Dealmakers gear up for AFM’s ‘wild week’

If the earthquake didn’t pound Santa Monica hard enough, more than 5,000 film buyers and sellers who are headed here this week for the American Film Market might finish the job.

Thousands of producers, distributors, bankers, agents, lawyers and government officials from more than 60 countries will descend on the quake-rattled beach community from Thursday through March 4 to haggle over foreign film rights to everything from star-studded vehicles to low-budget horror films.

With 226 companies buying offices and 274 pix being screened (177 of which will be new to viewers), this year’s AFM looks to be bigger than ever, cramming meetings, speeches and dealmaking time into nine days of dawn-to-dawn hysteria and more parties than even the heartiest Euro distributor can survive.

More than 2,100 sellers and 1,700 buyers from 62 countries, 500 lawyers, agents and financiers, 250 members of the media and 200 guests are expected for the market. Meanwhile, Santa Monica has geared up for the bazaar, with 31 hotels open and operating and 22 theaters ready for screenings by the dozen.

“It should be a wild week,” said one exec at a small indie that’s setting up shop at the AFM. “I’m expecting to get a lot of business done.”

On a more serious side, AFM officials are skedding a series of “high-level meetings” with Joao deDeus Pinheiro, European Commissioner for Culture and Audiovisual Policy, members of the American Film Marketing Assn. and the Motion Picture Assn. of America to discuss the aftermath of the GATT trade decision.

Pinheiro also will deliver the keynote address, “A Fresh Look at the European Audiovisual Policy,” on March 1.

Michael Fuchs, chairman and CEO of Home Box Office, will give the opening-day speech, “The Inter-Galactic Superhighway and its Cosmic Implications.”

Russian presence

Several high-ranking Russian dignitaries, including the country’s prosecutor general and the chairman of the Russian Supreme Court, are expected at AFM as guests of the United States Information Agency. They’ll be studying the enforcement of anti-piracy laws and how to introduce them to Russia.

AFM officials hope that marketgoers will reconsider the image of the 13 -year-old bazaar. Once the distribution sales center for schlock horror and low-budget B movies, the AFM proudly boasts a slate of films that not only sport big budgets but feature megastars.

Witness some of this year’s offerings: “The Hudsucker Proxy,” directed by Joel Coen and starring Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh; “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” helmed by Mike Newell with thesps Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell; and “Corrina, Corrina,” directed by Jessie Nelson and starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta.

Accent on theatrical

“I know how we have changed,” says Rolf Mittweg, New Line Intl. prez. “We have now emphasized theatrical product, foreign theatrical product. That’s where the marketplace is at the moment. The direct-to-video has a much harder time than it did before.”

But reminding the industry that AFM offers more than direct-to-video B movies is the easy part; tougher is finding a new identity for an event focused on dealmaking rather than glitz and premieres.

And with the major studios increasingly interested in so-called niche product , AFM organizers hope the event will continue to draw more serious (and bigger-budget) independent films from producers hoping for a studio distribution deal.

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