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Business booms at AFM

Demand up, market revived

“We just secured rights to Benelux!” exclaimed a producer at a small distribution and sales company, racing through the crowded lobby of the Loews Santa Monica Hotel, a cell-phone cable dangling from his neck.

For an increasing number of international buyers and sellers at this year’s American Film Market, which closes today in Santa Monica, such exuberance reflects a feeling that countries around the globe are again hungry for product and actually buying it.

Trimark Pictures emerged as AFM’s most active theatrical buyer, acquiring North American rights to the Sundance titles “Songcatcher” from director Maggie Greenwald and “What’s Cooking” from Gurinder Chadha.

AFM’s highest-profile sale was Interlight’s “Driven,” starring James Spader and Keanu Reeves, which went to Universal.

“In general, the market has picked up quite a bit,” said IEG’s Graham King, who has sold off many territories for the Jodie Foster pic “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” among other titles. “The economy is better and now there’s a need for product.”

Franchise Pictures topper Elie Samaha rented four Loews suites and closed output deals in such territories as Israel, Turkey and South Africa while concluding lucrative territory sales for “The Art of War” and “White River Kid” in Japan. “This is my fourth market in five years, and I have to say that this is the most aggressive market that I have ever been at,” he said.

Generally, sellers felt that there is lots of money in Europe; Asia (especially Japan and Korea) is coming back, and a lot of companies have bigger lineups than ever.

“You can have international on any film in this town,” boasted one top German player. “The studios are broke. You could even have international on ‘Jurassic Park’ if you wanted.”

German companies such as Intertainment, Constantin Film, Kinowelt and Helkon sniffed around titles and companies, closing a number of high-profile deals and meeting with Hollywood producers looking for foreign coin.

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“There is a consistent appetite for A-product in every country,” said Jere Hausfater, exec veep of Buena Vista Film Sales/Buena Vista Intl. “The video business is stabilizing, DVD is growing, and television markets have an unlimited thirst for product.”

The largest films, however, attracted a frenzy of interest and, some insiders feel, a tendency to overpay for product. “There are a lot of people out there that are making some ridiculous deals that aren’t going to work,” said Hadeel Reda, who runs the Los Angeles office of Winchester Films. “Right now there is a greater demand than supply.”

Outside of the larger players seeking product, insiders see an array of smaller companies, here and abroad, stepping up to the plate and trying to leap-frog to buy bigger titles.

From the sellers’ perspective, the same trend is underfoot. “You can’t survive making $2 million movies,” said John Bunzel of Alpine Pictures.

Alpine, which survives by funneling money from subsidiary companies into film production, sold off certain territories for “The Convent” and “Microwave Park.”

While the deal-making continued at the Loews, the AFM sponsored a handful of financing seminars over the market week. Wednesday’s panel focused on the role of banks in today’s financing landscape.

Banks up on coin

Banks are optimistic about their future as financiers in the film biz, said panelist Steven Fayne, a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. “We don’t see the large gap financing deals that we saw in the past and we won’t see as many insurance deals, though they are not necessarily dead in the water.”

Hovering over the entire market was the question of how the Internet will change buying, selling and financing in independent filmmaking. Sites like Reelplay, InternetStudios, Showbizdata, ScreenXchange and RightsMart all specialize in providing info for buyers and sellers of independent films, and their aggressive bids for dominance officially began with this year’s AFM.

(Liza Foreman contributed to this report.)

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