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TWC picks up Houdini pic

Indie shift mires AFM

Domestic deals were sparse at AFM this year, reflecting the caution of indie film divisions as the artpic biz recedes and they increasingly turn their attention to genre fare following horror successes such as the “Saw” franchise.

Only one significant pact emerged just as the market wound down: The Weinstein Co. pacted to pick up U.S. rights to helmer Gillian Armstrong’s “Death Defying Acts,” which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, who plays escape artist Harry Houdini.

TWC’s Harvey Weinstein bought the film off a promo reel. Pic has been in pre-sales for a year, but sales agent Myriad had made footage available for the first time at AFM. Myriad — which has already sold off “Death Defying” in various territories, including U.K. rights to Lionsgate — was repping U.S. rights on the film along with ICM and WMA.

Wong Kar Wai’s English-language “Blueberry Nights” was another pic primed to sell, and vid deals were going down on Japanese horror pic “Nightmare Detective” and the CG-animated “Shark Bait.”

Even while U.S. buyers were trigger-shy, some major sellers were rolling this year — Mandate was in the happy position of repping Sacha Baron Cohen’s next pic just as “Borat” hit.

But AFM was in large part this year a market driven by video deals and pacts between international players, as films made abroad flourish in local markets.

“There are shifts going on in the marketplace as so many companies try to figure out who they are,” said Myriad topper Kirk D’Amico. “There’s a lot of turmoil, and the domestic guys are mostly very slow to react.

“For the most part, they want to see finished films and not buy off promo reels or script stage,” D’Amico added.

One indie acquisitions exec noted the vid-driven nature of the market. “A lot of product looked like stuff for a video library,” the exec said. “It shows the state of the indie business, that there’s a very limited amount of stuff that will work in the theatrical market. The specialty film business is shifting toward genre films. When movies like ‘Saw III’ come out and make that much money, it makes sense.”

AFM’s date-shift to November also was said to have abated U.S. dealmaking. Most of the high-profile pics picky American buyers will be salivating over will make their way to Sundance, and sellers are reluctant to show such films before January.

Market’s slot on the calendar now makes it a place where buyers catch up on films they haven’t had a chance to see at other venues during the year and to gauge the progress of pics that are in, or heading for, production.

In AFM’s former winter slot, buyers used the Los Angeles venue to allow their studio bosses who hadn’t been to Berlin a chance to screen pics from that ever-expanding fest.

Also, AFM’s ties to the AFI Fest were tenuous for the third year, as few buyers trekked to Hollywood to screen pics, preferring to stay seaside. But the market atmosphere just doesn’t capture acquisitions execs’ imaginations the way Cannes and Park City do.

“U.S. buyers are so much more comfortable to buy in a film festival environment off those screenings,” a buyer said. “They want to buy off of festival buzz.”

Lack of activity made the once reliably wild-and-woolly AFM seem staid, but such a shift may actually be welcome.

Market once was seen as a free-for-all where legit studios sat side-by-side with hucksters hawking B pictures, skin flicks and everything in between.

Along with a lack of news releases flowing to announce deals, there was little of the zany stunt promotion that used to go down in Santa Monica.

This year, Curb Entertainment promoted pic “Succubus Hell-Bent,” starring Gary Busey, Lorenzo Lamas and Kelly Hu, by hiring a team of fighter jets to re-create a “death-defying dogfight scene.” But other spectacles were scarce.

Even though the number of announcements from U.S. companies dwindled drastically, biz was still booming for some foreign entities as Asia becomes increasingly active at he mart.

“Commerce is commerce,” said Samuel Goldwyn Films’ Peter Goldwyn, whose company has previously bought such pics as Israeli import “Walk on Water” here. “Just because people aren’t buying for the U.S., it doesn’t mean there’s not business. Business was mostly happening with foreign companies.”

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