AFM Staying Put in Santa Monica, Opening Amid Cautious Optimism

Amid the pervasive uncertainty in the business, the American Film Market will remain in Santa Monica for the foreseeable future, according to the top executives of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, which stages the market.

IFTA president-CEO Jean Prewitt and exec VP Jonathan Wolf told Variety that there are no plans for a move from the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, its home since 1991. The confab, which opens its 36th edition on Wednesday, has been continuing to employ additional exhibition space at JW Marriott’s Le Merigot Beach Hotel and use space at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows for its conferences.

“We are not going anywhere for a long time,” Wolf said.

IFTA had disclosed in 2011 that it was negotiating to relocate the 2013 AFM to L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, but the prospect of a move from Santa Monica provoked resistance at that year’s AFM. A month later, IFTA announced that it had signed a deal to stay into 2017.

The contracts for Prewitt and Wolf were renewed in July through 2018 by the IFTA board.

AFM is opening this year amid muted optimism after less-than-stellar sales performances earlier this year at the other key markets.

“There were big selections of mid-budget films not getting any traction,” Prewitt noted. “The reaction in Berlin and Cannes was a lot of ‘I did what I needed to do.’ You have to keep going until you get it sold.”

Wolf noted that there’s a continued division of the business with independent financiers and producers focusing on the higher-budget end at $20 million and up, or at the low-budget range of $500,000 to $1 million.

“We are also seeing the steady growth of local-language (films), which started 10 years ago, getting better and better,” Wolf added. “That’s one reason that’s driving the bifurcation.”

The AFM is also offering its conference series with a section on China, with Wolf noting that it will be focused on practical issues.

“We are not going to discuss how to do co-productions or how to get financed because they have been discussed extensively without a lot of success,” he said. “What we are going to do is talk about how to produce and distribute in that market.”

Marc Damon, CEO of production and financing shingle Foresight Unlimited (“2 Guns,” “Lone Survivor”), acknowledged that going into the AFM is as difficult as it’s ever been.

“It’s become tougher and tougher to put projects together, particularly in attaching recognizable actors,” Damon said. “Their agents want to know that you’re fully financed before they will commit and actors now are much more willing to do TV, so their availability is limited.”

Mark Gooder of year-old Cornerstone films is coming to market with the drama “Hampstead,” starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson, set in English countryside with Keaton’s character discovering that Gleeson’s modest home is under threat from development.

“Buyers are very focused on films that have audiences and not so much on volume,” he said. “With ‘Hampstead,’ it’s a female-driven film with a reliable audience that clearly knows what this is. It has an audience in what is an increasingly polarized market.”

Corenerstone chief Alison Thompson said the film is being produced for under $10 million.

“It’s a cautious market but if you have the right film, you can do well. Very discriminating. There are a handful of titles that draw a lot of interest but they really are the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Thompson also marveled over the interest in AFM: “The attendance is ever-increasing — it’s a sign of expansion that never ceases to amaze me in the face of the tough conditions.”

Brian O’Shea, CEO of the Exchange, issued a similarly mixed outlook.

“As the market becomes polarized between big and small films, quality and built-in marketability becomes pivotal  to an investment strategy,” he noted. “Nowadays if the film is big and with stars and you can’t market it and it does not deliver on word of mouth and/or reviews, you’d be hard-pressed to get back the budget.”
The Exchange is selling “Ithaca,” a World War II drama that’s Meg Ryan directorial debut, and motocross documentary “Unchained.”

Alex Walton of Bloom is coming to AFM in the wake of strong sales for Ryan Gosling’s “Nice Guys” along with “Elvis and Nixon” and Jackie Chan’s “Skiptrace.” It’s handling “Rebel in the Rye,” which is making its first appearance at a market. Molly Smith and Bruce Cohen are producing and Nicholas Hoult on board as the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger.

“We love the screenplay for ‘Rebel’ — we are interested as long as there’s a strong probability of a theatrical release,” Walton said. “The market needs quality material and there’s an appetite to buy that.”

Walton noted that producers are more cautious and are much more likely to also be operating TV divisions than a few  years ago. And he’s uncertain as to how strong digital distribution is at this point on a worldwide basis: “There’s still apprehension about it.”

AFM reported Tuesday that more than 80 new buying companies will participate this year with the largest growth coming from South Korea, China, Germany and India.  Nearly 1,600 buyers are expected from more than 70 countries.

AFM will also screen a total of 407 films screening in more than 30 languages including 242 market premieres.


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