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.”

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