AFM: Nervous Time for the Independent Sector

Amid massive nervousness about the future of movies, the American Film Market opens its 40th edition Wednesday at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. The market runs through Nov. 13.

Southern California weather will deliver sunshine for the 7,000-plus attendees. And organizers of the AFM — the Independent Film and Television Alliance — sent out a message last week that Santa Monica was far away from the wildfires that hit Southern California during the last week of October.

“We would like to assure you that there are no fires in Santa Monica,” AFM said in a message. “Some media have referred to fires in the ‘Santa Monica Mountains.’ This mountain range is actually in Los Angeles, miles from Santa Monica. There is no threat to the Santa Monica business area.”

However reassuring that message may have been, it probably did little to soothe the nerves of an industry that’s seen Disney devour 21st Century Fox, laying off hundreds; high-profile films “Terminator: Dark Fate” flopping to become a $100 million loser; the Le Merigot Hotel is no longer offering AFM sales offices; and the ongoing angst over streaming services like Netflix gaining traction is pervasive.

Brian O’Shea, who heads The Exchange, has opted to ditch the traditional room at Loews Santa Monica Hotel for digs close by in a condominium. His highest-profile project is an Anna Faris comedy “Summer Madness,” with Faris producing and starring as twins.

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“I think that being at the Loews during AFM represents traditional distribution,” O’Shea noted.  “What’s happened is that Netflix and the other streamers have curtailed the value of traditional theatrical distribution and caused TV networks to become destabilized. There’s an opportunity because buyers still need intellectual property. So traditional AFM bulk sales are less important.”

Voltage Pictures will be handling sales on Jessica Chastain-starrer “Ava,” which it is also financing. Voltage president Jonathan Deckter notes that the company plans a private screening with Chastain in attendance along with four or five other films. Deckter says the indie sector is having to deal with streamers in terms of which stars are available.

“Streaming is impacting us in terms of them making talent less available,” he noted. “Many actors want to work a lot so it’s becoming an issue of time and bandwidth.”

Deckter noted that buyers remain hungry for premium product and that his company saw strong performance at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “We are making movies 365 days a year,” he added.

AFM will also draw several prestige projects — most notably Rachel Weisz starring as Elizabeth Taylor in See-Saw Films’ “A Special Relationship,” exploring Taylor’s journey from actress to activist. Its in-house sales arm, Cross City Films, is handling sales.

Simon Gillis, See-Saw’s chief operating officer of film, is an executive producer on the project.

“Buyers are crying out for product like this,” Gillis said. “And there’s conversations at a market like AFM for sales.”

John Friedberg, STX’s president of international sales, notes that the five-year-old studio has seen strong sales on the Jennifer Lopez-Constance Wu vehicle “Hustlers.”

“We are seeing a positive marketplace coming into AFM,” he added. “I think that Netflix and Amazon are actually complementary to what we’re doing.”

Organizers of AFM are continuing to limit 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.

“That policy has been very positively received,” said AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf. “People continue to tell us that the lobby of the Loews is a wonderful place to do business — but now, it’s more about strategic choice rather than volume.”

Wolf is particularly pleased that there are a total of 29 high-quality screens close to the Loews for the all-important buyer screenings — 12 at the Arclight, seven at the AMC, six at the Laemmle and four at the Broadway.


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