Last year’s AFM was so sluggish it left attendees alarmed that their once vibrant business was paralyzed. This year, the picture looks brighter. Better projects are being shopped even as anxiety remains over significant market challenges.
In stark contrast to last year, there are some genuinely shiny packages on sale this week, none more so than George Miller’s big-canvas fantasy pic Three Thousand Years Of Longing, the follow up to his audacious Best Picture nominee Mad Max: Fury Road. Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton are set to lead cast on the film, which is earmarked to shoot next year. At time of writing, a studio had yet to bite so it is still on the table for independents.
There are a host of solid offerings of different budgets and genres such as Johnny Depp starrer Minamata, the recast King Of The Jungle, Miramax’s Toff Guys, Drake Doremus’ starry next feature and Breaking News In Yuba County while at the brawnier end of the spectrum Millennium is putting together big-budget franchise hopeful Red Sonja. There also remain some noticeable holdovers from Toronto, including MRC detective movie Knives Out, Chris Evans-Robert Pattinson starrer The Devil All The Time and Margot Robbie thriller Ruin.
The Jessica Chastain-Tate Taylor action-crime pic Eve is among the most buzzed-about movies showing on promo while Memento will have a first promo for Russell Crowe-starrer The True History Of The Kelly Gang and may have first footage of Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg in Against All Enemies. 355, the must-have movie of Cannes, is still on course to shoot next year, and there are more projects to be announced. Meanwhile, adjacent to the market, 30West is putting together distribution on enticing Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration Killers Of The Flower Moon. This one isn’t an AFM title and is still in early stages.
Many buyers will be on the lookout for bargain breakout candidates. “Audiences are craving something different,” one packaging agent tells me. “Something like a Sorry To Bother You or Hereditary [Ari Aster’s new film is in the market], a film with a unique take.”
On the whole, this year’s Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and AFM markets have offered more than recent editions. And yet, anxiety remains.
This time last year, the business was mulling the Loews no-show of TWC. This year, there is a level of concern following the recent and rapid implosion of Global Road and speculation over Annapurna’s retrenchment.
Market and consumption shifts have been undeniably bruising for a large swathe of indie sellers and distributors. The SVOD giants continue to eat into their core business, agencies are growing their content footprints and TV continues to occupy talent: the quality of movie packages is being squeezed.
“It’s miserable,” said one experienced European financier. “The Global Road situation has sent a shockwave through the big independents. And then you add in Annapurna. It’s a bit bleak.” However, another distribution veteran counters that the Global Road scenario should be taken in isolation: “People say the business is problematic. I say no, their strategy was problematic. That situation speaks primarily to poor business acumen and execution.”
“When I look around I see some companies making smart decisions for the future and others who are standing still,” muses the CEO of a leading U.S. sales and finance company. “It used to be you had two models to get independent films financed. You sold the world or you sold territory by territory. Now, we work on 10-12 films per year with 10-12 different models. Which companies are going to thrive and survive through these shifts? It’s only a few. It’s the ones who evolve.”
There are undoubtedly significant challenges in the international marketplace. The UK, which has in the past counted up to 10% of foreign sales estimates, has become a nightmare. “The UK is a huge gap in the estimates,” a packager tells me. “It’s now worth close to nothing. Buyers are putting up screen commitments and no MG. We’re trying to figure out how that can work going forward.”
France has traditionally accounted for many of the lynchpins of the European distribution business. But it too is in flux. Wild Bunch needed to refinance over the summer. Studiocanal is less acquisitive. EuropaCorp, still reeling from Valerian, has all but dissolved its sales operation. “There is consolidation,” Memento Films’ Managing Director Emilie Georges tells me. “France can’t be relied on in the same way and it will continue to shrink in terms of significant players. Orange is one of the few companies emerging as an interesting new backer of films.”
France is also on the cusp of a showdown with Netflix, which will further alter the local landscape. While exhibitors have resisted the streaming giant, Netflix has re-opened a Paris office and is increasing its local acquisitions.
“Netflix is really rolling out its international strategy,” one veteran financier acknowledges. “Once Netflix grows its footprint in France that will change the whole conversation. There are complaints in France about Canal Plus not spending the money they used to, but they’ll have bigger things to think about once Netflix entrenches.”
Germany has its own challenges. “The theatrical market has been a disaster in the first three quarters of this year”, says Martin Moszkowicz, Chairman of German distributor-producer Constantin. “That’s partly product driven. It was also a very hot year and we had the World Cup. But it’s hard to fathom. Solo is the only movie above 3M admissions. That’s tough. Netflix and Amazon are growing very quickly.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s retreat from Hollywood is creating anxiety about the viability of that market going forward.
The international sales and distribution business is not what it used to be. It hasn’t been for a few years. That’s called evolution. Evolution can sting, but it can also invigorate. For film companies, there is opportunity in business diversification, extending into production, TV, financing, theatre, VR, branded content, management or by adding overseas divisions.
Moszkowicz’s Constantin is a case in point. “In the last few years we have changed our strategy in terms of big budget English-language movies,” says the distribution vet. “Our movie Monster Hunter is an example. It isn’t on sale at the market. It’s going through Sony Worldwide. We’re equity financing it with others and met our Japanese parters for it this time last year. The traditional pre-sale market when it comes to higher budget movies is virtually non-existent any more. Those movies are often put together with a studio and maybe a few independent distributors. That seems to be the new reality. There is still a traditional market for lower budget movies. But on bigger budget movies things have changed substantially. But evolution is not a bad thing for the industry.”
The AFM remains one of the three key film markets of the year. Could it be made cheaper for companies setting up shop at the Loews? Sure. The event doesn’t want to drive away any more of its blue chip delegates. Important business will be done but the event’s value has evolved as the business has changed. “The AFM is shifting from a pure buying and selling event to a valuable networking opportunity,” says Moszkowicz.
New companies will generate chatter in the halls. Mark Gill’s Solstice and Tom Ortenberg’s Briarcliff are emerging. Former TWC executive David Glasser is putting together a new operation. Veteran sales supremo Patrick Wachsberger is unlikely to be out of the game long.
This is a great time to be in the content business. Everyone I speak to agrees on that. It’s just much trickier if you are an independent film company solely reliant on international sales or single territory acquisitions.
There is no shortage of money in the market, that’s for sure. New entrants abound, from a slew of wealthy individuals to multi-faceted U.S. firms. There are tax breaks and tech newcomers, digital players and foreign companies looking to diversify their portfolios. The market is awash with financing opportunities.
“When you don’t have money everyone thinks money is the key to everything,” a sales executive reminds me. “The reality is, the content is the key. If you do your job right and package a good movie the money is the easiest part of the proposition.”