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AFM: Mid-Market Generating Mix of Optimism and Uncertainty

As the 38th American Film Market reaches the half-way point, a mixed picture has emerged that reflects the profound changes in the movie industry.

Buyers offer the usual refrain about the seeming lack of big buzz titles as the industry continues to reel from fresh revelations in Hollywood’s sexual assault scandal — a topic that dominated conversations at AFM headquarters at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. Additionally, domestic box office for 2017 has been lagging by an alarming 5%.

But notable deals have closed, such as Paramount’s announcement Friday that it was buying the comedy “The Book Club,” starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen; Emmy winner Uzo Aduba joining the drama “Miss Virginia”; and Lionsgate buying five Studiocanal titles include Liam Neeson’s “Hard Powder” and the Colin Firth-Rachel Weisz drama “The Mercy.”

Michael Ryan, partner at London-based GFM Films and chairman of AFM organizer Independent Film and Television Alliance, admits members are facing plenty of questions.

“We’re all wondering where the next dollar is coming from, following Berlin, Cannes and Toronto,” he said. “But at some point, buyers have to buy movies. Not for next year, but for the middle of 2019. There’s the worry about whether the new platforms monetize the loss from DVDs.”

Netflix is another concern as it continues to disrupt the business — the streaming giant will soon launch “Mudbound,” which could be a serious contender for the Oscars. And it continues to make worldwide rights deals in which sellers often believe they could have done better by signing pacts for individual territories.

“Netflix is an amazing machine but they, Hulu, and Amazon can’t buy everything,” Ryan said. “There’s definitely a mixed blessing, but they are the company that’s making ‘The Irishman’ for Martin Scorsese.”

Still, AFM’s attendance is up and screenings are over-subscribed, thanks to the 29 screens, all at commercial multiplexes in Santa Monica. “They’re brilliant locations, not some scruffy hall,” Ryan added.

Ryan also believes that the rising quality in genre fims has made them far more attractive to buyers and audiences. “What Asylum has done with ‘Sharknado’ sort of makes them the new Roger Corman.”

Dave Bishop, Protagonist Pictures CEO, said past success with “The Lobster” and “The Florida Project” have enhanced Protagonist’s credibility among buyers. “Those titles really are calling cards that set us apart,” he added.

Bishop is particularly enthused about “Gypsy Boy,” a coming-of-age story set in the Romani community with Benedict Cumberbatch attached. “We are seeing a lot of interest from buyers in genre titles during this market.”

XYZ Films partner Nate Bolotin said that both buyers and sellers have an increasingly smaller target to hit.

“It’s tough to find equivalency with what distributors want and what sales agents and producers have calculated that they need,” Bolotin said. “Still, there’s an appetite for content so it often all comes down to pricing. Movies are getting made — and we’re not slowing down at all.”

“We’re making deals and finding partners,” he added. “A few years ago, movies that were mediocre to good would sell but you can’t sell those anymore.”

Avi Lerner’s Millennium Media — an AFM mainstay — announced on opening day that it had promoted veteran exec Jeffrey Greenstein as its new president, and Jonathan Yunger as co-president. Mark Gill left the presidency nearly a year ago.

Greenstein said Millenium is sticking to what works such as a fourth “Expendables” and Afghanistan war drama “The Outpost.” Recent hits include “Olympus Has Fallen,” “London Has Fallen” and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”

 “We know action,” he said. “For us, everything is story, story, story and to make it for the right price. We’re getting big response on ‘The Outpost,’  which I chased for five years.”

 Brian O’Shea, CEO of The Exchange, said “A Girl from Mogadishu” has been generating strong interest among buyers for the past week since “How to Get Away With Murder” star Aja Naomi King came on to portray Somali activist Ifrah Ahmed in the biopic. “This amazing true life story is very special and quite inspirational.”

“I’m optimistic about the overall market,” O’Shea added. “But one of the many challenges we face is the availability of star talent. Larger names have become much more engaged in the TV business thus making their availability to the indie films harder.”

AFM said Saturday that the number of sellers increased by 18% this year to 445 exhibiting companies attending, with South Korea jumping by 13,  Italy and France adding nine each, and France and Russia rising by five each. It also said there were 76 new companies, led by 13 from China and 11 from South Korea. Total attendance is forecast at more than 7,400, a 6% increase from 2016.

“The uptick in participation signals that the Independents are adapting to a changing marketplace and can now confidently forecast future values,” said Jonathan Wolf, managing director of the American Film Market.

Hal “Corky” Kessler of the law firm of Olson & Cepuritis, said he was impressed with how the dynamic of AFM remains unchanged.

“You have a lobby with wannabes hanging out everyday while upstairs you have distributors and sales agents working hard day in and day out to sell to buyers looking to buy,” he said. “As hard as AFM tries, it remains several steps below Cannes.  However, it is the best that can be done in the U.S. once a year.”

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