American Film Market Opens in Brutally Uncertain Time for Indie Movie Biz

Amid a brutally uncertain environment for movies, the American Film Market opens its 38th edition Wednesday at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

Forecasts are for mostly sunny weather — a contrast with the unpredictable conditions for the independent sector for both buyers and sellers. That state of affairs is front and center due to trio of factors: a brutal year at the domestic box office with 2017 revenues lagging last year by 5%; majors focusing on franchise tentpoles; and questions surrounding traditional distribution through theaters.

Jonathan Kier, president of international sales and distribution at Sierra/Affinity, said AFM remains vital to the independent film world.

“It’s the most important market after Cannes,” he noted. “It’s a pleasure because buyers want to make pre-buys before films go into production. The buyers have been asking us not to make the Toronto Film Festival a market since that festival is about selling finished films.”

He recalled that Sierra/Affinity saw significant success at 2013’s AFM when it introduced “Age of Adaline” with Blake Lively. “Similarly, we got a great response last year with an ‘I, Tonya’ event because AFM lends itself to that kind of an event,” he added.

Sierra/Affinity will be launching sales on the horror film “Mary,” which is in production, with Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer.

David Garrett’s six-year-old shingle Mister Smith Entertainment is coming into AFM with a pair of upscale mainstream movies already announced: Mads Mikkelsen’s assassination tale “Polar” and Hilary Swank’s offbeat sci-fier “Mother,” which is already shooting in Australia from helmer Grant Sputore.

“I received a tsunami of emails about ‘Polar,’ which is gratifying,” Garrett said. “It’s budgeted between $20 and $30 million and squarely aimed at the mainstream multiplex audience.”

The viability of a project now depends on the certainty of getting a U.S. theatrical release, Garrett noted, adding, “There’s a paucity of the right kind of material. It used to be that you had more latitude in introducing projects because you rely on the burgeoning ancillary markets but that’s kind of gone now so the eye of the needle is much smaller.”

Mister Smith will show footage of “Mother” to buyers at AFM. “We’ve gotten a hugely positive response,” Garrett noted. “Hilary has been very active in terms of getting it out there that she’s able to do action movies.”

Garrett and Ralpho Borgos, Mister Smith’s CEO and chief of international licensing and distribution, launched the London-based film financing and sales outfit just before the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Protagonist’s Vanessa Saal, managing director of sales & distribution, admits it’s tricky to come into market with a project that’s not been shot — such as Benedict Cumberbatch pic “Gypsy Boy,” which was introduced at Toronto with the script expected to be finalized before the end of the year. “It’s far different than when a project is fully cast,” she admitted.

Arclight CEO Gary Hamilton is arriving at AFM with the company’s biggest project — World War II action-adventure “Killer 10,” produced by Thunder Road Pictures in association with Arclight. Phillip Noyce is directing a story of expat criminals coerced into a suicide mission behind enemy lines to destroy a chemical weapon being developed by the Nazis and the Japanese.

“AFM is a great launching pad for this project, which is a real popcorn movie,” Hamilton notes. “We’ll have five movie stars from China and five from the U.S. and Australia to deliver the strongest possible talent for a global audience.”

Covert Media CEO Paul Hansen admits that it’s helpful to come to AFM with a high-profile project such as Daisy Ridley’s nearly completed romantic tragedy “Ophelia.” Covert is handling international rights to the film, which began selling at the Cannes Film Festival. CAA, which packaged and arranged the financing, represents the film’s U.S. rights.

Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, Tom Felton, George MacKay and Devon Terrell also star. “It’s good timing to have ‘Ophelia’ nearly done with ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ coming out soon,” Hansen noted. ‘It shows how versatile Daisy is.”

AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf noted that AFM is opening with projections for buyers, sellers and attendance up. There’s a jump in the number of screenings with more than 350 films from 40 countries to be shown; all screenings are taking place in commercial theaters.

“No other market has all their screenings at commercial theaters,” he noted. “We’ve got the AMC, Broadway, Laemmle, and Arclight — 29 screens in all.”

Wolf said that the ongoing expansion of TV and the continued growth of local production are presenting challenges to the independent movie industry. He noted that the percentage of English-language sales companies at AFM has declined in recent years from 70% to 55% due to better local-language product.

“I really am not hearing any doom and gloom,” Wolf added. “There’s still a growth out of China, due to the expanding middle class and the expanding number of theaters. There’s 5 to 10% more buyers for China — and a willingness to take risks because the streaming technology is better understood.”

Wolf’s particularly enthused about the initial response to AFM’s online screenings platform, AFM Screenings on Demand, which allows sales companies to screen their films privately for buyers. It began screening films on Oct. 23, and concludes on March 31, one week after Hong Kong Filmart.

“It’s a response to bifurcation in business, where films are getting smaller with smaller budgets,” he noted. “So you don’t have to pay $1,500 for 30 or 40 people to see your movie; you pay a quarter of that. The response has exceeded expectations.”

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