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American Film Market Opens Amid Massive Uncertainty

Amid massive uncertainty for the future of movies, the American Film Market opens its 39th edition Wednesday at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

While the Southern California weather will certainly deliver sunshine, forecasts for the independent sector for both buyers and sellers are unpredictable, as factors such as the collapse of Donald Tang’s Global Road Entertainment; the retrenching of Megan Ellison’s Annapurna; questions surrounding traditional distribution through theaters as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon gain increasing traction; and other concerns impact the indie film biz.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, given that the domestic box office has rebounded smartly from 2017 with year-to-year grosses up 10%. More than 70 companies from 28 countries will be attending AFM for the first time as buyers — nine from China; four from both Italy and South Korea; three each from Canada, Germany, Spain, Taiwan and Vietnam; and two apiece from Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

Organizers of the American Film Market are limiting access at the headquarters Loews Hotel to the official AFM participants. In the past, attendees coming into the hotel lobby in Santa Monica have been forced to deal with a wide variety of unsolicited pitches from unofficial sources.

“We are all about making it easier for people to meet each other, which is why they go to the expense of coming here,” said AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf. “The lobby of the Loews is a wonderful place to do that.”

AFM is expecting more than 7,000 attendees from more than 80 countries during the eight days of the market, which will include 64 world premieres and more than 300 films shown at the AMC, Broadway, Laemmle, and Arclight theaters. Nine outdoor events will be held, including four evenings at the Santa Monica Pier Carousel, aimed at members of the production community.

And some potentially appealing packages have emerged in recent weeks: George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton; Johnny Depp’s “Minamata;” “Breaking News in Yuba County,” starring Allison Janney and Laura Dern; Jessica Chastain’s action-crime movie “Eve,” directed by Tate Taylor; Russell Crowe’s “The True History of the Kelly Gang;” Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg in “Against All Enemies”; and the Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Voltage Pictures will be handling sales on “Eve,” which it is also financing. Voltage president Jonathan Deckter notes that the company was able to take advantage of Chastain being available to shoot the movie this fall. He noted that Voltage managed to go ahead two years ago with Amy Schumer, who had a similar window to make “I Feel Pretty,” which went on to gross $96 million worldwide.

Deckter noted that buyers have become significantly more discerning in recent years.

“Buyers are hungry for premium product,” he said. “The biggest adjustment is that the volume of films is not what it was five to seven years ago.”

Elsa Ramo, managing partner at Ramo Law, said she’s hopeful amid assertions that the indie business is in dire straits.

“This is my 15th AFM and every year, it’s supposed to be the end of the world,” she said. “Netflix has leveled the playing field and survivors are pivoting on the fact that films are monetized differently. The Toronto Film Festival showed that there’s still the possibility of success by really focusing on a small number of bigger films with $10 million and up budgets. They have to be cast-driven and fit the genre.”

John Friedberg, STX’s president of international sales, believes that the four-year-old studio will see strong sales on Katie Holmes vehicle “The Boy 2” from STX Films and Lakeshore Entertainment, the fourth collaboration between the shingles. Principal photography will begin in Victoria, British Columbia, on Jan. 14.

STX uses a model similar to Lionsgate by pre-selling many of the foreign rights through output deals, thus limiting the downside risk.

“There are a handful of key territories — China, Russia, South Korea, Japan — that we sell individually,” Friedberg said. “Horror is still working at the global box office.”

Brian O’Shea, CEO of the Exchange, stresses that what works are strongly marketable titles such as the Drew Barrymore romantic comedy “The Stand In.” “With each film, you have a specific demo and comparisons like Drew in the comedy ‘Blended,’ ” he noted.

O’Shea also said it’s a challenge to understand what the streamers want. “We’re trying to learn what the SVOD suppliers need; they’re another buyer but you don’t want your entire business built around them.”
Netflix has nine buyers coming to market, while Amazon has four and Walmart’s streaming service Vudu has three. Apple has its first accredited buyer since 2015.

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