AFM: Buyers Seeking Star Sizzle Plus Quality in Independent Movies

With the 37th American Film Market at its halfway point, buyers are showing plenty of appetite for starry, mainstream fare — and less for the schlocky titles that flooded the market a decade ago.

“Quality seems to be more of a factor than in years past,” notes AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf. “We are seeing growth in titles with true commercial potential at all budget levels.”

Wolf contends that AFM, which has seen a 7% drop in sales companies to 350 this year, has evolved into a more realistic place than in 2006 and 2007. A decade ago, there were so many sellers, thanks to a glut of product and equity money, that AFM needed three floors of the Merigot Hotel to accommodate all the sales companies.

“It took the housing crisis to stop there being too many films,” Wolf said. “There’s more of a rush to quality now.”

One of the biggest splashes at the AFM’s HQ in the Loews came from Facing East’s $130 million science-fiction movie “Inversion,” with Samuel L. Jackson and Chinese actress Liu Yifei joining Travis Fimmel. Thursday’s announcement revealed that director Peter Segal will start shooting on Feb. 27 at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, then continue in Shanghai and Chicago.

Inversion” sales company Foresight Unlimited has been showing pre-visualization footage of the chaos that the Earth faces when it starts to lose its gravity. It’s also showing footage of Rob Cohen’s completed “Category 5,” starring Toby Kebbell and Maggie Grace in the story of a $600 million robbery from a coastal U.S. mint facility at the same time a massive category 5 hurricane strikes.

“There’s a focus on films that are going to work as wide theatrical movies,” said Foresight Unlimited CEO Mark Damon. “Buyers are afraid to pre-buy without a clear audience. I think our announcement of Samuel L. Jackson on ‘Inversion’ picked up the pulse of the market. These are four-quadrant films.”

Foresight has been working on “Inversion” since 2014. “We’ve gotten a great response — partly because it’s based on a very simple idea about what would happen if two black holes collided,” president Tamara Birkemore said.

Mark Wahlberg, Margot Robbie, Kirsten Dunst, Sacha Baron Cohen and Josh Trank provided sizzle in buyer meetings. Baron Cohen’s appearance on behalf of  Megan Ellison’s Annapurna and the R-rated Danish comedy “Klown” was a major attention-getter on Friday.

Wahlberg headlined TWC-Dimension’s presentation on Wednesday night, when more than 100 buyers attended during the final game of baseball’s World Series. Wahlberg said that he’s ready to turn “The Six-Billion Dollar Man” into a multi-picture franchise, and Bob Weinstein announced that the label will be making fewer films — but on bigger budgets.

Dunst was in Santa Monica to tout her directorial debut on “The Bell Jar,” which has assembled a cast including Dakota Fanning, Patricia Arquette and Bel Powley for an early 2017 shoot for Priority Pictures. Cornerstone is selling the rights.

Robbie, in a transition from her breakout role as Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” met with buyers about the biopic “I, Tonya,” in which she portrays disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. AI Film will fully finance “I, Tonya,” with Sierra/Affinity handling international sales.

“Chronicle” director Trank came to to AFM to discuss Tom Hardy coming on board as gangster Al Capone in “Fonzo,” with Trank helming from his own script. Producers are Russell Ackerman and John Schoenfelder for Addictive Pictures alongside “Pulp Fiction” producer Lawrence Bender. Alex Walton’s Bloom is handling foreign sales.

AFM also provided its usual platform for announcing high-profile attachments such as Michael Pena and “Moonlight” star Trevante Rhodes on Jerry Bruckheimer’s Afghan War drama “Horse Soldiers,” Brenton Thwaites and Karl Urban on  the thriller “Entry Level,” Evan Peters coming on to heist movie “American Animals,” and Al Pacino, Brittany Snow and Urban in the thriller “Hangman.”

New projects unveiled include Ruben Fleischer directing action-comedy “The Regional Office Is Under Attack,” TWC-Dimension partnering with Hasbro on a Furby movie, and IM Global unveiling a Theo James-Emily Ratajkowski heist-romance “Lying and Stealing.”

FilmNation announced last week it had come on board the Jake Gyllenhaal-Carey Mulligan drama “Wildlife,” with shooting on Paul Dano’s directing debut to starting on Oct. 29.

“This year’s AFM has had a very business-like atmosphere,” said FilmNation’s Tara Erer. “Distributors are trying to balance the challenges they face in their business with their need to acquire films. We are pleased and encouraged that the films we have on offer have been compelling for distributors to pre-buy.”

The AFM also serves as a means of unveiling advances in operations, such as The Exchange securing a credit line from Pacific Mercantile Bank in order to expand production, which includes Rebecca Ferguson drama “The Lady and the Panda.” CEO Brian O’Shea said that sales companies are under increasing pressure from sellers to follow the Amazon and Netflix practice of making global deals.

“We are constantly having to explain that it makes more business sense to do individual territory deals because of the differences in each market,” he added.

“It’s a difficult market for the independents these days. Buyers are being much more selective and we all need to try harder to present the kinds of films that will work in the international marketplace,” said Mimi Steinbauer of Radiant Films Intl. “That’s why at Radiant we focus our attention on strong stories, original filmmakers with vision, and established and emerging talent that is attracting the attention of both the U.S. and international markets.”

Radiant is selling “Ashes in the Snow,” starring Bel Powley; “Handsome Devil,” which debuted at Toronto and “is garnering super reviews,” says Steinbauer. Also on the slate are “The Changeover,” starring Timothy Spall and newcomer Erana James; and director Lucky McKee’s thriller “Misfortune.”

“But make no mistake,” she said, “it’s an evolving world and we all have to be that extra bit creative to make it work.”


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