The American Film Market hosts the debut of BMG Entertainment, the international arm of German media giant Bertelsmann and a significant new buyer of foreign rights to feature films.

A 20-strong team of BMG execs from all around the world are attending AFM for the first time as a coordinated group, headed by Adrian Workman, senior VP of London-based BMG Video Intl.

BMG, principally a record company with a strong and growing presence in the video business, is looking to expand globally into theatrical distribution as a way of getting hold of top-class feature product. It currently has video distribution operations in 38 countries.

Its local subsidiaries in some territories – notably the German-speaking countries, Italy, Spain and Latin America – have already started to pick up theatrical rights on an independent basis. In Germany, for example, the company has “Stargate” and “Pulp Fiction,” while the Latin American operation pre-bought all rights to Andrew Davis’ upcoming “Steal Big, Steal Little”.

But AFM will mark the first time that BMG’s national companies will cooperate with Workman’s central buying team at BMG Video Intl. to pick up theatrical rights across several territories at once.

Lineup eyed

Workman has a list of a dozen pix, mostly American action titles, for which he is considering buying all foreign rights.

But he says that BMG’s international film strategy is still very much at the “embryonic” stage, and that “there is no time pressure on us at all” to rush into major rights acquisitions if the local subsidiaries are not yet ready to handle them.

Many of BMG’s national companies have no arrangements yet in place for theatrical distribution. But if Workman returns from the AFM with a big package of purchases, they could find themselves being forced to play hurry-up to get into the business.

Makes sense

For Workman, the move into theatrical rights acquisition is the logical consequence of the decision to broaden BMG’s video business to include feature films. In the past few years, BMG Video Intl. has progressed from music titles to special-interest product, and is currently making a major push into the animation field. Feature films, for sell-through and rental, are the next target.

In all these genres, Workman’s role is to acquire video titles on a multiterritory basis, to supplement the product picked up locally by BMG’s national companies. He estimates that he provides about 30% of the product released by BMG in each country. “We’re now embarking on the same central approach to the film industry,” he explains.

He points to the progress of BMG’s animation strategy as a model for how the feature film side will develop, starting with simple distribution pick-ups and moving onto production financing in return for rights.

Toon time

This year, BMG Video Intl. will spend around $15 million on animated production. In the past week it announced that “The Wind in the Willows” will be its first fully-financed project, costing $2 million for two hourlong shows produced by Martin Gates Prods. and pre-sold to Channel 4 in the U.K.

It also unveiled “The Snow Queen,” costing $3 million for 82 minutes, co-financed with a private investor and also produced by Martin Gates. This follows the announcement earlier this month that BMG would be the largest financial partner in the co-production of ‘Peter and the Wolf,” with veteran Hollywood animator Chuck Jones on board the project, budgeted at $4 million for 50 minutes and destined for broadcast on ABC in the U.S.