AFM wraps on note of cautious optimism

Foreign buyers used to come to the American Film Market to make offers and close deals before the bazaar ended. No more. At this market, caution prevailed.

The AFM effectively wrapped Thursday (although today is nominally the finale) at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel with a lot of the high-priced projects still up for grabs.

Of the 177 new films screened at the AFM, no sleepers emerged, according to buyers quizzed by Daily Variety. Many of the fresh offerings appear headed straight to video. AFM attendance this year was 4,373 — up 5% from last year.

“Production budgets are going up, release costs are going up. (Buyers) have good reason to be scared if they take a hit” on films that fail at the B.O., said Patrick Wachsberger, president/CEO of Summit Entertainment, one of the high-end vendors.

Pitching Roland Joffe’s “A Scarlet Letter” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Company of Angels,” Wachsberger said he’d had a very good AFM but noted: “There was a lack of energy; deals don’t close as quickly” as at previous markets.

Wachsberger confirmed that he’s bought out his Summit partners — Arnon Milchan, Bernd Eichinger and Cinergi’s Andy Vajna — but said he has exclusive rights to sell Eichinger and Cinergi’s films overseas and would continue to handle foreign TV rights of Milchan’s product.

There was general agreement among buyers that the Jodie Foster-Liam Neeson starrer “Nell,” fielded by Polygram Film Intl., was the standout title here.

Distribs trooped to Carolco’s offices angling for Paul Verhoeven’s Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Crusade” and Renny Harlin’s “Cutthroat Island,” but one multiterritory buyer said asking prices were so high he didn’t expect to close any deals on either film until Cannes.

However, company reps claim to have done “very well” in pre-selling both pix, though they declined to elaborate.

The majors, as ever, were on the prowl. Jere Hausfater, Buena Vista Intl. senior VP of acquisitions and business affairs, was fishing for films that meet his criteria of “European elements with prestige directors.”

Hausfater noted: “The evolution that started about three years ago, when (indie) producers upped their budgets and star values went up, is continuing. I think this (AFM) has been a very good market for sellers and buyers.”

Ortwin Freyermuth, chairman of Capella Intl., agreed that this year’s AFM had been “an example of consolidation that is likely to continue.

“This was a far more focused market than last year,” he said. “All the major distributors were here making deals.”

In the ongoing battle between majors and indie distribs to acquire theatrical product for offshore territories, the majors are gaining the upper hand in Spain , Italy, the Benelux territories and Scandinavia, said one studio rep.

The reason is simple: Many indies have gone belly up in those markets, and only one or two strong ones survive.

To Mark Damon, chairman of MDP Worldwide, this year’s AFM was about “the conglomeration of the independents. The trend is, we’re all teaming up to fight the majors.”

Despite Buena Vista’s deep pockets, Hausfater echoed the common indie buyers’ gripes about prices. “I did not think prices could go any higher. I’m shocked” that they have, he said.

Another U.S. major had scouts viewing more than 30 films. “A lot were good for video but none for theatrical,” said a studio exec, who asked not to be identified. The exec added that the studio has offers out on only two pix.

Among the other hot-selling titles were Ridley Scott’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone” (Majestic Films), Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” (Capitol Films), Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” (Miramax), Jonathan Betuel’s Whoopi Goldberg vehicle “T. Rex” (J&M) and Mira Nair’s “The Perez Family” (Samuel Goldwyn).

Aussie sales agent Gary Hamilton of Beyond Films reported strong interest in “Back of Beyond,” the next pic from “Strictly Ballroom” star Paul Mercurio. But Hamilton noted, “Buyers are being more conservative. It’s tough to pre-sell anything. You have to work hard for every dollar.”

Reps from Overseas Filmgroup, whose suite was buzzing with buyers throughout the market, tagged this year’s AFM as holding few surprises.

“We did about as well as last year,” said Overseas chairman Robert Little. “But I think our expectations have not been as high. There is more business done between markets.”

Little added that the smaller-market product still does very well at the AFM, as evidenced by the large contingent of European and South American buyers. He said the market increasingly is used to confab on upcoming projects rather than the ones on display.

Despite the slim overall deal curve, Robert Lazarus, senior VP and general manager of Turner Pictures Worldwide, was satisfied that his outfit had countered the action/erotic thriller onslaught with family fare — and won.

From their Loews sales suite, which served goldfish-shaped crackers and was bedecked with nautical motifs, Turner has been selling the family-oriented seal pic “Andre” to most major territories.

“We’ve witnessed some of the distribs who generally buy thriller/horror product respond really well to ‘Andre,’ ” Lazarus said.

“We’re healthy, but not as aggressive as we were two or three years ago,” he added. “And the direct-to-video business has flattened out.”

In the exploitation arena, a number of companies are disproving the notion that the low-budgeted, made-for-video genre is dying or critically ill.

Santa Monica-based Gun for Hire, a first-time AFM attendee, offered three films — actioners and thrillers — which each cost less than $ 500,000. “We’ve broken even” on foreign sales, said president Bob Kronovet. After North American sales kick in, “we’ll be up by 50%-100%,” he added.

Capella’s Freyermuth predicts that the still-large percentage of sexploitation pix will decline markedly at future AFMs, because “everyone needs theatrically viable product — and those films aren’t.” The Samuel Goldwyn Co. dismissed the naysayers with an impressive selling spree of not always mainstream product.

The major indie has done terrif overseas pre-sales for the still-to-be-lensed “The Perez Family,” starring Anjelica Huston, offloading the pic in most major territories including Austria, Spain and Benelux; a promo reel is being readied for Cannes.

The lesbian-themed hit “Go Fish,” which was this year’s surprise fave at the Sundance fest, has crossed over from marginal to mainstream audience territory: It has sold to Australia, South Africa, Britain, Italy and various other major areas — relying mostly on theatrical play. Another Goldwyn Sundance fave, “Suture,” also has racked up healthy pre-sales figures.

“It’s interesting that there are distributors in some of these territories who understand the marketing for this picture so well,” Samuel Goldwyn international sales/operations prexy Steven Bickel said.

“My theory on this market is simple,” he continued. “If we have all the buyers here and do business, then it’s a good market — and that’s what we have done.”

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