It’s typical of this year’s American Film Market that the biggest event is taking place elsewhere and doesn’t involve buying and selling movies.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, nearly 100 foreign distribution execs will desert the corridors of the Loews Hotel here to attend a high-powered pep rally and brain-storming session organized by Cinergi’s Andy Vajna. The subject: the global marketing and merchandizing strategy for Cinergi’s “Judge Dredd,” set for summer release worldwide.

The unprecedented meeting will set the agenda for what is shaping up as one of the most concerted, aggressive and expensive international campaigns ever mounted to support an independently distributed picture. Cinergi, its overseas sales rep Summit and the network of foreign distribs that have bought the Sly Stallone actioner are looking to set the pace that all the other would-be summer blockbusters will have to follow.

For major indies like Cinergi, horse-trading projects in the Loews suites are now a relatively small part of their AFM action. The event, which runs here from Feb. 23 to March 3, has become a convenient place for sellers to talk strategy with their long-term foreign distribution partners.

Meanwhile, many out-of-town execs spend much of their AFM time catching up with agents, talent and studio execs, instead of spending their time scouting in Santa Monica. Asked why he had spent most of his first two days in Hollywood and not at the AFM, one of Europe’s biggest film buyers said, “Because that is where the good projects are.”

As AFM opened, there certainly didn’t seem to be much major new product to excite buyers. Stewart Till, Polygram Filmed Entertainment’s international president, noted “an incredible lack of product” – a view seconded by Paul Brett, who recently departed the U.K.’s Guild Entertainment and is attending AFM as an acquisitions consultant for Germany’s Scotia. Till is buying for Polygram’s distribution companies in the U.K., Benelux, France and Spain.

One explanation for the shortage of pleasant surprises for buyers is the trend for companies like Castle Rock, New Line, Turner and Polygram away from sales and toward long-term relationships and a more hands-on involvement in the overseas distribution of their films. This edition of the AFM looks likely to be New Line’s last market as a serious seller in many foreign territories. By the time of the Cannes film festival in May, the company is expected to have struck long-term overseas distribution partnerships, just as Castle Rock has done in Europe.

Gathering place

“AFM has become a gathering point not for sales and not for negotiations and not necessarily for banging out a deal over a napkin in a bar,” says Robert Lazarus, exec VP of Turner Pictures Worldwide Distribution. “Now it’s all about reviewing marketing plans, distribution strategies and setting local priorities with our distribution partners.”

On the market floor, one seasoned multiterritory buyer said that nothing was red hot, although Carolco’s “Showgirls” was getting fairly warm. Morgan Creek’s three pics – “Ace Ventura Goes to Africa,” the Sharon Stone remake of “Diabolique” and “Eye of the Tiger” – were all attracting attention, while the revitalized career of John Travolta was helping both Rysher’s “Lady Takes an Ace” and UGC’s “White Man’s Burden.”

Also being talked about by buyers were Summit’s “The Shadow Program,” starring Charlie Sheen, and Largo’s Ridley Scott pic “White Squall,” starring Jeff Bridges.

Polygram Film Intl. is one of a small handful of major sellers with genuinely fresh theatrical titles – the Coen Bros.’ “Fargo,” Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” and Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking,” for which the company threw an evening shindig Feb 24. Majestic Films also boasted three strong new pics: Tig’s “Head Above Water,” Trilogy’s “Nickel and Dime” and “The Rake’s Progress.”

In the specialist market, the Sales Co. reported a slew of first-day sales for the low-budget Brit pic “Butterfly Kiss,” which made a splash two weeks ago at the Berlin Film Fest. Deals that started there were closed in Santa Monica with Italy’s Lucky Red, Polygram in Benelux, Monopole Pathe in Switzerland, Rosebud in Greece, Shapiro Films in Italy and Look Filmes in Brazil. North America, the U.K., Scandinavia and Australia are all in advance stages of negotiation.

Other arthouse titles attracting interest include Nic Roeg’s “Two Deaths” and Alberto Simone’s “Colpo di Luna,” also both handled by the Sales Co; Senator’s “Jack Brown, Genius” and Film Four’s “Bandit Queen” which is being eyed by four U.S. distribs despite the Indian film missing out on an Oscar nod.

“AFM is the most important market for us,” says Miramax International senior VP David Linde, “but it’s not the only time we sell our pictures.” So far at AFM, Miramax has sold distrib rights for 10 of its upcoming titles to Italy’s Cecchi Gori Distribution.

Recently hired Miramax International president Rick Sands is making his AFM bow after former prexy Ian Jessel left the company earlier this year. Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein credits Sands with moving the foreign arm into a more “distribution-oriented” division, rather than “a sales operation.”

“Whoever we sell our films to becomes an arm for Miramax’s marketing and distribution,” Weinstein says. “So they bid more because they make more money.”

That sea change toward joint distribution and multi-pic deals has led more companies are tempering their extravagance at AFM when it comes to parties, dinners and fancy luncheons for buyers. Though Polygram feted Tim Robbins late last week, most of the majors have eschewed the big bashes.

Steve Bickel, head of international for the Samuel Goldwyn Co., maintains that the parties aren’t really necessary for Goldwyn because its distribution connections are already in place.

“Every smart company tries to be as cost effective as possible,” he says. “If we believe that a certain venue or event or a party or a luncheon is valuable to sell our projects, then we do it. But the notion of having to throw a party to entice distributors to do business with Goldwyn isn’t really necessary because our relationships are already well-established.”

Rex Weiner in Santa Monica and Greg Evans in New York, contributed to this report.