Majors skip London but will Mifed prove its mettle?

LONDON — Mission accomplished — well, the first half of it, at least.

The boycott of the London Screenings by the big sales companies has succeeded in reducing that unloved event to an irrelevant undertaking. But the future of Mifed remains to be resolved.

Much depends on the success or failure of this year’s edition of the Milan, Italy, market (Nov. 3-7). Shorn of its London preamble, will the Fiera di Milano prove up to the task of hosting solo the fall bazaar of the indie film business? Many sellers have their doubts.

Rumblings already have started about moving the American Film Market from February to midautumn, creating a two-market year — Cannes in the springtime, Santa Monica, Calif., in the fall. If Mifed does fumble its chance, as many expect, this campaign will gather speed.

Mifed’s organizers should certainly not make the mistake of believing that the boycott of the London Screenings, spearheaded by the likes of Jere Hausfater at Intermedia, Jane Barclay at Capitol Films and Rick Sands at Miramax, is a vote of confidence in their event. Rather, it was prompted by frustration at the way the informal London event had run out of control.

The London Screenings evolved as a response to the inadequacy of Mifed’s facilities for showing top-quality theatrical films, but it became a victim of its success — overcrowded, expensive and a logistical nightmare.

Once it became clear that London’s organizational problems were only going to get worse as the event grew bigger — and that it could never develop into a formal marketplace under one roof to replace Mifed –there was only one solution.

In Milan last year, Hausfater and Barclay led a delegation to the Fiera management, offering to bypass London in return for a substantial upgrade in service and facilities. Thus the boycott was on, backed by all the leading sales companies.

The various self-appointed organizers of the London Screenings are insisting that their event is going ahead this year, but are unable to provide evidence of any films booked to screen. Buyers are getting the message, making plans to go direct to Milan.

In fact, this has been an easy year to stage a boycott of the London Screenings, as many top sellers do not actually have any films ready to premiere. Former Cobalt exec Peter Rogers, who recently returned to Lakeshore Intl. as CEO, for example, confesses that he would have been very tempted to screen the Kevin Costner pic “Open Range” in London, had it been ready.

Since he only has footage, he was spared that dilemma.

Mifed has promised some improvements — better air conditioning in the fusty halls, a whole new pavilion for sellers, improved technology in the screening rooms. But no-one is traveling to Milan with any great optimism that the Italian organizers are capable of turning around a decade of decline.

“I have no idea what to expect,” says Joe Drake, of Senator Intl. “After this year, depending on how it goes, things could either settle into a smooth market schedule, or we could have another uproar.”

Most significant, Mifed has stuck with its five-day span (compared with the 1½ weeks occupied by Cannes and the AFM), refusing requests for an extra two or three days. The fear is that there won’t be enough time to screen all the films and close all the deals.

One smaller American seller comments darkly, “This helps the big companies, like Summit and Miramax, who led the London boycott. The buyers will go to see them first, of course, and who knows if there will be time left for the rest of us. For us, the chance to set up all the stuff in that London week was really valuable.”

Drake is more sanguine. “It will probably force buyers and sellers to focus on what they want to close, and to close it fast. I tend to find that most of these markets tend to peter out after five or six days anyway,” he says.

David Linde, co-president of Focus Features, says it simply means that sales execs will spend more time on the road before Mifed to set up a flurry of dealmaking in Milan.

“I’m ecstatic that London’s not happening. This year, we’ve spent more time in Toronto, Tokyo and the Far East. We are making sure the people are prepped and coming to Milan ready to do deals.”

Mifed has compromised by creating an extra screening day Nov. 2 before the market’s formal Nov. 3 opening. But many buyers have failed to register this change, and won’t be arriving in Milan until the evening of Nov. 2.

Initially, Mifed tried to insist that any film screened Nov. 2 could not get another screening slot until Nov. 6, when the market is virtually over. After protests, this was softened to Nov. 4.

Still, sellers are disgruntled about the allocation of screening slots.

HanWay, which has one world premiere, “To Kill a King” — alongside other strong theatrical pics including “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” requested six slots, but only got four.

This has forced HanWay to reconsider the possibility of staging a private cast and crew screening in London the week before — a classic example of Mifed shooting itself in the foot.

For those buyers who do make it in time for the Nov. 2 showings, there’s also the prospect of chaos as they try and find the people selling the films.

The market floor will not be open, but many sales execs will be there, putting up their stands. This raises the prospect of buyers trying to make offers while the sellers try to hammer up posters and unpack boxes. Will the Mifed security guards be ordered to step in and separate them?

“I expect there will be the odd brawls in the corridors,” laughs IAC’s Michael Ryan, who has seen it all before.

It’s unclear how badly Mifed will have to malfunction to create a real momentum behind the campaign to replace it with an autumn AFM. The big sellers were unanimous about the need to get rid of the London Screenings, and so it happened. But there is no consensus yet on the AFM.

In the shrunken indie marketplace, many sellers don’t have enough product to justify three major markets a year, and increasingly prefer to do business by traveling for meetings with specific buyers.

But over at Miramax, Rick Sands argues that shrinking the market calendar will simply further reduce the amount of acquisitions coin and increase the financial pressure.

“I need three markets. Buyers go to their boards for acquisition budgets before each market. If they only go twice instead of three times a year, I don’t think they will get the same amount of money,” he says. “And if you’ve got a film which doesn’t sell in Mifed, and there’s no AFM in February, it’s a long time until Cannes with the banks on your back.”

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