Jitters bug pic mart

Foreign sales players stuck in holding pattern

The U.S. retaliation against terrorist attacks, the economic downturn and aberrations such as actors strike threats on both sides of the Atlantic are enough to make most international film execs shake their heads in despair. Throw that up against the usual chaos that typifies the London Screenings (Oct. 22-26), the informal schmooze before Milan mart Mifed (Oct. 28-Nov. 1), and you’ve got a lot of attendees concerned about how the first event of the fall film market season will play out.

“Everything will be different this year,” says Joe Drake, L.A.-based prexy of Senator Intl., who still plans to bring his regular crew to London to show new footage from “24 Hours,” among other wares. “There is no question that there will be some buyers that may not come — because they’re uncomfortable with the travel or because they have enough product. But it’s not just the (terrorist attacks): It’s strange to see the town not cranking up after the strike was averted. All of us are trying to figure out what will happen.”

A combination of market forces and deepening economic pressure has forced sales companies to trim their slates. First of all, the key foreign territories — particularly Germany and Japan — aren’t forking out the cash that sellers have grown accustomed to over the last few years.

“Seven years ago you could still get 70%-80% out of pre-sales,” says Sam Horley, senior veep of international distribution at Myriad Pictures, which will be showing Chen Kaige’s “Killing Me Softly” and comedy “Van Wilder: Party Liaison” in London. “That was when (South) Korea was paying 4%. Now all markets are down, admissions are down, so you come into a situation where you are faced with a fantastic script, but the price is high and you can only get 50%-60% out of foreign. So occasionally you have to say goodbye to a good project. You used to say if you didn’t sell one major territory it didn’t matter, but now you are stuffed.”

“The German market is tough right now because TV isn’t really buying from the indies and it’s the same with Italy,” adds Rick Sands, Miramax’s prexy of worldwide distribution, who’ll be attending London and Mifed. “Advertising is down for TV, so licenses for movies go down. And if licenses go down, the territorial indie distribs buy less movies.”

Exacerbating the whole situation, of course, are the terrorist attacks and the U.S.’ retaliation, which is making TV buyers even more wary about appropriate product and could prompt indie distribs to look for ways to get out of done deals.

“It was already difficult to collect money,” says Mark Horowitz, prexy of Alliance Atlantis Intl., who will be in London touting a number of finished pics as well as footage from Neil Jordan’s “Double Down” and new pic “Dirty Deeds.” “Unfortunately, this is becoming one more excuse.”

For sales companies that depend on those territorial sales, a vicious circle is setting in and bankrolling new projects has become tricky.

“The banking world has become so tough,” admits one U.S. seller. “It’s hard to get a movie financed right now.”

Add to that the fallout of the anticipated SAG strike in the U.S. earlier this year and the threat of the British Equity actors strike later this year, and the result is that sellers are rushing — more than usual in the runup to an international film bazaar — to sew up deals before they jet off to London so that they’ll have new films to tubthump.

“The Equity strike is like the last nail in the coffin,” laments Nicole Mackey, Lolafilms U.K.’s prexy of international sales. “That, if anything, is going to cause a problem now. We had two things waiting to go into production very soon, and they’re now on hold.”

Fewer Choices

There’s also less fresh product for buyers to get excited about.

“There isn’t much new, which is undoubtedly a knock-on effect of the SAG strike that never happened,” says Sally Kaplan, head of acquisitions for U.K. indie distrib Momentum Pictures. “Normally things that weren’t ready by Cannes would be here but a lot was put on hold and isn’t ready.”

“I get the feeling that slates are looking very slim,” adds Alison Thompson, head of sales, Pathe Intl. “(Buyers) are looking for very safe deals and the locomotives and there appear to be few on the ground. They’ve been buying very conservatively for the past 12 months.”

For U.S. buyers, there’s very little they haven’t already seen at one of the recent film festivals such as Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian, or at private Stateside buyer screenings held just prior to the fall markets.

“The higher-priority films will show here before London,” says Amanda Klein, veep, acquisitions and production, USA Films. “There are one or two English-language films that we want to see but there are few out there that we have high expectations for.”

Given the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing battle in Afghanistan, buyer tastes are destined to lean toward lighter fare, away from disaster pics and violent action.

Already, several screenings of films deemed to have insensitive subject matter have been yanked from the London Screenings schedule, reports Fusion Events’ Emma Bewick, whose company is one of the service providers behind the London mart.

As for the market itself, it has a way to go before the various unaffiliated theater bookers and registrars find a way to work together harmoniously or formalize the event.

There are two main companies facilitating screenings this year: London Screenings Ltd., headed by Fusion Events’ JoJo Dye and Bewick, and Soho Screenings, run by Sandy Mandelberger. A third company, LondonScreenings.com, run by Alexis Bicat, operates a Web site where attendees can register (for a fee) and receive market badges.

There’s talk that next year one org, backed by British government bodies, could run the Screenings and put an end to the chaos that has grown out of an event that was never meant to be organized in the first place.

Roughly a decade ago, the Screenings were born when a few London-based sales companies sought to debut their big-ticket fare in London’s plush cinemas as opposed to Mifed’s small, bare-bones salles. Since then, the casual stop-over has mushroomed to an estimated 700-plus annual attendees and it has attracted not just the biggest players but many of the middling and smaller companies.

“It’s a monster that we have created that we are going to have to live with,” says Pathe Intl.’s Thompson, who is just one of the many voices that would like to see the London Screenings situation resolved as well as the eternal debate over whether the London event should replace Mifed.

This year, an estimated 400 screenings are scheduled during the five-day event with some 75 sales companies attending, according to London Screenings Ltd. However, with several shops running the show — and with the anti-terrorist campaign threatening travel schedules — conclusive figures are hard to come by.

Main site for the mart will be the Meridian Hotel near London’s Piccadilly Circus, where sellers booths will be situated. The Berners Hotel, just north of Soho, will be used as the main buyers hotel.

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