AFM Adjusts to Life After Focus Features Int’l

Busy Indies Get Traction on Star-Driven Projects from Keanu Reeves, Blake Lively

Resiliency has been the predominant theme among buyers and sellers at the halfway point of the 34th edition of the American Film Market, with more than 2,000 projects for sale.

The market began Nov. 6 with a major jolt as the announcement that Focus Features Intl. would shut its London-based operations at the end of December rocked the market. The shuttering is part of Comcast’s shakeup at Focus Features. FFI staffers, including president Alison Thompson, have soldiered on from their suite at the Loews and continued selling existing titles.

But the closing of a well-respected operation — one that had not seen Focus Features deliver a blockbuster hit such as Fox Searchlight’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” — offered up a stark reminder of the pervasive bean-counting mentality among corporate owners.

“That was rough,” noted FilmNation topper Glen Basner. “Alison has run a very solid operation.”

On Nov. 7, Sierra/Affinity took over foreign sales on a pair of FFI horror-thrillers, both directed by Mike Flanagan: “Oculus” and “Somnia,” which will star Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane with production starting Monday.

“We wanted to help the very good producers at Intrepid,” Sierra/Affinity topper Nick Meyer said. “You just have to keep going.”

Meyer said he’s been impressed with the level of buyer enthusiasm at AFM, adding, “It’s so busy — people are banging on my door.”

He noted that reaction was particularly strong for supernatural romancer “The Age of Adaline,” starring Blake Lively and Ellen Burstyn with Lakeshore Entertainment and Sidney Kimmel producing.

The eternal mantra among execs remains: Star-driven and truly original projects will sell well, particularly with studios focusing most of the resources on tentpole franchises.

Alex Walton, president of international sales and distribution for Exclusive Media, pointed to “Passengers,” the indie sci-fi drama with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon starring. The Charlize Theron starrer “Dark Places” closed a raft of foreign sales and Exclusive saw elevated interest in supernatural thriller “Shomer,” with Aneurin Barnard as a shomer, required by ancient biblical law to stay with a corpse, which turns out to be possessed by evil.

“We’re getting a lot of traction on ‘Shomer’ because it’s such an original way to tell story,” Walton said.

Sales agents indicated that the slates for Lionsgate, Panorama and FilmNation were drawing strong interest, particularly a pair of FilmNation’s Kristen Stewart-Jesse Eisenberg comedy “American Ultra” and Lionsgate’s comedy “Mortdecai,” starring Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow, which recently began shooting in London with David Koepp directing.

Mister Smith Entertainment’s Russell Crowe project  “The Water Diviner” also sparked buyer demand.

Buyers reported some pushback on the prices being asked by Good Universe on the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” starring Tom Hardy, and on Lionsgate’s reboot of “Point Break,” with Ericson Core directing.

Nat McCormick of the Exchange noted that sellers are being forced to be particularly creative in how they approach buyers.

“Nobody is putting upfront cash for VOD, and it’s much harder to sell films that are not obviously theatrical titles,” McCormick noted. “We are getting good response on our slate — an Anna Kendrick musical in ‘The Last Five Years,’ a Jean Claude Van Damme action film with ‘Swelter’ and Ron Howard’s documentary ‘Made in America,’ which was just sold to Phase 4 for the U.S.”

McCormick said that the indie sector faces an array of challenges — local production in international markets, the TV production boom, the precipitous decline in DVD sales and young folks not hitting the theaters. “With all the devices that people have, going to the theater does not mean as much to younger people as when I was growing up,” he added.

Mimi Steinbauer of 18-month old Radiant Films Intl. says that her guideline has been to focus on redemptive “feel-good” material such “Wild,” starring Emma Greenwell and Tom Hughes in the real-life story of a working class Irish girl who takes on British high society in the world-renowned Chelsea Flower Show with Vivienne DeCourcy directing.

“It really is against-all-odds material,” Steinbauer notes. “When we started at Cannes last year, we were always planning to do six to eight quality films a year because there is appetite for them.”

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