Horror's still tops, but genre pics are undergoing a few twists

The American Film Market has long been a hunting ground for films whose success does not depend on name players. The attraction is not so much who is in them but what gets done to whom — the key to genre films.

Often cheaper to produce and not necessarily made for theatrical release, genre pics tend to weather the ups and downs of the indie biz quite well and have a steady supply of international takers, say sellers. Horror and action remain the toppers, but genres in general are receiving new twists, which is breathing new life into the biz.

Horror

Scary movies in particular are making their mark of late, with several titles seeing theatrical release and reaping B.O. rewards. Sundance pics such as “Open Water,” about scuba divers menaced by sharks, and gore pic “Saw” were quickly snapped up by Lions Gate — a company that recently enjoyed boffo B.O. with low-budget horror pickup “Cabin Fever.”

Yitzhak Ginsberg, who heads up Dream Entertainment, has his pet theory on the genre’s dominance. “Horror movies are successful,” he says, “because of a post-9/11 atmosphere. People are paranoid; when people are subconsciously in terror, these movies are a tonic. People need some outlet.”

Paranoia showed up in several other Sundance offerings this year, including Armada’s “1.0,” Filmax’s “The Machinist” and Myriad’s “Trauma.”

“Audiences worldwide are responding to the evolution of the horror genre,” says Myriad president Kirk D’Amico. “They want the traditional psychological, frightening and gripping elements that are beloved, but also they want to be stretched and challenged too.”

“Horror is a consistently and constantly growing genre,” says Darren Ramage, who runs Maxim Media Intl. and is exhibiting at AFM for the first time after gaining some national notoriety with “Bumfights” voyeur films. He notes horror’s femme auds are on the rise. “The wife is turning her husband on to the low-budget blood-guts film.”

As horror moves through the youth market, it has also mutated into subgenres like horror-humor, spinning off hybrids like Dream Entertainment’s satire “Joe Killionaire,” which Ginsberg sums up as a “tongue-in-cheek horror movie.”

As always, horror with a humorous twist is amply represented at AFM by Troma, the cult coterie that serves up pics such as “Tales From the Crapper,” with Ron Jeremy.

Action-thriller

“Straight horror is hot if you’re selling straight to video,” says Showcase Entertainment prexy David Jackson. “As far as theatrical or a good TV sale, it depends on who’s in it, and the production values take precedence over the genre.”

Showcase’s focus is action with an emphasis on what Jackson calls “thriller hybrids.” Among its AFM offerings is “Puerto Vallarta Squeeze,” a romantic thriller starring Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel.

Nu Image/Millennium’s Avi Lerner, a longtime action supplier, says there will always be an appetite for the genre, and to prove it, he has two $15 million-budgeted Steven Seagal films in pre-production: “Submerged” and “Mercenary” (working title). The bottom line with this kind of pic, he says: “It’s got to be exciting, and as far as we’re concerned, that means action, action and action.”

Nu Image is in production on “Edison,” a bigger-budget ($25 million) action-drama with Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and LL Cool J, and just finished shooting suspense-actioner “Control,” with Ray Liotta and Michele Rodriguez

Gay-Themed

Meanwhile, most every genre is getting something of a “Queer Eye” makeover.

Myriad’s “Eulogy,” for example, is a comedy that happens to feature two lesbian couples as part of the storyline.

“Same-sex references in everyday entertainment,” says Myriad’s D’Amico, “are now becoming part of the mainstream both on TV and in the movies. It’s no longer taboo and reflects society as a whole, so I expect to see a lot more of it as time goes on.”

Regent Entertainment worldwide sales prexy Gene George says his company has launched another label, here! Films, to handle such gay-themed pics as “Friends and Family,” in which a stylish gay couple works as mob enforcers; and “The Business of Fancy Dancing,” filmmaker Sherman Alexie’s adaptation of his book about a successful gay Indian who returns to a reservation in Spokane, Wash.

“Gay-themed is now also a genre,” George says.

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