This year’s American Film Market is shaping up to be dullest in recent memory, even as sellers raced over the past few days to firm star-driven packages. There are a few good ones for sure, but a number of buyers and sellers have remarked that the market that kicked off today in Santa Monica was threatening to be the lightest and quietest they had ever seen. “I’ve never seen it like this,” said one buyer. “There’s almost nothing out there.”

That, of course, is a familiar gripe at every market, and the last couple of days has seen a frenzy of activity with new projects brought to market to help fill in the gaps.

AFM_SignBut even with the late introduction of Felt starring Liam Neeson as “Deep Throat” Deputy FBI director Mark Felt in Peter Landesman’s Watergate drama, Shane Carruth’s all-star The Modern Ocean with Anne Hathaway, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Radcliffe and others, Duncan Jones’ long-gestating Mute with Paul Rudd and Alexander Skarsgard now attached and the just-finalized Arnold Schwarzenegger pic 478 from Emmett/Furla/Oasis and producer Darren Aronofsky, pickings still look pretty slim this year for what organizer the Independent Film & Television Alliance says is an expected 1,600 buyers from 70 countries attending the annual confab, which runs through November 11.

Yes, there’s epic Russell Crowe desert drama In Sand And Blood and also Michael Mann’s Enzo Ferrari with Christian Bale in the driver’s seat to whet the appetite of buyers, as well as Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington in Xavier Dolan’s English-language debut The Death And Life Of John F Donovan and the Ryan Reynolds-Samuel L Jackson-Gary Oldman three-way Hitman’s Bodyguard.

But there is a definite sense of unease about the business and where it’s headed given the lack of high-profile theatrical product.

“It’s the lightest market in memory,” says IM Global’s Stuart Ford. “TV is definitely sucking up talent. Mid-budget action films that used to be the bread and butter of the indies haven’t been working at the box office of late, and tentpoles are making it harder to get projects packaged in time with limited availability of talent.”

Liam Neeson Mark FeltA host of projects that were on track to be presented at AFM simply couldn’t get ready in time, leaving them on the shelf until, most likely, Berlin in February. And when projects do come together in time, their appeal to buyers might not be so straightforward. There are few out-and-out commercial must-haves in the list above. Felt, for example, offers a very different Neeson from the gun-wielding persona that has graced almost every AFM since his post-Taken reinvention as an action star. (StudioCanal has him in more familiar action mode in The Commuter, also being sold at AFM). Peter Landesman’s project on the other hand is, by all accounts, an intelligent, suspenseful political thriller where Neeson talks — a lot — as opposed to shooting people.

In Sand And Blood certainly can boast a spectacular, epic story with a stirring script, a classy producer in Luc Roeg, a talented director in Saul Dibb and bona fide A-lister in Crowe in a heroic leading role right in his wheelhouse. But it’s a period historical that challenges audiences to think.

Carruth’s The Modern Ocean may boast the starriest cast of the market, but the film is described as being set in and around cargo ships and trading, delving into the competition for shipping routes and valuable materials, set on land and at sea. Hunger Games this ain’t.

michael mannEven Ferrari, one of the buzziest if not the buzziest title coming into the market with an $80 million budget, a true directing visionary in Mann and global star in Christian Bale, has its challenge — not least of which is the opaque manner in which international territories are being handled. Paramount has agreed to backstop domestic distribution and a number of international territories, with Vincent Maraval’s Wild Bunch tasked with persuading some international indies to pay reputedly astronomical figures for the right to take the film back from the studio in certain territories. That’s a tactic that has upset some in the business.

‘It’s a scandal,” says one sales agent. “What if one of these indies in Germany or Spain or Italy does step up and agree to pay the ask? All that will likely happen is Wild Bunch will go back to Paramount and ask them to match or better it to keep that territory.”

Others dismiss those concerns and say it’s fair game to play the indies off the studios to get the best deal possible for your project. That’s exactly what Glen Basner did when FilmNation succeeded in aggravating virtually the entire indie community at Cannes by doing a worldwide deal for Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals with Focus Features, despite a number of independents making aggressive offers in their territories. “Why waste our time?” asked one buyer at the time. “That deal could have been done in L.A. instead of going through this whole process in Cannes.”

Enzo Ferrari Christian BaleIt says something about this year’s market that a project like Ferrari would still be getting so much attention from buyers, even with the likelihood of Paramount releasing in a number of international markets. “I first came across this 10 years ago and I wasn’t convinced then, let alone now,” says one sales agent. “But buyers need projects, and this is big and loud and it will be sexy to men who love fast cars.”

Despite the amount of ink and analysis given to the impact the great disrupters like Netflix and Amazon are having on the business, it is the evergreen pursuit of traditional theatrical experiences that continue to fuel the market. “It’s much tougher now to find those projects that have that clear theatrical profile,” says Mister Smith’s David Garrett.

Mister Smith is selling Midnight Sun, a remake of a Japanese film about a girl with a life-threatening sensitivity to UV rays who can only come out at night, with Bella Thorne and Patrick Schwarzenegger as the young lovers. That project, modestly budgeted and keenly targeted, already is attracting much market heat. “When you have no more ancillary markets anymore, you have to adapt,” Garrett says. “We can’t keep making films for the same size of budget. It can’t be the distributors taking all the risk. The talent has to learn to bring down their fees and bring down the budget. Take a share of the backend and share the risk.”

Paddington2Despite all the griping, few doubt that business will still get done. “Despite the real lack of distinctive, quality theatrical product — not just at this market but over the last 18 or so months — at the end of the day distributors need product and they’re here to buy,” Bankside’s Stephen Kelliher says.

The biggest irony of all may be that the hottest title at what was expected to be a bear market may be one that isn’t even being sold: The news that Paul King is confirmed to return to Paddington 2 to write and direct had numerous buyers clamoring to knock on StudioCanal’s door to make offers on the closest thing at AFM to being a sure-fire theatrical bet.