Domestic biz puts new spin on pickups

Fest acquistions falling; U.S. market still sets tone

The North American indie acquisitions and sales sectors are experiencing a wave of subtle but significant shifts.

Two key questions: Are the big-ticket festival pickup frenzies at Cannes, Venice and Toronto slowly becoming passe? And is U.S. distribution still the driving force behind international sales? The answer to both: maybe.

At top fests this year, many U.S. specialty labels focused on launching upcoming pics rather than actively shopping for big new titles. The reasons: more pre-sales, below-average completed pics and a brutal distrib climate.

“Films are being acquired throughout the year now, not just at film festivals,” says Dylan Leiner, Sony Pictures Classics’ senior VP, acquisitions and production.

He notes a number of SPC’s recent pickups including “The Triplets of Belleville” and “Young Adam,” weren’t secured at fests.

“Film festivals are the preeminent places to launch a movie,” he says, “but no longer the best places to acquire films or to do business.”

“It’s clear that there is less (completed) product for sale in the marketplace,” says Focus Features’ Glen Basner, exec VP, international sales and distribution. “Most of the good films this year were pre-sold, and most of the ones that weren’t sold weren’t of a high quality.”

As a result, the sales activity at several top fests was centered on a few available titles — most of which were smaller foreign-lingo films.

Contributing to the tougher biz climate is that more U.S. indie distributors are jostling for product and box office. “The market right now is very competitive,” says Arianna Bocco, Miramax senior VP, acquisitions. “There are more distributors, there’s more to choose from, but there are probably the same number of good films out there as there were in the past. There’s no question it’s tough.”

And while international buyers may generally still be following the lead of the U.S. distributors when it comes to picking up product, the rules are changing slightly. “We’ve been in situations this year where the U.S. was the last territory to sell,” says Charlotte Mickie, managing director, intl. sales at Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis.

One recent example is Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” which was financed by pre-selling foreign and secured a Stateside deal later in the game (albeit with sales company Focus Intl.’s domestic division, Focus Features).

“On the financing side, we now regularly sell internationally financed deals to U.S. buyers,” says Micah Green, of Gotham-based financing and sales company Cinetic Media. “A lot of the international sales agents have learned that financing a project without a U.S. deal can often make you more money.”

“I don’t believe that U.S. deals are the driving force behind international sales,” adds Jan Rofekamp, who runs docu sales outfit Films Transit. “The European distributors are very independent-minded, especially when it comes to docs.”

But even if international distribs are increasingly buying films without waiting for their American counterparts to climb aboard, a high-profile sale to a top U.S. distribbery is always good for business.

“Recently a foreign sales agent for a film that we bought saw me at a festival and ran up and hugged me, because the fact that we had bought his film made it possible to double their prices right off the bat,” says Jack Turner, United Artists VP of acquisitions and production. “If a film gets picked up for the U.S., it’s a direct indicator of what distributors from other territories will be going for.”

Another acquisitions exec acknowledges: “I know producers who pursue service deals in the U.S. only to be able to solicit foreign interest. If I was a producer, I would absolutely do that, if only to say that the film has a presence in the U.S.”