Horror, action, family films seeking distributors

Less money doesn’t necessarily mean buyers aren’t looking for product, and at this year’s American Film Market, genre standbys like horror, action and family films look to return to prominence. After a year of sensitivity and concern following 9/11 and the crash of the German market, sellers and buyers noticed a promising biz uptick at Italian sales bazaar Mifed, which bodes well for genre movies being hawked at AFM.

“It’s the first market of the year, people are fresh, and they have new budgets,” says Paul Hertzberg, president of CineTel Films. “There’s always high expectations.”

Horror

Though the fireblast success of “The Blair Witch Project” might seem a distant memory, scare pics can still get buyers’ blood coursing. Lions Gate Films Intl. got lots of play on its Toronto acquisition “Cabin Fever,” a gore-filled tale of attractive teens trying to escape the ravages of a flesh-eating disease that will screen at AFM.

“A lot of the cult horror fans really like it. It can play theatrically, and it’s got good ancillary potential,” says Lions Gate Intl. co-prexy Nick Meyer. “Buyers (at Mifed) left ten minutes into the screening to run and try to buy the picture. Horror is one of the sure things there’s an audience for.”

Even with Latin America’s financial troubles, they’re still buying horror, and Asia and Europe continue to seek it. Several sellers are looking to up horror production, while a couple of companies have already kickstarted brands designed specifically for modest- to low-budgeted fright films, namely Senator Intl.’s partnership with Sam Raimi and U.K. company Random Harvest’s new Four Horsemen label.

Raimi and partner Rob Tapert go into production on the $20-million “The Boogeyman” in May, while Four Horsemen’s $12-million debut “Octane,” starring Madeleine Stowe, will screen at AFM via sales company Overseas Filmgroup.

Senator’s president, Joe Drake, says horror works well because it can be concept-driven rather than cast-driven. “It can be sold on an idea,” he explains. “You can see trailers before you ever greenlight the movie. The good news is we’re in a business with a filmmaker who genuinely loves making horror films, and Sam Raimi is intricately involved in the company. When he starts talking about creating a scare, he’s like a giddy kid in school.”

Action

Less violence, better stories. That’s the thrust of the action market this year as companies look to vary their slates with movies that combine action with thriller or disaster elements.

Big names and event films have made it harder for the independents to succeed with traditional action movies. At American World Pictures, it’s about hybrids like “Stealing Candy,” a psychological thriller about criminals who kidnap a movie star, with Coolio and Daniel Baldwin.

American World’s prexy Mark Lester says these days story and plot have had to take precedence over action pyrotechnics. “If you have too many violent scenes, you lose a lot of customers. It’s back to the old filmmaking days where you have to suggest things a little more.”

Avi Lerner, co-chairman of NuImage, is coming to AFM with a package of five disaster-oriented pictures — “Avalanche,” “Tornado,” “Fire,” “Volcano” and “Earthquake” — in the under-$5 million budget range. “It’s got big demand,” says Lerner, who had success last year with a similarly bundled quintet of action movies with military themes and has seen Asia and Europe respond to his new disaster series.

“It’s less violence, more stories about families trapped, and very extensive on CGI.” Without name actors with big salaries, Lerner says, special effects can dominate. “The star of the movie is the volcano, or the fire, or the tornado.”

CineTel had similar success recently with a global warming movie called “Scorcher,” and will have the snow disaster pic “Deep Freeze” at AFM.

Family

Overseas Filmgroup prexy Robbie Little notes that the tightening of European broadcast standards augurs well for family films. “It’s not censorship, but they’re being a little more stringent about what they show at 8 or 9 o’clock at night,” says Little, who’s selling family pic “Kart Racer” and reindeer movie “Blizzard,” starring Brenda Blethyn and Christopher Plummer. “There are groups trying to ensure that these slots are for product that has more family values.”

Like in other genres, franchises work well. The success of Keystone Entertainmnent’s “Air Bud” and “MVP” franchises hasn’t abated, says company prexy Michael Strange, who notes family pics continue to sell well throughout western and eastern Europe, parts of Asia and Latin America. Keystone goes into production on “Spymate,” about a secret agent chimp, in March.

Newcomer Big Idea Productions, producers of Artisan release “Jonah — A VeggieTales Movie,” will be at AFM for the first time. Through sales company Odyssey Entertainment, they’ll be touting the animated feature and its follow-up pic, “The Bob & Larry Movie,” to intl. buyers. They saw a strong response at Mifed from a broad range of territories and are looking to build a partnership to extend “VeggieTales” as a brand around the world.

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