Timing, talent key to selling at solid, if not spectacular, market

Solid rather than spectacular — that’s the consensus so far among buyers and sellers at the halfway point of the 33rd edition of the American Film Market, with more than 2,000 projects for sale.

“This is a very positive market,” said Alex Walton, president of international sales and distribution for Exclusive Media. “People are saying the corridors are not very busy, but we are having excellent meetings — all the key buyers are here and they have come to do business.”

Walton notes that “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” “The Quiet Ones” and “Parkland” have been well received.

On the day before AFM started, Exclusive Media announced it had joined with Tom Hanks’ Playtone to produce and finance “Parkland” with Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton and Jacki Weaver to star in the drama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy that will mark the directorial debut of scribe Peter Landesman.

With Hollywood studios cutting down producing films budgeted under $70 million or so, the bigger indies announced several high-profile projects before AFM looking to fill that gap.

“It’s a very good AFM and continues the upswing in the level of business that is possible,” Walton said.

The extra hour gained in the switch to Daylight Savings Time Sunday couldn’t come at a better point in the market.

“I really need the extra hour,” said Mark Damon of Foresight Unlimited. “We have not been getting very much sleep for the past few weeks.”

Foresight announced on Oct. 18 that it had come onboard to finance and produce comedy “And So It Goes,” starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. Mark Andrus (“As Good as It Gets”) is scripting, and P.J. Hogan (“Peter Pan”) is set to helm with shooting slated to begin in the late spring.

Foresight Unlimited is presenting “Goes” to international buyers starting at the AFM with Damon producing along with Alan Greisman, Rob Reiner and Mark Damon. Exec producers are Foresight’s Tamara Birkemoe and Grant Cramer.

Douglas will play an eccentric, self-centered realtor whose life is turned upside down when his estranged son drops off a granddaughter he never knew. Keaton will play his determined neighbor.

Damon told Variety that he and Birkemoe have had “Goes” on their radar for less than two months — a remarkably short time in the development world.

“We decided to come on board after reading the script on our way to the Toronto Film Festival,” Damon said. “We knew we could sell it because older audiences are a bigger demographic than we thought.”

Damon admitted that the outsize success of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has shifted strategic thinking in the indie finance world.

“It’s a very emotional script that’s going to connect with everyone,” he said. “It did not require a lot of time to make the decision. I was crying when I read it.”

The weather for AFM’s first half has been impressively sunny — backing up the decision by the Independent Film and Television Alliance last December to remain in Santa Monica through 2017, after considering a move to downtown Los Angeles. AFM has been at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel since 1991.

“I’m slightly jealous of the people that I can see on the beach from here,” said David Garrett of 5-month-old Mister Smith Entertainment, a joint venture with Germany’s Constantin.

The fledgling banner has spent the time in selling territories for “Imagine,” starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Renner and Julianne Moore in the tale of an aging rocker, directed by Dan Fogelman. Mister Smith showed a sizzle reel on Thursday and had closed deals with Roadshow for Australia; eOne for the U.K. and Benelux; TF1 for France; Nordisk for Scandinavia; Mediapro for Eastern Europe; and Imagem for Latin America.

Project had been set up at Warner Bros. but on Oct. 23, it was announced that indie financing had come on board via Inimitable Pictures’ Nimitt Mankad and Shivani Rawat through a film fund backed by Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5 Hour Energy. Script by Fogelman centers on a rocker who decides to change his life after discovering a letter written to him by John Lennon — prompting him to track down his biological son, whom he’s never met.

Fogelman, whose writing credits include “Tangled,” “Crazy Stupid Love” and “My Mother’s Curse,” will make his directorial debut on “Imagine.” Denise Di Novi, Jessie Nelson and Nimitt Mankad will produce. Garrett said the response at AFM has been strong even with buyers having become much more discerning and risk-averse, due partly to the continued depressed economic conditions in Europe.

“The buyers have become very analytical,” he said. “They used to have a much more cavalier approach. For sellers, it’s all about having the right project.”

FilmNation topped Glen Basner said that the first half of AFM had been a scramble with “The Rover,” “Nebraska,” “Hold on to Me” and “Genius” — on which producers announced Thursday that Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender had come on board to star. John Logan wrote “Genius,” which is being produced by James Bierman for the Michael Grandage Co. Filming will start in early 2014.

“We sent the script out after the market started, which is very late, so we’re very grateful that people took the time to read it,” Basner said. “This is such a good project that we are getting the response we expected from buyers.”

Basner said that the 2014 start date will provide ample time for distribs to work with producers on release strategies.

Brian O’Shea, who heads sales outfit the Exchange, said that the timing of bringing projects to AFM has become particularly key — citing the recent announcement of Anna Kendrick coming on board to star in “The Last Five Years,” an adaptation of the musical with Richard LaGravenese directing. Kendrick has scored a serious success as a singer in Universal’s “Pitch Perfect.”

“For us, the timing has been exceptional with ‘Pitch Perfect,'” he said.” We had a teaser trailer promo for it, which gives us a throughline of marketing materials.”

The Exchange also repped J.T. Petty’s horror comedy “Hellbenders,” which Lionsgate acquired Thursday for North America and India.

AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf said the indie spirit has remained high, even though 40 to 50 buyers and sellers were delayed in New York by Hurricane Sandy. Most eventually made it to the West Coast. “One of them told me that he could not get to his home in New Jersey for another week so he felt that he might as well be out here,” he added.

Wolf, who is running his 15th AFM, said one key change in the market since 1998 has been a willingness to market the event rather than keep it under wraps.

“There used to be no outdoor advertising, no ads in the directory, no signage of any kind,” Wolf noted. “I believe that people want to buy and sell in an energetic environment — and that helps increase prices.”

The event, which was based just at the Loew’s at first, has spread to Santa Monica hotels including the Merigot, the Fairmont for conferences and the Shangri-La for the lounge — along with meetings taking place at the Viceroy, Casa de Mar and Shutters hotels and dozens of restaurants in the vicinity.

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