Amid merger mania, Mifed still sees pix as product

The 1950s architecture of the Fiera di Milano has always given a somewhat old-fashioned, even dated feel to the annual Mifed film mart held within its giant exhibition halls.

This year that impression was stronger than ever, as sales agents and distributors got down to the bare-knuckle business of buying and selling independent movies in a depressed market. They did so apparently heedless of vast tides of change sweeping the upper reaches of the film and TV industry.

In the mind-boggling world of multibillion-dollar mega-mergers between telcos , studios and cable operators, films are software, the key currency of multimedia empire building. But in the corridors of the Fiera, they are still simply product, goods for trade.

Two weeks earlier at Mipcom, the Cannes hotel bars buzzed with TV execs talking about Bell Atlantic and TCI, or Paramount, Viacom and QVC.

But at Mifed, the convergent world of the digital superhighway seems light years away. All the distribs were worried about was finding a releasable movie amid the video fodder; and all the sales agents cared about was finding buyers with a decent credit rating.

“It is old-fashioned,” said Michael Ryan, co-chairman of J&M Entertainment. “In a way it is rather anachronistic. But it’s a very physical thing, and people in the theatrical business will always need to buy movies from somewhere. The technological thing they don’t really care about.”

Eye toward strategy

Nonetheless, the organizers of the American Film Market are planning to keep in touch with all the latest strategic developments in Hollywood at their event next spring. Without revealing details, AFMA execs attending Mifed told Daily Variety they would be addressing the issue of how telco investments in film biz might affect the independent sector.

“Will it change the way we sell films, the way people sit in bars and put together a movie project? I doubt it,” commented Ryan. UGC’s Patrick Binet dismissed the question with a Gallic shrug. “I don’t think the mergers taking place will change the fact that small producers will want to make small movies. The independents will still exist.”

The market traders were happy to let others dream, theorize and strategize the future while they got on with the real business of doing deals. At Mifed, the consensus among the theatrical buyers was that there were precious few deals worth doing.

Tasty surprises

The market threw up few tasty surprises in the form of previously unannounced A-titles. Miramax waited until the penultimate day to unveil Jack Nicholson starrer, “The Crossing Guard,” to be directed by Sean Penn. But by then it was too late to shake distribs out of their low spirits.

Significantly, this movie could be regarded as at least one example at Mifed of the impact of Hollywood’s software-driven merger mania. Miramax’s ability to announce a movie toplining one of the world’s most expensive stars is a testament to the financial muscle given the company by its new parent Disney.

Other hot titles include “Backbeat,” backed by Polygram; Spelling Intl.’s “Shadowlands,” and “Tom and Viv,” sold by French firm UGC.

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