming and the ability for multiple voices to be heard.'