AFM Enjoys Late Rush

Southern California is several thousand miles from Cannes, but last week the distance didn’t seem so great at all.

With the shortage of big Hollywood blockbusters and the evaporation of the video schlock merchants who traditionally rule the American Film Market, this was the year when sellers of classy theatrical movies, director-driven titles, quirky low-budget Sundance pix and even foreign-language projects found themselves mobbed by international distribs desperate for something fresh and original.

By the close of the nine-day event, the faces of the high-end sellers told the whole story: Wendy Palmer, CEO of Ciby Sales, blank with fatigue; Film Four Intl.’s Bill Stephens, eyes black-rimmed with exhaustion; and Pandora’s Sudy Coy, bubbling over with exhilaration.

Strange days

“In my 23 years in this business, this is the strangest market I’ve ever experienced,” said Coy, who did big sales with “Frankie Starlight,” “Blue Juice” and “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook.” “At the start buyers were extremely cautious, and I didn’t do a single deal until day six. Then things really opened up, and people I never predicted were buying.”

Stephens, for whom the AFM is usually just a staging post between Berlin in February and Cannes in May, was taken by surprise with a similar late surge of deals for titles such as Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” and the Hindi pic “Bandit Queen,” which was snapped up in the U.S. by Arrow Releasing. “We’ve done much more business than I thought we’d do,” he said, noting that he was getting offers at AFM for Boyle’s next project, “Trainspotting,” even though he has yet to get the script.

Aline Perry, head of Polygram Film Intl., said, “Ourselves, UGC, Ciby, companies who have strong festival films, the kind that are normally more suited to Cannes, have done very, very well here.”

Upward expansion

It’s a sign that something unusual is happening in the arthouse and crossover market worldwide when archetypal AFM companies like Summit Group, a specialist in big-budget Hollywood movies, and Trimark Pictures, king of the video-driven genre pic, think it worth their while to expand into upscale niche product.

With “The Shadow Program” and “Evita” debuting at AFM to follow up the soldout “Judge Dredd” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” Summit CEO Patrick Wachsberger had more than his fair share of the few major A titles available at AFM. He said he had “an amazing market.” But he also sold out worldwide with “Living in Oblivion,” the U.S. low-budgeter he picked up at Sundance. That encouraged him to vow, “I’m going to do more small films, I miss it,” referring to days past when he handled arthouse hits such as “Pelle the Conqueror.”

Michael Ryan, co-chairman of J& M Entertainment, also noted that foreign buyers had suddenly switched on to smaller U.S. indie pix, following the international splash of Quentin Tarantino and his confreres. “It has all changed in the last six months,” he said. “Before then, it was pretty impossible to launch a film with a first-time director and no cast, but distributors have been taken by surprise by some of the films that have worked, and that has really woken them up.”

J& M’s “The Buddy Factor,” hot from Sundance, sold to Telepool in Germany and Medusa in Italy and has now been invited to the Tokyo Film Fest, a key launching pad for Far East sales. Reflecting the new commercial appeal of such titles, J& M recently picked up two other U.S. indie pix, “A Boy Called Hate” and “Homage,” plus Irish arthouse title “Words Upon the Windowpane.” Appropriately enough, Miramax Intl. is proving one of the biggest beneficiaries of this “Tarantino effect” overseas, closing big package sales in several major and minor territories for its eclectic slate of upscale fare (see story, page 24).

The Ciby duo of Palmer and Fiona Mitchell barely surfaced from meetings through the whole nine days. Scripts for Robert Altman’s $21 million “Kansas City” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Flower of My Secret” only went out to buyers 10 days before the AFM. But the Altman, despite Ciby’s high prices, is already on course to sell out within the next month, according to Mitchell.

“It’s been a really hard, hard, good AFM,” she said. “We’ve seen absolutely everyone; there has not been a rock unturned.” She suggested that with mega-budget “American extravaganzas” in short supply, buyers increasingly see high-quality niche product with name directors as “the next best alternative” – especially after the international success of films “The Piano” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

This view finds a surprising ally in Trimark, whose background is as different as can be from Ciby’s. Sergio Aguero, senior VP of Trimark’s international division, says, “The traditional realm of independent theatrical distribution, B+ action movies and thrillers, has now been eroded by the big-budget studio movies. The theatrical market has become even-driven, and that means either big-budget titles or quirky, review-driven pictures.”

With the homevideo market “tired of formulaic cheap action,” Trimark has started to “depart from the more genre, video-driven films the company was built on” into more distinctive pix like the low-budget, character-driven comedies “Kicking and Screaming” and “Two Guys Talking About Girls.”

But such films, because of their often unusual flavor, are harder for buyers to pick with confidence, which makes them very finicky. That, say many of the sellers, accounts for the whoosh of sales in the closing days after a slow start. Said Aline Perry, “There was no obvious A title, so people looked around and looked around, and finally decided what to buy late in the market.”

Speaking on the penultimate day, Aguero predicted he would do 30% of his entire AFM business in the last 24 hours. Trimark juiced up the end of the market by giving a selected group of buyers from the five major foreign territories a sneak glimpse of an unannounced project that will be the company’s flagship pic at Cannes: “The Warrior of Waverly Street,” an $11 million sci-fi pic.

AFM organizers reported an 8% increase in buyers to 1,832. Slightly more than 5,000 delegates attended the event at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, although the number of selling companies declined slightly from last year to 233. There were 836 companies registered as buyers, up from 774.

Film Four finished world sales for “Shallow Grave” with deals for Portugal, Turkey, Taiwan and Italy, the only major European holdout, where Medusa picked it up for way above the original asking price at Cannes last year.

Pandora’s “Frankie Starlight,” a $6 million Irish co-production with Fine Line, sold to Prime Films in Spain, Lucky Red in Italy, Time in Germany, Total in Auz and Era in Taiwan. “Blue Juice,” the Cornish surfing movie that has already got Miramax and New Line sniffing about, sold to Total in Australia and Entertainment in Germany. “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” went to Dendy in Australia and Ascot in Switzerland, to follow pre-market sales in France, Germany and the U.K.

J& M completed world sales on the Pierce Brosnan starrer “Nightwatch,” with Buena Vista picking up France, Australia, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Col TriStar picked up Japan, Latin America and Southeast Asia for “Princess Caraboo.”

Polygram Film Intl., with a classy lineup of big upscale pix, sold Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking,” the Coen Bros.’ “Fargo” and “Candyman 2” to Aznick in Japan, and “Loch Ness” to Toho Kushinsha. Italy’s RCS picked up the same package, while IIF Intl. stepped up for Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays.” Polygram sold out in Korea and Brazil, while Svensk took “Fargo” and “Dead Man Walking” for Scandinavia.

Polygram even started closing pre-sales on its French lingo pix: “The Eighth Day” directed by Jacot van Dormael, and “Ridicule,” directed by Patrice Leconte.

France’s UGC pre-sold “A Couch in New York” heavily, and closed the John Travolta-Harry Belafonte pic “White Man’s Burden” in 15 territories. According to Patrick Binet, the company sold its entire slate (apart from “The Doom Generation”) in Italy.

With all those companies keeping new projects up their sleeves for Cannes, the unexpected intensity of buyer interest in such upscale theatrical films augurs well for a busy May on the French Riviera. Jere Hausfater, senior VP of acquisitions and business affairs for Buena Vista Intl., predicted, “Cannes should be great. There are a lot of pictures in postproduction which will be ready by then”

The only question is whether the exhausted sales execs leaving Santa Monica have the stamina to last the course. AFM, as Hausfater observes, was just a warm-up. The real, grueling work for Cannes starts now.

– Rex Weiner contributed to this story

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