Sales confab marked by apprehension

As buyers, sellers, producers and agents converge on Santa Monica today for the American Film Market, many of the participants will be focused on news emanating from Writers Guild of America headquarters, where a potential strike could send shockwaves through the annual pic sales confab.

While most say it’s business as usual, many sellers noted an uncharacteristic sense of apprehension and urgency pervading the market due to the looming writer’s strike, which could be a harbinger for a Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America shutdown.

“Over the next couple of days, there will be a lot of buyers asking about the strike and what impact it could have on them,” said Richard Guardian, co-president of Lightning Entertainment. “When people are speaking to buyers, the question is: Is this movie pre-strike or post-strike?”

Most market watchers said a writer’s strike would not have a direct impact on the flow of commerce because few films at AFM are sold on a pitch or concept basis and most scripts for market fare are already complete. However, the mere possibility of a SAG and DGA stoppage is creating a headache for producers packaging films to be shopped at AFM, which runs through Nov. 7.

“Many projects that are being offered for sale at the AFM are with no cast or pending cast, so everyone is having a casting nightmare,” said Jere Hausfater, CEO of Essential Entertainment. “Casting is always an arduous process. It’s always one step forward and two steps back. It’s now one step forward and four steps back. Everyone is trying to secure cast to get up and running.”

The problem for filmmakers is that everyone is chasing the same dwindling pool of available talent.

“The stars have to be aligned anyway to get these bigger-budget independent movies up and running,” Hausfater added. “Now the stars have to be aligned and the moon is full to get these movies greenlit. And even if you get someone cast, they can still jump ship. And that’s happening a lot more than at previous markets.”

With a shrinking window of pre-strike filming days on the horizon, actors and directors are more willing to back out of a film based on something as simple as a whim. “It’s not about money,” Hausfater explained. “Even if (the talent has) been paid money, I’m having people say, ‘I’ll write you a check and give you the money back. We don’t care. We’re going to do another movie.’ “

In addition to fickle talent, filmmakers now have to contend with a more cautious group of financiers. In fact, some see the strike issue giving an advantage to buyers.

Brian O’Shea, executive veep of worldwide distribution at Odd Lot Intl., expects buyers to use the unsettled labor climate as a negotiating tactic. “They will make sure their product will be delivered in a timely manner,” he said. “If (a film’s wrap date) is close to the strike (in June), the buyers will be more hesitant.”

For 2929 Intl. prexy Shebnem Askin, this year’s AFM will be more harried than in previous markets.

“As far as we are concerned, the strike has happened,” she said. “We already have three movies that are going forward right away, so we prepared ourselves for the strike. However, in terms of sales, it’s forcing me to pre-sell three projects at the same time. We do about six films a year, and usually they are a little bit more spaced out.”

Still, some see a silver lining for strike-weary sellers.

“In an ideal world, one would like to believe that the buyers will be anxiously buying and stockpiling product because they know that the faucet could run dry next year,” Guardian said.

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