HOLLYWOOD — The American Film Market wrapped March 4 with conflicting signals from both sellers and buyers about the worth of the 14th edition of the trade bazaar.

The prevailing mood was caution as distribs balked at prices for some of the most expensive star-driven vehicles. But there was thriving trade in arthouse product and solid biz for many video vendors.

Some sellers griped about the escalating cost of doing business at AFM, now rated as the most expensive of the three major film markets. One leading sales agent even questioned the worth of the L.A. edition and slammed the surfeit of schlock and low-grade fare.

By consensus, the big title here was the Jodie Foster-Liam Neeson starrer “Nell,” fielded by Polygram Film Intl. “We got high upfront guarantees and excellent back-end deals from blue-chip buyers,” said Polygram Filmed Entertainment prexy Michael Kuhn.

Of the 177 new films screened at the AFM, no sleepers emerged, according to buyers quizzed by Variety. Many of the fresh offerings appear to be headed straight to video.

Although attendance at the market totaled 4,373, 5% up from last year, traffic in the hallways often seemed thin; there was little evidence of the “market fever” that characterized previous editions; and by midweek many buyers had checked out.

Foreign distribs clustered around a dozen or so star-laden pictures, but many said that the asking prices were so high, some of the high-priced projects are still up for grabs.

Among the hot-selling titles were Ridley Scott’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone” (Majestic Films); Roland Joffe’s “A Scarlet Letter” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Company of Angels” (Summit Entertainment); Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” (Capitol Films); Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” (Miramax); Jonathan Betuel’s Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “T. Rex” (J&M); family oriented seal pic “Andre” (Turner); and Mira Nair’s “The Perez Family” (Samuel Goldwyn).

Here are some of the trends and observations from participants:

“I’m wondering whether the market has come to the end of its usefulness,” said Michael Ryan, co-chairman of J&M Entertainment, a founding member of the American Film Marketing Assn.

While Ryan believes AFMA itself is an effective trade body, he believes the AFM’s image is being sullied by the preponderance of schlock. The L.A. event has always had its quota of low-rent fare, but “there’s more of it and it’s worse” this time, said Ryan. “I’m wondering whether it’s worthwhile for companies (selling) decent theatrical product to be here,” added Ryan, who also griped about J&M’s total AFM tab of nearly $ 100,000, including $ 25,000 for its suite at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

Summit president/CEO Patrick Wachsberger said he’d had a very good AFM but agreed: “There was a lack of energy; deals don’t close as quickly (as at previous markets.) Production budgets are going up, release costs are going up.”

He confirmed he’s bought out Summit partners Arnon Milchan, Bernd Eichinger and Cinergi’s Andy Vajna but said he has exclusive rights to sell Eichinger and Cinergi’s films overseas and would continue to handle foreign TV rights of Milchan’s product.

Distribs trooped to Carolco’s offices angling for Paul Verhoeven’s Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Crusade” and Renny Harlin’s “Cutthroat Island,” but one multiterritory buyer said asking prices were so high he didn’t expect to close deals on either film until Cannes.

However, Carolco reps claim to have done “very well” in pre-selling both pix; typically, they declined to elaborate.

The majors, as ever, were on the prowl. Jere Hausfater, Buena Vista Intl. senior VP of acquisitions and business affairs, was fishing for films that meet his criteria of “European elements with prestige directors.”

Hausfater noted: “The evolution that started about three years ago, when (indie) producers upped their budgets and star values went up, is continuing. I think this (AFM) has been a very good market for sellers and buyers.”

Another U.S. major had scouts viewing more than 30 films. “A lot were good for video but none for theatrical,” said a studio exec. The exec added that the studio has offers out on only two pix.

“Buyers are cautious because a lot have been burned; closing deals today is an arduous task,” said Miramax Intl. president Ian Jessel. At the AFM Miramax did close major territory deals on “The Crossing Guard,” Robert Altman’s “Pret-a-Porter” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” He began preselling the latter two last year and noted, “There are certainly more deals done between markets than there used to be.”

In the ongoing battle between majors and indie distribs to acquire theatrical product for offshore territories, the majors are gaining the upper hand in Spain , Italy, the Benelux territories and Scandinavia, said one studio rep.

The reason is simple: Many indies have gone belly-up in those markets, and only one or two strong ones survive.

In the exploitation arena, a number of companies are disproving the notion that the low-budgeted, made-for-video genre is dying or critically ill.

Santa Monica-based Gun for Hire, a first-time AFM attendee, offered three films — actioners and thrillers — which each cost less than $ 500,000. “We’ve broken even” on foreign sales, said president Bob Kronovet. After North American sales kick in, “we’ll be up by 50%-100%,” he claimed. He figures that has been an excellent investment on Gun for Hire’s $ 17,500 AFM outlay.

Another AFM freshman, No Bull Distribution, reported strong action with foreign video distribs on several pictures budgeted between $ 1.3 million and $ 2 million.

No Bull and its parent company, Magic Fingers Inc., which recently went public, is based at Universal Studios in Orlando and run by five brothers from Canada. Why the No Bull moniker? “That came from me,” said exec producer Gordon Scott Venters. “I was talking to a foreign distrib one day and said I wish there was no bull in this business.”

Said Ortwin Freyermuth, chairman of Capella Intl., “This was a far more focused market than last year. All the major distributors were here making deals.”

Aussie sales agent Gary Hamilton of Beyond Films reported strong interest in “Back of Beyond,” the next pic from “Strictly Ballroom” star Paul Mercurio. But Hamilton noted: “Buyers are being more conservative. It’s tough to pre-sell anything. You have to work hard for every dollar.”

New Line Intl. prexy Rolf Mittweg figures he brought the right pic to market at the right time: the high-tech adventurer “The Mask,” which is benefiting from Warner Bros.’ domestic B.O. click “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which also toplines Jim Carrey.

Mittweg described the Italian and Spanish territories as “flat” and also said the once-bustling Korean area was markedly down this year.

The Samuel Goldwyn Co. rode the recent esoteric fare boom by closing lots of deals on lesbian-themed ‘Go Fish,” which was this year’s surprise fave at the Sundance fest. Another of Goldwyn’s Sundance faves, “Suture,” also has racked up healthy pre-sales.

Arthouse distribs were also hot for the Bertrand Tavernier’s “La Fille de D’Artagnan,” the Gerard Depardieu pic “La Machine” and Luc Besson’s “Leon.”

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