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Attendance drops at AFM

Market buyers down 6% for L.A. film event

Like beachcombers working the nearby Santa Monica sands, buyers and sellers at the American Film Market this week were buffeted by strong chilly winds while searching for scraps of value.

Buyers faced twin challenges: trying to figure out which projects were real enough to bid on and to assess the potential value, in their home markets, of the near-record numbers of finished movies being screened.

Attendance at the market, which closed Wednesday, dipped 5% from last year. Significantly, numbers from the world’s top three entertainment markets all dropped: the U.S. (down 16%), Japan (down 27%) and the U.K. (down 6%).

But there was a boom in buyers from the Middle East (40, a jump of 25%), Russia (up 14% to 32), South Korea (79, up 18%) and Hong Kong (27, up 42%).

Though there were fewer attendees and fewer deals, prices were only marginally softer than before. That’s because theatrical box office is still holding up in many territories; DVD is weakening, but not dramatically; and sales to TV were already badly beaten up, especially in Europe.

Throughout the week there was an undercurrent of rumors about the financial health of several sales companies — some prominent, others less so.

There were several new sellers, including Glen Basner’s FilmNation; Guy East and Peter Naish’s Exclusive Film Distribution; Stewart Till’s retooled Icon Entertainment; and WestEnd Films, run by former Capitol staffers.

Many claimed to be filling a perceived void created by the withdrawal of the Hollywood studios from the specialty scene.

But among the strongest performers at AFM were the studio specialty labels that are still alive and today double as international sales agents: Focus Features and Paramount Vantage.

They were able to present films that are financed and assured of a studio-backed North American release. Internationally, they have the luxury of being able to sell off rights or put movies through their parent studios’ own distribution networks.

“Our movies are real and going to happen, with delivery this year or next that distributors can plan into their release schedules,” said Focus Features’ international sales prexy Alison Thompson, who described this year’s overall AFM as unusual.

Alex Walton, Par Vantage senior VP of international sales, said: “We are fully financed and presenting films that are shooting or nearly ready. That’s true of our own films, those coming through the Overture relationship and also in the case of the films where we are a sales agent only.”

For most, the global financial turmoil and rubbery currencies made a slow buying and selling process more protracted.

“We were busy all week in terms of meetings, but in terms of what we concluded, the market was very, very average,” said Gilbert Lim, head of sales at Thai action specialist Sahamongkolfilm Intl.

“We’ve had to work very hard to get to the same point; it has taken longer,” said Focus’ Thompson.

“We’ve done lots of meetings but no big deals here,” said leading Asian indie seller Suh Young-joo, prexy of Fine Cut. “It is hard to do deals quickly. There are so many markets.”

For the record, total attendance this year was 7,903 (down from 8,343, which in turn repped a dip from 2006).

The number of exhibitor personnel was down just 1% at 3,971 and remained above 2006’s 3,888. Buyers were down 6% to 1,527 compared with 1,628 in 2007 and 1,573 the previous year.

Though the big three saw declines (there were 266 U.S. buyers, 168 from Japan and 64 from the U.K.), buyers from France increased by 6% to 99, and Germany was up 7% to 88.

“Once you pull out the U.S. and Japan, the market was essentially flat,” said Jonathan Wolf, IFTA exec VP and AFM managing director. “Both those territories have their own stories. We forced the U.S. companies to reaccredit themselves, and we pulled out about 25 that may have grandfathered rights. For Japan it was really about Gaga, which previously sent a disproportionate number of people. There were actually only two fewer companies.”

The number of films that screened at the market dropped by 2% from 537 to 527.

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