Hollywood embraces AFM’s alien invasion

Talent, filmmakers see fresh hope in market

Success stories including “District 9” and “Paranormal Activity” are encouraging for the international film business.

The films may have been released by major studios in the U.S. (they were acquisitions), but both were also available to foreign indie distributors in the past year.

Overseas buyers have been demanding studio-level movies for many years now, and they might start to see more of that kind of product. As the Hollywood majors continue to fixate on making tentpoles, increasingly talent is looking toward the independent, international marketplace to get other projects made.

With the American Film Market in full swing this week, several big names in front of and behind the camera will be making the trek down to Santa Monica to meet these foreigners. Expect talent including Keanu Reeves and Steven Soderbergh to be shaking hands with distributors from territories like Argentina, South Korea, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

All of a sudden, it’s a very welcome alien invasion.

Says one Hollywood agent: “The joke was that AFM used to be this schlocky place where people were selling back catalogs, but now it’s one of the major places to make sales to trigger financing on a movie. We have clients going down that never used to — really, really high-end directors and actors that want to be part of the process are going down to AFM.”

Some helmers who used to work solely within the studio system are now trying to find ways to make movies with greater creative freedom and a potentially more lucrative payoff. The rationale is: If they can’t get their full quote at the studios anymore, then why not try to make films in a more entrepreneurial way?

Commercially minded films on reduced budgets are the key, and talent is starting to get the message when greater ownership is possible. “People who haven’t worked in years certainly get it,” a dealmaker added.

Reduced budgets are also a necessity for competitive pricing in an extremely selective buyers’ market worldwide.

High asking prices are an even more common buyer lament lately. Some foreign distributors are starting to wonder if they’re being asked to pick up the slack for the ailing U.S. indie distribution market. “U.S. rights go for Indonesia prices these days,” joked one buyer.

When sales companies and financiers can no longer count on a significant domestic sale, are sellers looking to the rest of the world to make up the difference? With more private equity in the game, that’s maybe not exactly what’s going on. But buyers are watching.

A marketplace contraction among sales companies also could be adding to the pricing dilemma. With companies disappearing from the sales space (Odyssey, Capitol), merging (Bold Films and Odd Lot) or losing their in-house sales functions (the Film Department), there are ever fewer companies bringing major titles to market.

But some, of course, see an upside in that development.

“Hopefully, that will make it a slightly more focused market,” said Stuart Ford, whose IM Global sold “Paranormal Activity” at AFM last year. “There are quite tangibly fewer sellers and fewer packages this year. A lot of the chaff has fallen out of the marketplace. Well-presented projects will sell very quickly; others will not.”

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