Bumper crop of sales outfits sprout at AFM despite long odds

Though the odds against them are daunting, a record number of first-time exhibitors are jostling for attention at the 24th edition of American Film Market. Space at the sales bazaar is sold out for only the third time.

Film market organizer AFMA says there are a mind-boggling 101 tyro exhibitors, up sharply from 30-40 new companies in recent years.

The count is a bit misleading since each year about one-third of those newbies squeeze into an office taken by an umbrella organization, usually a government agency, and thus do not occupy their own exclusive space.

Seven old-and-new film sellers are shoehorned in the Italian Film Commission office at AFM. But the remaining two thirds of the 101 newbies either take offices solo or share with one other company.

Of 22 exhibitors clustered on the second floor of last year’s AFM, only 11 names resurfaced this year.

From 2001, fewer than half the 26 exhibitors from floors two and three are in evidence this year. New companies with the lowest priority tend to land on floors two and three at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, where seven of its eight floors are crammed with AFM exhibitors.

Among the new trends:

Territorial buyers are setting up as sellers, including Becker (Australia), Bollywood distrib Eros Ent. (U.K.), Fortune Star (Hong Kong), Latido (Spain), New Films Intl. (Eastern Europe) and Tohokushinsha (Japan).

There’s a new wave of umbrella orgs, typically film agencies mandated to enlarge business in their territories. First- timers in this category include Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), ROC Government Information Office (Taiwan) and Russian Cinema Council (Ruscico).

AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf says umbrella orgs are encouraged, because they enable small companies to participate in the market.

Wolf attributes the twice-the-normal number of newbie exhibitors to a combination of factors.

The film sales climate is improving after a three-year downturn; the weak dollar reduces travel expenses for most non-U.S. exhibitors; and AFM’s own market promotion effort have all contributed to the full house.

Over the years, the most common type of newbie is a U.S. film producer who diversifies by becoming a film seller.

But these typically don’t have staying power.

In one colorful example, Frozen Assets was an exhibitor in the early 1990s that handled a comedy film about a sperm bank with the same name.

While companies may fall by the wayside, their executives remain on the merry-go-round, moving to new startups or latching on to established outfits.

The freshman class of 2004 is peppered with lots of U.S. companies, which profess to be neither brave nor foolhardy.

They point to various synergies.

Among the new blood from the U.S. is MarVista, which holds 3,000 titles of TV and animation programming from a predecessor and also international rights (except for Germany) to “Sounder,” the 1972 film about a family of black farmers that received four Oscar noms.

“The majors don’t reach niche markets that can have significant sales,” says MarVista managing director Fernando Szew. “There’s still room for little gems.”

Mindfire arrives with a film based on the Vampirella comic book property via two of its owners that are comic and film magazine publishers.

“You can achieve success in the business work in the short term if your first film works and you build on that,” says Mindfire head of sales Phil Botana.

“For the long term, you have to be careful not to grow too quickly, have a handle on where the marketplace is going and making smart financial decisions along the way.”

Cinamour is coming from the TV arena, where it licensed its syndicated TV reality series “Cheaters” to foreign TV buyers and now is serving up fantasy action adventure film “Forbidden Warrior.”

“We have foreign clients asking for this kind of programming,” says Cinamour chairman Glen Hartford. “I think this business is less risky than people think.”

The reality series “Cheaters” hires private detectives to follow people suspected of being unfaithful at the request of their suspicious mates.

Not all of the freshman class of 2004 are medium or small.

Hong Kong-based Fortune Star is the movie rights arm of pan-Asian satellite platform Star TV, which is itself a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s media conglom News Corp.

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