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AFM draws to end on mixed note

Miramax was happily selling “Rum Punch,” Quentin Tarantino’s next pic, without a script or cast, defunct Turner Pictures Intl.’s $55,000 suite went to John Kluge’s Metromedia Entertainment Group and buyers flocked to pick up rights to Jean Claude Van Damme’s next actioner, “Knock Off” from MDP Worldwide at the 1997 American Film Market, which wrapped Thursday in Santa Monica.

But meanwhile a combination of global economic and cultural factors seems to have afflicted the 18th annual film-licensing bazaar with a mild case of the blahs.

Thinned traffic

The strong dollar appeared to have thinned traffic in the corridors of the Santa Monica Beach Hotel this year, especially at the low-budget end of the market.

“The U.S. dollar is so high they can’t pay,” said George Shamieh of PM Entertainment. The dollar has risen 28% against the German mark in the last two years and 50% against the Japanese yen.

At the same time, the rising market share overseas for regionally produced non-English-language fare may be quelling buyers’ appetites for U.S. indie filmed entertainment.

“The German, Italian, French and U.K. film industries are on an upswing, their pictures are increasingly commercial,” said Jere Hausfater, senior VP of acquisitions and business affairs for Buena Vista Intl. “It would follow that certain distributors’ needs for English-language product would diminish, especially for mid-level to low-level films.”

Germany was the top territory, sending 49 buying companies to AFM, taking over from Japan, which topped the list with 51 last year, but sent only 48 companies this year.

Buyer attendance was up 3% from EU countries, where the major licensing deals are done, but buyer turnout slackened from nearly every other point on the globe, in some cases dramatically. Asia was down 5%, and Latin American attendance was down 3%.

“Last year everyone in the building was speaking Portuguese,” said Talaat Captan of Burbank-based Green Entertainment, referring to a 24% drop in Brazilian buyers.

Shakeouts in Korea and Japan — whose AFM attendees were largely engaged in renegotiating deals, rather than engaging in the buying frenzies of past markets — also let some of the air out of AFM’s balloon.

“Korea has overpaid the last several years,” said film financier Lewis Horwitz at an AFM seminar Thursday. “Now, (Koreans) are buying less, paying less and more cautious (about) what they buy.”

Russian invasion

One bright spot at AFM was a mini-invasion of 81 Russian-speaking individuals repping 33 Moscow-based companies, who trod the halls of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in search of video rights for sell-through. A number of the Russian companies were well-established market buyers, but the wave of new companies at AFM — putting them in the top 10 territories in terms of AFM attendance numbers — is largely due to new antipiracy laws recently effected by Moscow, as well to a surging dollar economy there.

While some distributors reported tripling their sales, thanks to Russia’s antipiracy law, other companies said the increase couldn’t make up for a steep decrease in deals to Asian markets.

“You get $20,000 (from the Russian market), but you lost $400,000 from Japan,” said PM Entertainment prexy George Shamieh.

International distribs winging home may be bringing back suntans but little in the way of A-level indie pics for the global audience.

‘Disappointing’

“It’s been very disappointing,” said one multiterritory buyer.

“AFM ’97 is a wakeup for not doing really low-budget,” said one indie producer. “To make a film for $2 million, you will not get the cast.”

“The action films are the ones that break out,” said Village Roadshow Pictures exec VP Kirk D’Amico, claiming strong sales for the company’s $25 million “Tarzan & Jane,” now lensing. “That’s where people want to spend the money.”

The next installment of the AFM is set for Feb. 26 to March 6, 1998. AFM exec director Tim Kittleson said he expects to meet with reps from ShoWest to discuss re-arranging the calendar so that the two events don’t coincide as they have in the past two years.

(Dan Margolis contributed to this report.)

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