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Tentpole takedown

After the 'Rings' high, buyers ask: Is the party over?

The layout of the coveted eighth floor of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel might look a little different as the 25th American Film Market gets under way this week.

Media 8, which recently announced the exit of longtime CEO Mark Damon, is moving out of its corner offices on the hotel’s top floor and into another space.

One of the floor’s most high-traffic suites, Miramax Intl., is likely to cast a lower profile at this year’s mart, in the wake of speculation about the company’s fate under its Disney parent. The tenuous situation is likely to send some ripple effects through the international community, which has depended on Miramax product over the years.

New Line International will be inhabiting a bigger office space on the eighth floor. And, as far as position goes, Focus Features has gained ground too. It takes over Media 8’s much-envied corner suite.

Though these changes may seem cosmetic, they mask a bigger problem in the marketplace — a dearth of larger theatrical product for overseas indies to release in 2005.

“Buyers are very concerned about the availability of product and they should be,” says Senator Intl. prexy Joe Drake.

Though Senator will announce four titles at AFM, it is one of just a handful of companies capable of consistently delivering larger theatrical films.

“Cash-flow cycles are so long and slow, and finding product is tough,” Drake says about the challenges facing all companies.

Kaz Moriguchi, head of acquisitions for Japan’s Shochiku, says he’ll be on the hunt for a couple of big titles at AFM, but fears there won’t be much to choose from.

“I am looking for some huge films to distribute at the end of 2005 and for 2006,” he says. “Nowadays it’s really hard to get an audience for middle-sized films.”

Along with many other local distributors around the world, Shochiku is in search of product along the lines of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which it co-released (along with Nippon Herald) in Japan.

Australia’s “Rings” distributor, Village Roadshow’s Joel Pearlman, adds, “In terms of what we’re looking for — pictures with theatrical potential and big blockbusters — there isn’t a huge volume of titles we’re currently interested in. There are opportunities at this market, as at every market, but there’s definitely less (available).”

New Line, the company responsible for the “Rings” powerhouse, is working on getting its next big franchise set up — “His Dark Materials,” a sci-fi fantasy based on Philip Pullman’s novel. But it won’t be flowing through the international pipelines for some time.

” ‘Lord of the Rings’ opened up a lot of things on the indie side,” says New Line Intl. prexy Camela Galano. With the trilogy ended, “it’ll be very quiet this December, when we’d normally be going crazy. I get at least an email a day from all over the world asking about ‘Dark Materials.’ ”

Galano says the “Dark” script won’t be ready to show buyers at AFM, but perhaps in a month or so. The anxious will just have to make do with the first unspooling of New Line’s “The Wedding Crashers,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.

Meanwhile, with Miramax in limbo, many buyers fear the loss of a key supplier of big theatrical fare.

Chief operating officer Rick Sands admits Miramax Intl. won’t have tentpole titles to unveil at the market, but he won’t be showing up empty handed either. Shingle will have a new comedy on offer, “Daltry Calhoun,” starring Johnny Knoxville and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino. Plus it will show footage from Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City,” and screen Wes Craven’s “Cursed,” budgeted at more than $40 million.

If some suppliers might fall by the wayside, others are already filling the void. One company that’s stepped into the bigger-budget fray is Nu Image/Millennium.

The veteran foreign sales shingle now has titles on its slate with budgets of up to $55 million. Company has Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia,” a 1940s-L.A.-set drama starring Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett, in preproduction. And “Edison,” a pic developed in conjunction with Emmett/-Furla, starring Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Justin Timberlake, is in post.

“Most of the independents don’t want to take risks like we do,” says Nu Image topper Avi Lerner. “We are stepping up.”

But Glen Basner, exec veep of international sales and distribution at Focus Features, doesn’t believe pics have to be big budget to be theatrically viable.

“Too often distributors are more concerned about how big a film is. I’m more concerned about whether a film represents value for our clients around the world. We’ve always done films at all different types of budget levels and people are making a lot of money with them.”

Focus-sold titles, including “Lost in Translation” and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” have reaped some $225 million at the overseas box office so far in 2004, Basner says.

Lions Gate Intl. co-prexy Nick Meyer adds, “If you are committed to bringing value to the marketplace you survive. You have to be an international sales company that thinks like a distributor.”

Among Lions Gate’s recent overseas hits is scarepic “Saw,” which opened strongly for U.K. distrib Entertainment in October — nearly a month before the U.S. release.

Indeed, reinventing yourself as a seller has become critical to survival in recent years.

Reiko Bradley, prexy of Sydney-based Becker Films Intl., points out: “It’s a financing game first and a sales game second. The hardest part of international sales is that it takes so long to put a project together you’re not making money for a long time.”

Like the sales companies, the org behind the AFM itself has had to reinvent itself to keep up. This year, it moved the market permanently to November, which has bumped Italy’s pic confab Mifed out of autumn. It has a new name — Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) — and a new strategic linkup with the AFI Fest.

Organizers are expecting big things for this November go-round. Exhibition space at AFM is sold out and a record 452 films are set to unspool during the market — 285 of which are market premieres.

Though there seems a bit of a wait-and-see attitude to how the linkup with AFI Fest will work, both orgs stand to gain from the alliance. The AFM could get a boost from talent visiting the market (all filmmakers with pics at AFI Fest get an AFM market badge).

And AFI could see more buyers attending festival screenings and, potentially, some acquisitions. Crossover also will allow AFM sellers to show pics in a fest setting and fine-tune marketing plans with buyers who may be seeing pics for the first time with a real audience.

Marketgoers will see first-hand how the alliance works out over the next two weeks.

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