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AFM Opens in Glow of Good Film News

As final prep took place for the 35th American Film Market in Santa Monica, temperatures began rising — and so did optimism that the independent marketplace would generate significant transactions.

A flurry of deals came together in the week leading up to the AFM’s opening Wednesday: Henry Cavill starring in the action-thriller “Stratton”; Morton Csokas joining Emilia Clarke in “Voice From the Stone”; Shekhar Kapur directing “Tiger’s Curse”; Mitch Glazer’s TV series “Magic City(pictured) becoming a movie with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Bruce Willis and Bill Murray; Jon Bernthal and Catalina Sandino Moreno joining Catherine Zeta-Jones in drug-lord drama “The Godmother”; and Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon and Elle Fanning starring in “Three Generations.”

Adding to the positive vibes were several recent funding announcements: Kevin Frakes’ PalmStar backing Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road and Bill Block’s QED plus Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp securing $600 million in financing with Scarlett Johanssen’s “Lucy” grossing over $440 million worldwide.

It’s all part and parcel of the six major studios leaving the mid-range projects for the independent sector, according to Lotus Entertainment’s Jim Seibel, who closed a deal for Keanu Reeves sci-fi actioner “Replicas” a week before AFM.

“We are developing, producing and financing projects that the studios used to,” he said. “There’s an opportunity there but have we have to be very exacting about it. That’s one reason why we’re working with Lorenzo di Bonaventura for the third time after ‘Kidnap’ with Halle Berry and ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.’ ”

QED is seeing solid numbers for its Brad Pitt war drama “Fury,” with worldwide grosses at $100 million. “There’s a real need for quality product and there’s been a downturn in the number of projects available,” said QED VP John Frieberg. “Lower quality content is not working anymore; distributors won’t buy it because they’ve become really selective.”

With “Fury,” QED was able to get all the emerging markets on board with Sony picking up the U.S. and some foreign markets. “We sold China, Japan and Italy so it was fully financed before we started because we really need that to support the financial structure,” he said.

Mimi Steinbauer, two years after launching sales-financing banner Radiant Entertainment, finds herself with an array of titles up for sale including “Madame Bovary,” starring Ezra Miller and Mia Wasikowska and “Driftless Area” with Zooey Deschanel.

“We are looking for projects that are big or really bold,” she said. “That’s the way you survive these days because audiences have so many options.”

Frank Smith, Walden Media’s chief operating officer, said mid-range films remain in short supply.

“The funds coming into the market are a wonderful thing because it means more films will get made — films like ‘Birdman’ that are deeper,” he said. “It all comes down to content and getting that right. And now there are alternative distribution models that weren’t around even two years ago. We are going through a transition period where the idea of day-and date platform releasing has taken hold.”

Foreign sales agents are also coming in with positive attitudes: One of Paris-based sales company Wide’s titles is Toronto festival title “Margarita With a Straw.”

“I think the AFM could be the right place for a film such as ‘Margarita With a Straw,’ at a market where distributors are not so interested in classic arthouse but could be interested in a film which is a mix of arthouse and entertainment,” said Wide prexy Loic Magneron.

Monday saw a reminder that independent financing can be problematic as Benaroya Pictures pulled the plug on “Idol’s Eye,” starring Robert De Niro and Robert Pattinson, as shooting was to start after funds failed to materialize.

Still, AFM will be bigger this year with 396 exhibiting companies, the highest level since 2008. There are 112 exhibiting companies from 21 countries participating at AFM for the first time with the largest number of new buyers coming from South Korea.

Managing director Jonathan Wolf said growth in VOD and subscription streaming is fueling new participation, leading the market to set up 50 mini-booths on the Loews third floor with a $3,900 fee — about a third of the typical cost.

Wolf also noted that AFM reflect the ongoing bifurcation of financing. “We’re seeing budgets generally getting bigger or smaller with fewer films in the middle.”

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