×

American Film Market Opens Amid Cautious Optimism

Amid a brutally fast-changing environment for movies, the American Film Market opens its 37th edition Wednesday at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

Forecasts are for mostly sunny weather, unlike the unpredictable conditions for the independent sector for both buyers and sellers, with majors focusing on franchise tentpoles and questions surrounding traditional distribution through theaters.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty on both sides,” said Madriver’s Kim Fox, who also handles Annapurna sales. “I don’t think it’s a horrible thing; you just can’t keep doing what you used to. It’s still a thriving business and there are gems out there.”

There’s still some sizzle to AFM. On Oct. 29, Tom Hardy came on board as gangster Al Capone in “Fonzo” with “Chronicle” director Josh Trank helming from his own script. The film will be produced by Russell Ackerman and John Schoenfelder for Addictive Pictures alongside “Pulp Fiction” producer Lawrence Bender. Alex Walton’s Bloom is handling foreign sales.

“There’s a lot of interest already,” Walton noted. “A lot of buyers are already in town and hungry for 2017 and 2018.”

It’s the third AFM for Bloom, which has handled “The Nice Guys,” “Suburbicon,” and has “Bel Canto,” starring Julianne Moore, Demian Bichir, and Ken Watanabe, on its slate.

“We’re all looking for fresh projects … I do think we’re seeing less programmers. There’s no one giant project, like a Tarantino movie, that’s sucking all the air out of the room this year,” Walton said.

Mark Damon, head of Foresight Unlimited, notes that independents are facing continued downward pricing pressure from buyers, adding, “My mouth dropped open when I saw how much lower the numbers have become.”

Foresight, which had back-to-back successes a few years ago with “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” is showing footage from Rob Cohen’s action-thriller “Category 5,” starring Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, and Toby Kebbell. Damon remains hopeful that sci-fier “Inversion,” which has been in development for several years, will shoot in February with Peter Segal directing and Travis Fimmel starring.

“We’re always looking for a franchise movie, but it’s hard when you’re an independent to get it lined up,” he added. “The market for movies has shrunk. You put out 20 and most break even or lose money, then you have one or two that save you.”

Jonathan Kier, president of international sales and distribution at Sierra/Affinity, pointed to the uncertainty created by Brexit — the U.K.’s pending departure from the European Union — as a damper on the market.

“Buyers are going after fewer big titles so it’s hard for everyone,” he said. “The first thing I do at a meeting is push a tissue box at them as a joke to lighten the mood. We’ve had a strong year but it’s hard for everyone.”

Sierra/Affinity has been selling “Hell or High Water,” “Molly’s Game,” Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” and Matthew McConaughey’s “Gold.” And it’s launching sales on “I, Tonya,” about ice skater Tonya Harding and starring Margot Robbie, and on Ben Stiller’s “Brad’s Status,” which Amazon is co-financing and distributing in North America.

“Genre always plays well if it’s a unique project,” Kier added. “And ‘I Tonya’ is very unique.”

Mark Gooder of Cornerstone Films said, “Buyers and sellers are being much more realistic. And I was encouraged that we had strong lineups at Telluride, Venice, and Toronto.”

Amid the complexities of the market, though, dealmaking has grown tougher. “It takes a lot longer to negotiate terms,” noted Cornerstone’s Allison Thompson.

Cornerstone is showing footage of Diane Keaton’s romancer “Hampstead” and launching sales on “The Kill Team,” starring Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard; Kirsten Dunst’s directorial debut, “The Bell Jar”; and John Turturro’s “Going Places” with his “Big Lebowski” character Jesus Quintana.

Radiant Intl.’s Mimi Steinbauer noted that AFM is opening at a time when films targeted at female moviegoers appear to be gaining traction. Radiant handled foreign sales on Bel Powley’s “Carrie Pilby,” which sold Tuesday to the Orchard for domestic distribution, and is showing first footage at AFM of Powley’s “Ashes in the Snow.”

“The industry is starting to learn that female audiences have clout,” Steinbauer added.

AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf noted that AFM is opening with projections for about the same level of attendance as last year and more than 300 films from 40 countries to be screened, with all screenings taking place in commercial theaters rather than in screening rooms at the Fairmont Hotel, thanks to the Arclight theater and the revamped Laemmle theaters.

Wolf said that the ongoing expansion of TV and the continued growth of local production are presenting challenges to the independent movie industry.

“What’s one company’s challenge is another’s opportunity, so AFM can’t be measured by a U.S. lens because it’s a global enterprise,” he said. “Local production is getting better because there’s a desire in each country to see its own films; the craft is getting better and the storytelling is getting better.”

He noted that the percentage of English-language sales companies at AFM has declined in recent years from 70% to 55%.

The conference sessions will launch Thursday with two sessions on China — the first on how to produce, followed by a marketing and distributing event. “These have been designed for audiences that feel China will be part of their future,” Wolf said.

He also said that pre-AFM doom and gloom proclamations are typical. “Everyone forgets that the AFM is a negotiations [market] so no buyer runs down the hall saying ‘This is a terrific film!’; they walk around with a scowl saying there are no films to find,” Wolf said. “It’s always a vibrant market and people are always doing deals. There’s a tendency to ignore the equivalent of the guy selling sunglasses at the mall.”

He also noted that TV has pushed into the second cycle for films, so it’s harder for buyers to estimate the value of films five to eight years out.

“Independent film is the survivor — it will always be there offering that unique choice that studios with their mega-Marvel characters,” Wolf said. “The studios’ DNA has started to meld with TV networks … They’re looking as much as they can to get off that one-off world and into the series worlds. That’s why artists gravitate to the independent world.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Motherless Brooklyn Edward Norton

    Edward Norton Investigates Murder in 'Motherless Brooklyn' Trailer

    The trailer for Edward Norton’s forthcoming crime drama “Motherless Brooklyn” is officially out. Warner Bros.’ drama, based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, follows Lionel Essrog, a young man who works for a small-time mobster in Brooklyn while struggling with an intense case of Tourette Syndrome. “Okay, listen, I got something wrong with me, [...]

  • Summer Box Office

    Box Office Report Card: Studios Get Their Summer Grades

    Studios got badly burned this summer. From May to August, popcorn season in movie speak, the film flops piled up and the big hits were few and far between for nearly every company except Disney. As a whole, summer did little to instill confidence in the state of moviegoing. To be sure, there were successes [...]

  • Port Authority

    Nate Parker's 'American Skin' to Play in Deauville

    Nate Parker’s politically charged drama “American Skin” is set to play at the 45th edition of the Deauville American Film Festival following its world premiere at Venice. “American Skin,” which tells the story of a Gulf War veteran whose son is killed by a police officer, marks Parker’s first feature film since the news resurfaced [...]

  • (L to R) Kristian Bruun, Melanie

    Box Office: 'Ready or Not' Finds $2 Million on Opening Day

    Horror movie “Ready or Not” scared up a $2 million opening day at 2,244 North American locations as Fox Searchlight got a two-day jump on the weekend. The figure includes $730,000 from Tuesday night previews. “Ready or Not” centers on a bride’s wedding night turning deadly when her new in-laws force her into a strange game [...]

  • Lance Reddick Angel Has Fallen

    Lance Reddick on His 'Angel Has Fallen' Role and Yale Acting Classmate Paul Giamatti

    Lance Reddick, known for tough-cop roles on such shows as “The Wire” and “Fringe” — and as a city councilman who used to be a tough cop in “Bosch” — will play the director of the Secret Service in “Angel Has Fallen,” the third installment of the “Olympus Has Fallen” series, coming to theaters Aug. 23. [...]

  • AI Technology David Beckham

    How AI Tech Is Changing Dubbing, Making Stars Like David Beckham Multilingual

    David Beckham does not speak Arabic, Hindi or Mandarin. But when the soccer legend starred in a PSA for malaria awareness this spring, he effortlessly switched among these and six other languages, thanks to cutting-edge technology that could soon change how Hollywood localizes its movies and TV shows. The PSA in question was produced with technology [...]

  • Adam Driver appears in The Report

    'The Report' Trailer: Adam Driver Investigates Post-9/11 Interrogation Tactics

    Adam Driver is in pursuit of the truth in Amazon Studio’s first look at “The Report,” a tense political drama about the CIA’s use of torture. The film focuses on Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Driver), who begins to investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a group created in the aftermath of 9/11. As he [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content