Buyers hungry as biz puts woes behind

HOLLYWOOD — The Sept. 11 attacks and aftermath, an economic recession, the collapse of the German Neuer Markt and the threat of a guild strikes played havoc with the emotions and economics of the film biz over the past year.

With this year’s theme, “Home of the Independents,” the 22nd edition of the American Film Market reflects the times, and an industrywide yearning for a return to the basics, to the familiar.

The focus is pure and simple; and all indicators show that AFM could be one of the best film markets in some time.

Part of AFM’s anticipated robustness is based on Mifed’s weak showing in October. Security issues, coupled with a bad economy, tumbled the confab’s attendance by 25% year to year. That low participation is fueling predictions of an AFM sellout because buyers can’t afford to skip two markets in a row.

In recent years, attendance at AFM, including producers, bankers, film and TV distributors, lawyers, executives, directors and film commissioners, has held steady at around 7,000 people, representing more than 70 countries. Last year, buyers’ attendance dropped 8%, while all other attendance was up 37%, confirming that AFM’s industry-inclusive approach, now 3 years old, is working.

The market continues its efforts to focus on the issues of production and include a forum for the nonbuyer side of the biz as well. This year, according to AFMA prexy and CEO Jean Prewitt, who is an active Washington policy advocate for the independent film industry, “Buyers’ registrations are running ahead of the last four years. With 25 new exhibiting companies at AFM, I think people are very intent on the business and that there is not going to be a lot of wasted money.”

Modern challenges

Franchise Pictures’ Andrew Stevens agrees: “Time tends to heal, and I expect there will be a broader attendance at AFM than at Mifed. As we have seen with the compression of the business, both with buyers and the selling companies, the people who do attend are qualified and serious. Speaking as an AFMA board member, we are trying to address some kind of continuity in AFMA while also addressing the sobriety of the times and the financial constraints.”

Among those who attended the London Screenings but skipped Mifed is Bennett Pozil, group manager for Century City-based financier Natexis Banque Populaire. Identifying the threat of a Screen Actors Guild strike as the single most influential factor affecting last year’s market, Pozil thinks concern of a shutdown pushed up production at the studios, but left independent producers and sales companies hanging. That coupled with fewer split-rights deals in the offing, crippled many of the independent.

Only after the AFM last March did production resume on the independent side, trying to make up for the inactivity of the prior months.

“The threat of the strike skewed the entire calendar last year,” says Pozil, “because it prevented the start of any production in the middle of May. It wasn’t until the end of the summer and well into December that things started getting busy again.”

Natexis usually finances about 20 films a year, normally evenly spaced throughout the 12 months. But last year, the company did more than half of its annual business and production financing in an active and concentrated three-month run after AFM. But, Pozil sees a bleaker picture for independent product. “I think that the business is evolving in a way that is making it tougher for independents,” he says. “Buyers only want two kinds of films: Ones with a significant U.S. partner, or ones that are director-driven with film festival-winning potential. From the banking side, while we’re still doing the same number of films, there is less capital available and fewer banks still doing single-picture film lending and gap lending. Overall this means there are less films being made.”

Positive attitude

AFMA board chair and president of her own company, Kathy Morgan is one industry veteran who sees opportunity where others see obstacles. Noting a difficult 2001, not only for the film biz but for business in general, Morgan is convinced that optimism is the only formula for long-term success: “I feel that 2002 is going to be a much better year with renewed energy coming into our business. I am seeing some of the studios more open to splitting rights again, giving companies like mine an opportunity to sell international while they take domestic.”

Morgan, a 30-year veteran of the business, also says success lies in good, innovative scripts that reflect the independent heart and spirit. “The secret to surviving as an independent is to stay positive, work hard and never give up because this is a very challenging business.”

Refinements to this year’s AFM mart illustrate the back-to-the-basics theme:

  • AFMA’s Honors event will be celebrated in a more subdued manner by a cocktail reception honoring Robert Shaye, founder and co-chairman-co-CEO of New Line Cinema. The lifetime achievement award will be presented during this year’s kudos ceremony at the Fairmont Hotel Feb. 21. A bigger celebration will be saved for next year.

  • The market has reduced the cost of the AFM Seminars while increasing the number of presentations from four to six this year. Seminar programmers will include the Writers Guild of America; Directors Guild of America; Independent Feature Project/West; Women in Film; and new this year, SAG and the Entertainment Resource Marketing Assn., the product placement org. All seminars will take place from Saturday, Feb. 23 through Tuesday, Feb. 26 at Le Merigot Hotel. The traditional and popular AFM Finance Conference will be held the morning of Feb. 22nd at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, and will include panelists Mark Damon, chairman-CEO of MDP Worldwide, and Stuart Till, president of Signpost Films.

  • A new Location Expo will open on the fourth day of the AFM (Feb. 23), and will feature an increased presence of film commissioners, who will set up in a lobby-level exhibition space located at the Loew’s Hotel. This year’s representatives will include California, Arizona, Illinois, Maryland and Florida, along with returning AFM sponsors, the North Carolina Film Commission and the British Film Commission.

  • The AFM Premiere Screenings series, free to the public and open to the entire entertainment industry, will be moved to a new location at the AMC Theaters on the Santa Monica promenade. AFM will continue to provide complimentary badges to members of all entertainment industry organizations, students and Santa Monica residents. Registration is available online only through the Variety.com Web site.

  • All offices will be located under one roof, at the Loew’s Hotel, along with a buyers lounge and other amenities for attendees and exhibitors.

“The American Film Market has always been about the business of film … that is the core of the event, and always will be,” says Jonathan Wolf, exec VP of AFMA and managing director of the AFM. In keeping with this year’s theme, Wolf hopes to focus on what he says is the true independent film: one made outside of the studio system, where more than half of the risk is taken by a company, not a studio.

“The word, ‘independent,’ has become diluted by its overuse by the studios. Our goal is to begin the process of reclaiming its true meaning,” says Wolf. “Our message this year is that the American Film Market is a home and community for anyone and everyone involved in independent production.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more