Opening Jitters For Market

A sunny, Cannes-like setting awaits visitors to the American Film Market as it makes its debut Feb. 28 to March 8 in Santa Monica, the small beach city that borders Los Angeles.

But despite the ocean views, palm trees, outdoor cafes, elegant shops and restaurants, the Persian Gulf war and economic uncertainties of the international film marketplace are overshadowing all else, leaving both the implementation and outcome of this year’s AFM a big question mark.

‘Sleepless nights’

Adding to the self-described “sleepless nights” of AFM executive director Tim Kittleson is the task of opening and operating a new market facility for the first time at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. AFM, now in its 11th year, had made its home at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills for the past five years.

Another shadow hovering over this year’s market is a possible backlash stemming from AFM’s plan to hold a second market in October that collides with the traditional Mifed market in Milan. Meeting’s with European opponents of the move have been scheduled by officials of the American Film Marketing Assn., sponsor of AFM.

More than 500 firms from 46 countries outside North America, represented by more than 1,700 buyers in search of new product, normally could be expected at AFM, said to be the world’s largest international film trade event. Based on registration tallies, Kittleson has been confident that buyer attendance would come close to that of previous years. Registration has been running 1% ahead of a year ago, he said.

But that was during the early stages of the Middle East conflict. The AFMA appeared confident, however, that the event would take place as planned. AFMA said that close to 5,000 people (sellers, buyers and others involved in the production and sale of independent films) are expected to attend. The market, according to Kittleson, has received no cancellations from buyers or sellers.

Kittleson pointed out that buyers from the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece were among those who had registered. But several AFMA members who had talked to buyer/distributors in Europe said they found a wait-and-see attitude that hinged on developments in the Middle East.

Any encouragement that sellers may have had about a possible upsurge in the depressed international market has been tempered by Operation Desert Storm.

Before the opening of the market, there were reports of a slowdown in the acceptance of the delivery of committed films because of the insecurity caused by the outbreak of war and threats of terrorism.

Nevertheless, 202 selling companies have signed up for offices, paying rental fees ranging from $4,000 to $65,000 depending on the size of the space. Seventy-six companies are from overseas, including representation (as sellers) from Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Soviet Union and Poland.

Of the total number engaged in the licensing of films to overseas distributors, 102 are members of AFMA. The others are listed as “non-member market participants.” Fourteen AFMA members have said they will not take part in this year’s market.

Offices have also been taken by 13 “market affiliates,” whose businesses involve film industry-related services. Banks specializing in entertainment-business loans that are associate members of AFMA have been allocated one office with telephone and fax service.

The Santa Monica market perhaps signals a time of reckoning for a number of AFMA members. Business transacted during the market could conceivably determine eligibility for future membership in the association.

Under new criteria for membership set up early in 1989 and effective as of July 1,1991, all members of AFMA, including the founders, must meet new requirements to remain full, voting members. The basic rule calls for the licensing of five films over the past five years to 20 leading overseas territories.

Discounting the war-rooted intangibles, there are rays of hope among AFMA members that there will be a reversal of the downward trend experienced at the three major markets of 1989.

“Buyer registration is running ahead of last year,” said AFMA chairman William A. Shields. “Business is disproportionately spread, and different countries are showing signs of a comeback. Germany took a dip but came back. England is good but flat, and Japan is strong. Our biggest concern is the reaction to a new hotel – the orientation and the cosmetic problems that may come up.”

Shindig shunned

One sign of belt-tightening this year is the cancellation of AFM’s gigantic opening party, a shindig that cost upward of $400,000. “I would have canceled it anyway because of the war,” said Kittleson. However, several companies are planning private parties for invited guests. Trimark, Shapiro Glickenhaus and Image are combining to host a joint event.

Screenings at $450 a pop are scheduled at four theaters (a total of 21 screens), all within walking distance from the Loews, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Almost 1,000 rooms at nine hotels have been booked by AFM for market participants. The hotel rates range from $85 to $175. Five hotels are in Santa Monica and two in Marina del Rey, 2.3 miles away. Mini-buses will shuttle between market headquarters, hotels and theaters.

As has been customary for the past several years, AFM has scheduled a series of seminars dealing with various aspects of the business as it pertains to independents engaged in the international placement of English-language films. The four set this year will be held at the Miramar Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica. Frank Biondi, president of Viacom, will be the keynote speaker at a seminar lunch March 4.

Talent agencies ICM and CAA have scheduled breakfast seminars during the market.

An eye-opener this year is the large delegation expected from the Soviet Union. Askin, a new confederation of independent distributors with a network of 140 offices throughout the USSR, will be represented by 73 buyers, according to AFM officials. In addition, two well-known Soviet firms, Sovexportfilm and Mosfilm, with contingents of 12 and 16 respectively, will be on hand as sellers of Russian films.

Another problem facing AFM’s Kittleson: How do you translate “jaywalking” into the many languages that will be represented at the market? The Santa Monica cops are tough. The fine is $15.

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