Competing events drain deals from AFM

“Day four and sellers are getting nervous.”

That’s how Pim Hermeling of Benelux distrib A Film summed up AFM 2007 on Saturday, as attendees lamented the abundance of competing fall markets, a looming WGA strike that is impacting the packaging of projects and what buyers deemed overly high prices for product.

This year’s American Film Market has gotten off to its slowest start in recent memory, according to many at the Santa Monica-based mart.

With a number of buyers — and, amazingly, some sellers — ready to head out of town, Sunday was a pacier affair. Sony Pictures put a multiterritory lock on QED Intl.’s “District 9,” the Peter Jackson-produced sci-fier that will mark the directing debut of Neill Blomkamp.

The Weinstein Co. emerged as the most active North American buyer of the mart. The mini-studio picked up a handful of titles, while its related video label Genius Products weighed in with a further pickup.

Generally, corridor traffic is down, deals are thin on the ground, and even project announcements have been reduced to a trickle.

As early as the confab’s first day, the number of available seats in the Loews hotel lobby suggested things might be slower than usual, but attendees were willing to suspend their disbelief and hope that buyers were filling the screening rooms. But the pace had scarcely picked up by Saturday, and some buyers said they planned to start heading out beginning today.

“We’ve been told that there are more people here, but that must be an overall figure because there are not more buyers,” said one European sales agent, standing idly in a doorway.

“We are doing all the meetings that we expected, but there is very little corridor traffic,” said Media Asia’s Ricky Tse. The refrain was repeated by execs at several other sales companies.

Buyers and sellers share at least one complaint: Many have been on the road since September, attending an almost nonstop succession of fall sales events, including Toronto and Mipcom. The latter seems to be attracting a growing number of theatrical buyers, and Pusan and Tokyo, while not exactly buoyant, met some of the demand for acquisitions and diminished travel budgets.

The recent Rome festival also has ambitions to become a sales market and may have kept some European-based buyers closer to home.

“Rome was better than this,” said Ida Martins, topper of German indie seller Media Luna, in comparing the action at that fest vs. the AFM.

While AFM chief Jonathan Wolf categorically ruled out a return to a February slot for AFM on Wednesday, old industry hands point out that Mifed, which previously occupied the late-autumn slot, was previously seen as the season’s clean-up market. There distribs used up their remaining acquisition budgets to fill out slates that were largely completed and landed pics for lower prices than they had seen earlier in the year. Few major projects got their launch in that environment.

While buyers habitually complain about the dearth of new projects at the AFM, the looming WGA strike may have hindered the flow of quality new material into the market.

“Anyone trying to package talent these days is competing with the studios for the same resources,” says one agent.

As with the Sony-QED deal, the second half of the market, however, could potentially see a flurry of late activity as forces of supply and demand balance themselves out.

Buyers from territories including Japan and Benelux suggest that sellers’ prices are significantly out of line with territory realities, and some suggest they can sit on their hands until sales agents compromise on asking prices.

“Just because the euro is strong doesn’t mean we are going to overpay,” Hermeling said.

If prices don’t come down, however, buyers from long-haul destinations may be unwilling to return home empty-handed and could generate some late acquisitions.

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