There’s no shortage of eye-catching projects on offer at the 40th American Film Market, but will the event, much-maligned by the industry as a schlockfest in recent years due to a paucity of high-profile deal making, rediscover some of its former buzz?
Hot titles include FilmNation’s road movie comedy Dog starring Channing Tatum as an Army Ranger, a pic that will also mark the actor’s directing debut, Miramax’s Cash Truck with Jason Statham, which sees Guy Ritchie return further to his filmmaking roots after Disney summer hit Aladdin, MadRiver International’s Zac Efron-starring comedy King Of The Jungle, See-Saw’s A Special Relationship, which stars Rachel Weisz as Elizabeth Taylor, and Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi Inferno with Taylor Kitsch for AGC Studios. And there’s plenty more notable packages – see our full rundown of 25 of this year’s hot AFM titles for a more extensive list.
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High-profile talents are also in town. Robert Rodriguez will be at Solstice drinks to talk up his thriller Hypnotic, while STX will have Jodie Foster here for its presentation of Prisoner 760, Neill Blomkamp is here to support AGC pic Inferno, and FilmNation will be hosting a Dog presentation on Thursday. Will the presence of those names encourage buyers to get their checkbooks out?
Last year it looked like the Santa Monica-based market may have turned a corner after several quiet editions had led many to question whether the event had a future at all.
Big movies were up for grabs including George Miller’s Three Thousand Years Of Longing, Tate Taylor’s Breaking News In Yuba County, and Ron Howard’s Pavarotti doc. But the headline-grabbing deals were few and far between, and those that did get done (see STX’s $8-9m Poms buy) haven’t subsequently delivered at the box office.
Where the market did deliver was in the international space. The Miller project locked multi-million dollar international deals in France and Italy, while Yuba County sold to those territories and Germany for big money.
Pavarotti, boosted by the in-person appearance of Ron Howard for a footage presentation and to take meetings, was a sellout for HanWay Films, with distributors biting all over the world including France and Germany, Japan, China and Australia/NZ.
Reflecting on last year’s market, HanWay Films MD Gabrielle Stewart says that it was the company’s best of that year. “The market has contracted so you have to find the right project,” she notes, saying this counts extra when you are a theatrically-driven sales company. “You need something that feels like an event. We’re all looking for ways to make a project stand out.”
Having Howard in town made all the difference when it came to Pavarotti, she adds. “AFM doesn’t have the festival and the red carpets to distract people. If you have Ron Howard coming down that stands out as a highlight, that’s as glamorous as it gets at the AFM.”
This year HanWay will be screening footage from a trio of projects on the first morning – Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio reimagining, James D’Arcy’s directing debut Made In Italy with Liam Neeson, and Andrew Levitas’ Minimata with Johnny Depp – and the company also announced two strong packages prior to the market: Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter starring Oscar Isaac and Simon Barrett’s Seance with Suki Waterhouse.
But, looking at the wider market, will the deals roll in? The likelihood, it seems, is that most of the action will again primarily be in the international space. The major new player in that scene this year is German film and TV group Leonine, backed by New York investment firm KKR, which could look to continue its momentum after multiple recent splashy acquisitions including Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall.
On the U.S. front, the streaming wars are getting feverish after the recent launch of Apple TV+ and the Disney+ rollout next week, and the heat is only going to dial up further in the coming months. While all of those companies need content to compete in a now-crowded sphere, don’t expect them to be out in force at the AFM scouring the halls of the Loews and locking deals. Netflix will have buyers at the market, both from its LA acquisitions team and its international side, and Amazon will have people around, but NBCUniversal’s Peacock isn’t expected to send anyone, and it’s unclear to what extent HBO Max, Disney+ or Apple will be involved.
However, one benefit to the AFM for international companies is simply being in LA, where all of those streamers have physical bases. Numerous executives will travel here early, or stay late, and spend time away from the Loews doing meetings. This makes particular sense when you factor in that all of those streaming companies are pursuing an originals-first strategy over acquiring.
This will be the approach for HanWay, which is increasingly working in financing and production alongside its sales work (a common trend for these types of companies). “I’m having interesting conversations with them [the streamers] but it’s about setting up projects at an early stage, as opposed to finished or already packaged projects. They want to have input and they want to fully finance,” says Stewart.
A Transforming Market
If the market is indeed contracting, and you’re not lucky enough to have a project with the singular appeal of a Pavarotti and thus are finding it increasingly challenging to do deals at AFM, what does that mean for the event’s future?
There are a handful of international sales companies that have stopped attending in recent years, and more have told me that they are questioning it every year. Inevitably, cost-cutting has to be a part of that picture.
Pre-market, one company told me they can spend up to $200,000 attending the AFM (across flights, hotels, office space, screenings, expenses, etc.). Another said they used to spend around $80,000, but have managed to cut that to $50,000 in recent years. Increasingly, it feels like the majority of companies are looking to get that number down.
One way to do that is to become an ‘off-site exhibitor’, which involves paying a smaller fee to still be considered an official part of the event, but not being based in the Loews. Instead, the company can take meetings out of the various hotels along the Santa Monica seafront, which tend to provide nicer surrounds anyway.
One executive at a major company told me that they will now always take the cheaper ‘off-site’ option, unless they’re hosting a screening, then they would still take an office in the Loews. “You have to be smart about how you’re spending,” they said.
A venue move for the AFM has been considered before, but hasn’t stuck, with many attendees drawn to the beachfront setting. Perhaps one option could be to reduce the length. Running at seven days as a market with no adjacent festival, the argument can be made that it could be condensed into four or five and still provide a similar opportunity to get business done. That would cut costs and while it may represent a financial challenge to the AFM itself in terms of reduced exhibitor fees, it might reduce the possibility that more companies begin to look at the expense and decide it simply isn’t worth their while.
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