Cautious buyers target talent-driven titles

In the wake of an already lethargic year for film sales, and amid the ongoing global economic crisis, execs preparing for next month’s American Film Market say all eyes will be on the Santa Monica-based confab for signs of what might lie ahead.

Major indie pickups have been rare in 2008, a trend that goes back to January’s Sundance and has continued through the year at pic industry gatherings such as Cannes in May and September’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

“The velocity of sales has slowed down considerably,” says Jere Hausfater, CEO of Essential Films. “Buyers are being very cautious. Look at Toronto: There were 20 high-profile movies screening for U.S. buyers, and so far only two bigger deals have been announced. What does that tell you?”

When finished titles aren’t selling, there’s a heavier level of trepidation when it comes to product that has yet to be made. The question surrounding presales now is all about whether or not a project will actually get produced.

“People are being more selective when it comes to prebuying,” says Mandate Pictures’ international prexy Helen Lee Kim. “If it’s a gamble that buyers are willing to take, they’re going to do it with a bigger company that they know is going to execute, and they know they’ll get that end product.”

On the other hand, presales can become rather secondary to a film’s financing mix when there’s a significant chunk of equity involved. Such is the case with a few projects coming to AFM, including GK Films’ thriller “Edge of Darkness,” which stars Mel Gibson and is currently in production in Boston. Lisa Wilson, new prexy of international distribution at producer Graham King’s GK banner, says her company didn’t have to make any presales on “Edge” because it has a private equity investor bankrolling the film. It’s in the enviable position of “being in control of what gets presold and when,” she says.

But projects with big stars that could be considered Hollywood studio-level films aren’t exactly ubiquitous at the moment.

“There are not that many event movies available, because they’re more difficult to put together,” says Summit Intl. chief Patrick Wachsberger.

“Is talent pay-or-play? I can go to market to sell a film, but, until the movie is going, the actor might take another movie. Important talent wants to come to the market, but truly having a very commercial project with a big star on paper, that’s really very difficult to find. And the price of talent has not really gone down.”

And, of course, it’s these types of projects that foreign buyers are most desperate for.

“People are now focused more than ever on $20 million-plus films with stars attached,” says Brian O’Shea, sales topper at Odd Lot Intl. “It’s even more polarized as to what’s valuable.”

“Presales are tough unless there’s something distributors have identified as a ‘must have’ or all components are there, including a script that’s broadly accessible and a solid cast,” adds Film Department’s international prexy Steven Bickel.

“Distributors used to do a lot more shopping; now they know exactly what they want. They know who they want to see at a market. They’ve identified the titles to focus on and make those deals and move on.”

For sales companies attached to studios or mini-majors, or with a key producer or financier supplying titles, it’s somewhat easier to source those projects that will appeal to today’s more selective buyers. Mandate, for one, reps a steady stream of product including titles from its own production operations and parent Lionsgate, as well as third parties such as Relativity Media.

Paramount Vantage Intl. has also gotten into the game, selling Vantage titles as well third-party product from Overture and select pickups, such as Gela Babluani’s white-hot “13” remake, a thriller toplining Jason Statham and Sam Riley.

Having multiple sources to draw from “gives us a chance to pick films that have a natural international audience,” says PVI’s sales head Alex Walton.

Sluggish sales and the scramble for viable product aside, however, AFM organizers say the market’s expected attendance numbers for 2008 reveal no seismic shifts.

“From our view, this year is almost identical to the lay of the land 12 months ago,” says Jonathan Wolf, AFM’s managing director and exec VP.

“We’ve sold out our exhibition space and, within 1%, there is the same number of films. It’s somewhat surprising to

us across the board that exhibiting films and world premieres are running the same. And attendance is a tick above last year.”

He does note that attendance from U.S. and Spanish companies is down a bit.

“But we always get churn — there are 50 new companies and 50 that go away. But the fact that there’s a net decrease in U.S. sellers, that part doesn’t concern us at all.”

But, concedes Wolf, “AFM is a lagging indicator to what is going on in the industry, because what happens at AFM is about finished product. That product got financed under the risk conditions of over a year ago. You can’t judge risk tolerance simply by what is coming to market. We, as a trade show, haven’t yet seen the impact of what’s going on around the world. We may see that at the market, or we may not.”

AFM BY THE NUMBERS

Dates: Nov. 5-12

Estimated number of attendees: 8,200

Estimated number of buyers: 1,600

Number of exhibitors: 409

Net square feet of exhibition space: 172,470

No. of films screening: 520

Approximate number of screenings: 900

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