A favorite sport this time of year is taking cheap shots at the American Film Market. People love to mock its garishness and revel in its crass exploitation titles, which account for a minority of the offerings from participating companies.

In fact, seven of the top 20 titles at the nation’s B.O. last week were repped by members of the American Film Marketing Assn., the trade group of U.S. indies that sponsors AFM.

In addition to well-known films that are repped by foreign sales companies, such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Madness of King George,” some have forgotten that Capella has “Nobody’s Fool” overseas and MDP controls much of the world on the live-action “Jungle Book.”

Of course, many of the biggest films at AFM are from the most upper-crust members of the organization, who increasingly distribute their own product around the world. They’ve learned that in order to compete with the majors, you have to operate using their time-tested strategies.

Still, success is relative and limited. Last year, of films repped by AFM members, only Polygram’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and New Line’s “The Mask” generated B.O. in excess of $100 million in foreign climes. In 1993, the sole movie to reach that level among non-studio efforts was Carolco’s “Cliffhanger.” The current quasi-non-mainstream champ is Miramax’s “Pulp Fiction.”

Miramax is a division of Disney, New Line falls under the Turner umbrella and Carolco has maintained domestic output deals with the majors. Miramax also exploits its parent company’s output deals in video and cable, while Polygram and New Line appear to be heading toward the type of worldwide distribution network – or at least a series of strategic alliances with territorial majors – that have long made the majors, well, major. Take those companies and their pre-existing distribution deals out of the picture, and who’s left selling theatrical product at AFM?

With Carolco streamlined, the major supplier of A titles is Summit, which is handling foreign sales on such high-profile Cinergi releases as “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” Demi Moore in “The Scarlet Letter” and Sylvester Stallone as superhero “Judge Dredd.”

Foreign edge

Though no one can match the number of sought-after films on Summit’s roster, Spelling, Castle Rock, Morgan Creek and Largo can lay claim to movies with big stars and potential broad foreign appeal. This handful of companies has an edge in that they all partner with a U.S. major, and international buyers generally receive such benefits as pre-tested marketing campaigns and advance publicity to bolster interest.

Flying in a slightly lower orbit are several other U.S.-based companies that might have one or two hot titles. They include such outfits as Capella, Goldwyn, Island, MDP, Overseas and Trimark. Their product serves as an anchor for slates rounded out with programmer fare or upscale-appeal pix. Most of the titles are slated for U.S. theatrical release, some tied to a U.S. major.

Mixed bag

The third significant set of theatrical suppliers is the European companies – generally London-or Paris-based – that have a mix of U.S. pix and international co-productions in the English language. That group comprises such sellers as Ciby 2000, Rank, Majestic, UGC, J&M and Mayfair. Like their second-string U.S. counter-parts, they usually have a few pix with heat and a repertoire with strong playability.

Others may have titles with theatrical appeal but most do not operate in that arena.

The same holds true for buyers. “Because Milan was hurting for solid B or good C product, a lot of secondary buyers are seeking out the next level of film,” says indie rep and attorney Tom Garvin. “Everyone would like the next ‘Last Seduction.’ It comes with a lower price tag, so you have a better chance of making your money back.”

Non-A titles very rarely have a shot at becoming theatrical powerhouses overseas. They may have some limited big-screen play but generally find their niche on television or video. Both non-theatrical venues are becoming increasingly lucrative arenas as cable and satellite operations mushroom internationally and the scramble to secure product has pushed prices upward.

However, as in North America, theatrical sales fuel ancillary revenues. Some sellers continue to propagate the great lie about their film playing foreign screens after a domestic television airdate. The instances of that scenario coming true have ebbed to a trickle.

“What you will see this year is a lot of speculation,” insists a veteran AFM attendee. “The marketplace has shrunk and the odds of snapping up a strong title for your territory are not as good as buying a winning lottery ticket. Those films are long gone, so people will gamble on something having unexpected success in America. It’s a fool’s scenario. Most countries are under-screened and controlled by product from the majors. The prospect of a big score from a fluke will put a lot of people out of business.”