A decade ago, when the AFM forged in to replace Mifed in November, it was a bastion of B-movies with B-List stars hawking themselves in multiple films, and a slew of deals that often didn’t result in anything. Now, with studios only wanting to finance sequels and superhero movies, and requiring partners to fully fund or partly pay for everything else on their slates, indie companies have new currency and are dealing with some of the biggest films in the business, with everyone from Gary Ross (The Free State Of Jones) to Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful 8) in Santa Monica courting foreign buyers.

As it sheds the schlockfest stigma the AFM once bore, attendees are focused on the increased importance of offshore returns and a more disciplined approach to the business. There’s a lot of money in the market, but rigor is key while packaging has become tougher as the pool of talent that is required to make a smart bet that works across territories has shrunk. And overridingly, making movies that “fit” – and knowing where they fit – is something that’s on the mind of most of the film execs I’ve spoken with in the past weeks. Independent Film & Television Alliance president Jean Prewitt says, “The big conversation happening right now is: ‘What really is a theatrical movie, and how much can you spend on it?’” That question ties in with the rise of alternative distribution and the red elephant in the room, Netflix.

But buyers also continue to bemoan a lack of product. Markets have been soft over the past year with each new event bringing the promise of a shift. Still, this AFM has what look like some solid cast- and director-attached titles being proffered for the first time like Sierra/Affinity’s Catherine Zeta-Jones crime thriller The Godmother and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition; IM Global’s Antoine Fuqua cocaine drama The Man Who Made It Snow; Pathé’s Meryl Streep/Hugh Grant biopic Florence; Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon from Gaumont and Wild Bunch; and Electric Entertainment’s Go With Me starring Anthony Hopkins, among others. But while deals may be teed up, some execs expect more action in Berlin.

Entertainment One president of international Harold van Lier says picking projects has lately been tough – and this is coming from a company that is eager to get in on films from the very early stages, financing and acquiring multiple territories. “We’ve seen a lot of materials from agencies resurfacing. This is going to be a soft one. Toronto was a bit miserable, so going into AFM people may buy or pre-buy based on some footage.” EOne is handling four pictures at the AFM: Viggo Mortensen-starrer Captain Fantastic; Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky; Jay Roach’s Trumbo; and Spotlight with Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton.

Jim Seibel of Lotus Entertainment which is high on the Keanu Reeves project Replicas, expects the market to be “a benchmark to see who was actually able to get movies made over the last 10 months and who hasn’t, and could provide some momentum going into next year.” An unfortunate case in point: Just this week Benaroya Pictures shut down the Robert De Niro/Robert Pattinson vehicle Idol’s Eye as filming was set to commence in Toronto, citing “the criteria for financing not being met by producers.”

With pre-sales still a big part of the business, especially in Germany, the UK, France and Latin America, Sierra/Affinity’s Nick Meyer says, “You need to make sure whatever the genre, everything needs to be good: the buyer, the director, the cast. It’s okay that there’s a high bar set on rigor… For the project that falls in between, it has to be clear what the audience is.”

A French distribution exec agrees. While local movies have been doing well at the box office, there’s a current phenomenon that’s seeing films across the board either top out at about 300K admissions, or break 1M. There’s no space left for the middle ground. Fox made a smart play with The Maze Runner. That movie has done gangbusters locally and while the exec contends it could have been the type of movie that was available on the open market, “the market wouldn’t have known how to treat it.”

So, is the middle ground a place where digital platforms step in? “The continuing proliferation of digital distributors including Netflix is reviving potential in what were weaker markets internationally,” says one agent. “It’s created competition and allowed the further capitalization of companies or new companies (to emerge). It drives up prices and compels people to pre-buy rather than risk waiting.”

Mark Borde of Freestyle Releasing (God’s Not Dead, The Letters) agrees, “every November there’s a different way to get your movie seen and to monetize it.” The digital distribution route, in the U.S. at least, has sales people and producers “actually (at the AFM) looking for those deals.” A new player, Wild Bunch’s pan-European e-distributor, is also specifically seeking out four or five titles for digital this week.

Saban Films president Bill Bromiley’s position on Netflix is, “It makes complete sense, but do I like it? I don’t like it partly because they’re taking dollars that used to be spent on indie product and they’re putting it into original content and taking it away from our business.” He adds that license fees have gone “way down. When you see fees go down because they’re investing hundreds of millions in programming it concerns me because I’m not part of that programming. I have to find a way to make up that money.”

In Europe, digital distribution is growing but will still take some time to mature. In Latin America, it’s beginning to show fruit. A couple of years ago, there was a duopoly on the pay-TV scene and when VOD came in, Lotus’ Seibel says, “they all scoffed, ‘Who cares?’ and then there were price wars within a year. I’m hoping that’s going to be the same in all these European territories.”

While he calls Netflix, “The savior to our business,” he also allows, “There is a philosophical debate. We love cinema, then it goes to VOD and now we’re really just calling it content which is kind of sad because we put all this work into films.” But, on certain movies, he says, “it makes perfect sense to recoup.” On the others that “merit” a theatrical release, “the jury is still out.”

When I ask Saban’s Bromiley what is most challenging about being a domestic distributor in the indie space right now, he says it’s been “Finding the next prestige piece for us. Our business plan is a mix of prestige and titles we know will perform well and don’t necessarily need theatrical for them to work.” On The Homesman, which Saban acquired in Cannes, “we do need theatrical success.”

And, that’s the least predictable everywhere. “You go into it really analyzing but you’re never certain if it’s going to work. There are just fewer of them so you have to be careful taking that leap,” says Bromiley. An agent adds, “There is still stuff that struggles outside of certain genres. And if it’s not a brand name director or a legitimate movie star, you are sunk and are going to waste a lot of money at these markets.”

XYZ Films agrees. It’s introducing Johnny Depp-starrer Yoga Hosers, the Kevin Smith comedy that follows their team-up on Tusk last year. The company’s partners believe, “The market has changed. Internationally, certain kinds of films are working and many others are not. There’s not great opportunity for small, no cast, genre films and no home entertainment platform, so foreign buyers aren’t making money on those movies.”

For producer Sriram Das, of Das Films which has the intriguing Heartbeats — a sort of Step Up in India — as well as a couple of Chinese co-productions in the hopper, “You don’t have to worry about the financing as much as you used to, but the bigger problem is casting. There are fewer and fewer people who give you the foreign value you need to justify… There are too many customers for the same people, and the studios are going after them, and television. That’s narrowed down the list to sub-10 names.”

But, it’s hard to get a movie star in your movie “because they have choices and don’t want to be in mediocre movies that don’t have good chance to be seen. If something has really good commercial potential, or smaller films with an exciting director — you can get a star,” says an exec.

While some of that prestige product has made its way to the Loews this week, there’s also a duality in the market. On the one hand, an exec says, there are “real movies with legitimate talent handled by first and second tier companies,” and then there are foreign sales companies who are “collecting fees, going to the AFM with movies that are never going to get made.”

There is definitely more money in the market, but a lot of financiers “are coming into the business with no understanding of content and supply. (Some) people think putting a movie together is like choosing items in a store,” an exec says. “People in the movie business know every piece is hard and it requires timing and luck and access.”