Smaller sellers struggle post-vid downturn

Three or four years ago, the American Film Market was so crowded that even catching an elevator at the Loews Santa Monica took forever.

And though more than 400 films still unspool there for some 7,700 international film bizzers, this year’s AFM was in many ways a more manageable market. In a symbol of the changing times, the action is confined once again to the Loews. There’s no longer a need for the overflow space provided by Le Merigot hotel next door. And though the AFM officially ended on Nov. 10, many firms closed up shop two days before.

With the number of sellers down 7% this year and overall attendance up 6%, there’s a widening gulf between the have and the have nots. Companies with viable commercial titles are holding their own, but each year it becomes less likely to Photoshop the latest action star on a poster and sell out the world.

“It’s definitely thinner and there’s definitely less of everything,” says Icon Group chief exec Stewart Till. “There are less people, less crowded corridors and less films. I think it’s an inevitable thing. It’s a difficult time in our business and there are absolutely going to be casualties.”

Walking around the lower floors of the Loews, which were once lined with posters flogging genre pics and salivating exhibitors selling DVD rights, the halls appeared slightly more sparse than usual. In today’s climate, those ancillary rights don’t count as much.

“It really seems like very slim pickings,” says Patrick Ewald, CEO of Epic Pictures. “There seem to be a lot fewer companies — it’s like there’s a lot of shaking out of really small companies and that part of the business has basically evaporated.”

A veteran European buyer explains that the falloff in the global DVD market has had a tremendous impact on AFM.

“The international markets are driven far less by video now, although theatrical and TV are still good. The traditional genre movies that permeated AFM for video deals have dipped,” the buyer says.

The flip side: A handful of bigger budget titles generated huge business, led by BBC Earth’s $65 million “Walking With Dinosaurs,” sold by Stuart Ford’s IM Global. Twentieth Century Fox picked up domestic rights and a bundle of other territories that weren’t already sold.

Outfits like IM Global can easily justify taking out a large suite at the Loews, but the steady decline in the number of sellers attending AFM since 2007 has been affected by the price of setting up camp there.

An office above the lobby costs $8,320 — plus $290 for Internet — so the question is, is it worth it for the smaller outfits who focus on ancillary sales to come to AFM, or have online promo reels and Skype made markets a luxury?

Etchie Stroh, CEO of Moonstone Entertainment, and an AFM vet of several decades, says that the decline in homevideo sales has affected the amount of movies and quantity of pics up for grabs at the market.

“Right now, I think you have to be more careful in what you do and the amount of movies you (make),” he says. “So if somebody says ‘I have a slate of 10 movies in the $5 million range,’ I bet you he’s not going to be here next AFM.”

Moonstone was shopping horror pic “The Howling: Reborn,” “Sinners and Saints,” and “A Kiss and a Promise.” Sales were on the lighter side, with “Howling” — now in post — closing deals only for India, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. “Sinners” and “Kiss” both sold to Italy, while “Sinners” also made a deal for Scandinavia.

“I think it’s more difficult for people (who) are new or unestablished to carve a place for themselves at the market, but if you have been around, and people know what you do and know the quality you do, it’s relatively easy to get the attention,” Stroh says.

But he added: “There’s no smart answer for everybody.”

“Appetite still exists for video at AFM,” insists Epic’s Ewald. “While numbers are shrinking, the U.K., Germany, France and Russia are still getting a little stronger. Japan, which used to be a fantastic market, has just collapsed.”

But Ewald says that most of his business was focused more on theatrical titles than the straight-to-DVD biz.

Epic launched supernatural pic “11:11:11,” the next project from helmer Darren Lynn Bousman), which it is co-producing and co-financing, at the start of the market this year, and title has elicited heavy interest from a slew of territories.

Media 8 Entertainment has been coming to AFM for two decades. VP of acquisitions Audrey Delaney says her company moved away from horror fare about two years ago, although it was never a core part of Media 8’s biz.

“We saw homevideo really shift over two to three years. It’s not as dramatic at this market because we’ve seen it happen already,” Delaney says.

Delaney, like others, says the decline in the number of sellers attending AFM underscores a drop in product overall. Industryites say that’s not a bad thing.

“Prices have stabilized somewhat over the past year, but I think that’s also because there’s a little bit less material than there used to be,” she says. “We had sort of a glut of films a couple of years ago.”

“Now, more than ever, people want things that are safe,” says another European distrib. “They want to build their slates with known quantities.”

There’s no better example than BBC Films’ feature version of “Walking with Dinosaurs,” based on a popular miniseries. With the biggest sales of any title in IM Global’s history, it sold out worldwide just a week after it was announced, with much of its budget covered even before IM Global left Santa Monica.

Fox took rights for the U.S., U.K., France, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Latin America and a number of other territories.

Also sparking sales was Lawrence Kasdan’s dramedy “Darling Companion,” toplining Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton, which Sierra Pictures sold to several key territory.

And George Clooney personally lobbied distribs for his political thriller “The Ides of March,” with a number of territories skedded to close. Clooney helms, produces and stars in the pic, which stars Ryan Gosling, while Exclusive Media Group handles international sales.

Lionsgate’s feature adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ tomes “Hunger Games,” helmed by Gary Ross and produced by Nina Jacobson saw significant presale biz, while Brad Pitt starrer “Cogan’s Trade” was said to be sold out internationally without even having a script.

StudioCanal ramped up its trade this year — 80% of biz at AFM was due to presale deals, notably through Working Title production “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” with no official footage available — the $30 million title was launched on just script and package.

Yet the disparity between these projects and the hundreds of other films screening at AFM was even sharper than usual.

“Outside of a very small circle of movies, and despite all the hype, we actually felt that for the smaller projects, the market was as bad as it’s ever been,” one seller notes. “For a lot of distributors, because of the unrest in the ancillary markets, the uncertainty is worse than ever.”

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