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AFM 2012: Why the Slowdown Is Coming

When Cloud Atlas was introduced to international buyers at the Cannes Film Market in 2011, it was the talk of the Croisette. At $100 million, it was one of the most ambitious independent productions ever mounted, and it had a pedigreed cast led by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.

The dreamy epic will likely be the talk of this year’s American Film Market — but for a different reason. The movie stands to underperform badly domestically, meaning it will have to do big business overseas. Otherwise, foreign distributors taking a stake in the film will get burned.

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There won’t be any Cloud Atlas at this year’s AFM; and if there were, it might take more convincing on the part of the seller. International sellers and buyers say the miniboom that began in 2011 in the international presales business is over, noting a slowdown in highprofile projects.

The big-budget Dredd 3D, another hot market title, also has been a box-office disappointment, further making buyers nervous about what they invest in. To boot, the top-tier sales companies are having a difficult time nailing down the sort of talent that buyers are seeking. Generally, scripts for new market titles are sent out at least a week before AFM, but this year, sales agents were still trying to furiously close deals on the eve of the event.

Competition is especially fierce for what one film executive calls the “Men in Tights,” a reference to some of today’s most soughtafter younger actors — Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Chris Pine, Jeremy Renner and Ryan Reynolds — all of whom are also being wooed by studios for their tentpoles.

While all have appeared in prominent indie titles — Gordon-Levitt’s Looper has been a bonanza for foreign distributors — their reps are becoming choosier.

“These guys are the drivers of action movies and thrillers, but what young actor isn’t in a studio superhero movie? The actors are all afraid of making the wrong decision and picking the wrong project,” one executive says.

Buyers around the world have become extremely risk-averse. The decline of revenue from DVD and TV licensing has put increasing pressure on films to perform theatrically, so buyers are loath to bet on anything without a built-in audience. Projects that tick all the boxes are hot; anything outside the box is not.

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And before investing in a film, buyers want assurances that the attached cast is actually available and won’t be tied up making other movies. It’s not uncommon to see an actor with two projects at a market, reflecting the diminishing pool of names to pluck from.

“There is an incredible amount of rigor involved in chasing down these projects. You have to know you can build the talent. That’s the fight,” says Sierra/Affinity president and CEO Nick Meyer, who was among the agents still trying to close deals as AFM drew near.

There’s also a proliferation of new sales companies, creating more of a dogfight for the plum projects. These outfits include David Garrett’s Mister Smith Entertainment, a joint venture with German production and distribution giant Constantin, and Will Clarke’s Altitude Film Entertainment.

Mister Smith’s new offering at AFM is Imagine, starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Renner and Julianne Moore. Moore has another project at AFM, Non-Stop, in which she stars opposite Liam Neeson.

“Distributors only want things that look like slam-dunk theatrical movies with a clear target demographic,” Garrett said. “You have to hit one of the sweet spots — either the teen sweet spot, a la Twilight and The Hunger Games; the graying audience for films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; or the filmmaker-driven audience, which can be very auteur — see Beasts of the Southern Wild, or cool, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive or Steve McQueen’s films.”

Genre titles — action, thrillers, fantasy and sci-fi — also are in demand, provided they come with A-list cast in tow. Older actors who continue to be a huge draw include Neeson, Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.

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Focus Features International co-president Alison Thompson, for one, isn’t concerned about the slowdown. “It could actually be a good thing for the business because the sheer volume of movies that has been in the market made life very challenging,” she says.

Another international executive adds, “We’re turning down movies because our customers don’t want or need those fringe titles anymore.”

There’s also the matter of the Eurozone. Box-office returns in the territories hardest hit by the Euro crisis — Greece, Ireland, Portugal and now Italy and Spain — have slumped, while even buyers in healthier territories such as Germany and France have become more cautious.

“There is a downward curve in Europe, and the crisis is affecting prices, both on the TV side and the theatrical side. It’s survival of the fittest,” says Garrett.

Mister Smith has a major focus in the Eurozone, representing DreamWorks titles for Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa. “We aren’t getting the sort of advances we used to,” Garrett adds. “It means, in the end, we have to look at the cost of production and find some way to bring that down, or find new sources of financing.”

Outside of Western Europe, things aren’t so bleak. Emerging territories, including the Middle East, Russia, Brazil and, especially, China, are booming and hungry for product. However, China still does only limited presale business.

“We know that some markets are ‘devastated,’ but emerging ones make up for it,” says Charlotte Boucon, head of international sales at France’s SND.

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For indies with solid global distribution networks — think Summit/ Lionsgate or The Weinstein Co. — it is still, mostly, business as usual. European and Asian giants with easy access to regional equity or soft money — France’s StudioCanal, uMedia in Belgium, Germany’s Constantin or Media Asia films out of Hong Kong — are increasingly moving into midbudget genre features that were once studio staples.

Cloud Atlas producer Stefan Arndt is hopeful that his film will serve as a new producing paradigm. In exchange for paying a lower minimum guarantee, foreign distributors have an actual equity stake in the film so that they benefit from the movie’s worldwide performance.

Producer Martin Moszkowicz, head of film and television at Constantin, also remains upbeat, saying there is still plenty of room at the global box office for independently financed titles that begin their journey at film markets.

But others believe that buyers will grow even more picky and shy away from riskier, big-budget projects (the same goes for film financiers).

“I imagined that we’d see a slowdown in 2009 and 2010, but it was the opposite,” says one veteran international film executive. “There were so many private individuals willing to invest in films. This year in Toronto, when there were 350 films at the festival. That was the day of reckoning.”

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THE A-LIST

While business may slow a bit in comparison to previous markets, there are still plenty of projects for buyers to check out. And, in addition to the titles listed below, Summit International will shop the Ed Zwick-directed Pawn Sacrifice, written by Steven Knight, while Nu Image/Millennium will introduce The Expendables 3 (fine timing, considering The Expendables 2 just crossed the $300 million mark worldwide). There’s also word of an Anthony Hopkins project in the offing, Solace, from emerging director Afonso Poyart.

And So It Goes ...

Starring: Diane Keaton, Michael Douglas
Director: P.J. Hogan
Sales company: Foresight Unlimited
Producers: Alan Greisman, Rob Reiner, Mark Damon
Synopsis: Oren (Douglas) is a self-centered and eccentric realtor who couldn’t care less about anyone else, but when his estranged son suddenly drops off a granddaughter he never knew, his life is turned upside down. Now, with the help of his determined and lovable neighbor, Leah (Keaton), he learns to fall in love again.

As Cool As I Am

Starring: Claire Danes, James Marsden, Peter Fonda, Sarah Bolger
Director: Max Mayer
Sales company: Radiant Films International
Production companies: Identity Pictures, Wind Dancer Productions
Synopsis: Based on the novel by Peter Fromm, the film centers on Lucy (Bolger), a teenager whose self-centered parents (Danes, Marsden) had her when they were teens. As she turns 14, Lucy becomes more in tune with her sexuality and her family dynamics.

Born to be King

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kate Hudson
Director: Peter Capaldi
Sales-production company: Indomina Releasing
Synopsis: In the romantic comedy, McGregor plays an extra and Hudson is the film star who falls for him. It’s McGregor’s second AFM project; in the other, heist thriller Son of a Gun, which Altitude Film Entertainment is selling, he plays Public Enemy No. 1 in Australia. Julius Avery wrote the film and directs.

Divergent

Starring: Shailene Woodley
Director: Neil Burger
Sales company: Summit International
Production company: Red Wagon Entertainment Synopsis Based on the best-selling novel by Veronica Roth, the action thriller is set in a futuristic world where society has been divided into five factions. When young Tris Piror (Woodley) discovers that she is a “Divergent,” someone who can’t fit into any one faction, she must conceal this fact or risk her life.

The Enchanted House

Starring: TBA
Director: Ben Stassen
Sales company: StudioCanal
Production companies: uMedia, StudioCanal
Synopsis: Family fare is an area in which 3D continues to deliver, and Stassen, the Belgian helmer of 3D animated features Fly Me to the Moon and two Sammy’s Adventures films, has one of the genre’s best track records. His latest is a 3D family adventure set in a haunted house.

5 to 7

Starring: Diane Kruger, Anton Yelchin
Director: Victor Levin
Sales company: Solution Entertainment Group
Producers: Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn
Synopsis: From a script by Levin (Mad Men), the film is set in New York, where an aspiring novelist (Yelchin) has an affair with the beautiful, older wife (Kruger) of a French diplomat. Cultures, worldviews, ethics and dietary preferences clash as love deepens in this romantic comedy.

Hold On to Me

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Robert Pattinson
Director: James Marsh
Sales company: FilmNation Producers Alexandra Milchan, Todd Field
Production company: Indian Paintbrush
Synopsis: Described as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, the thriller centers on a small-town girl (Mulligan) who callously leaves her boyfriend (Pattinson) behind to chase a modeling career in New York, breaking his heart. But she ends up back home as a waitress and embarks on a life of crime when her ex refuses to take her back.

How I Live Now

Starring: Saoirse Ronan
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Sales company: Protagonist Pictures
Production companies: Film4, Cowboy Films, Protagonist Pictures, Passion Pictures
Synopsis: The drama has the star of Hanna back in survival mode, playing an American girl on holiday in the English countryside who is forced to fight for her life when war breaks out.

How to Make Money Selling Drugs

Starring: 50 Cent, David Simon, Arianna Huffington, Woody Harrelson, Eminem
Director: Matthew Cooke
Sales company: Lightning Entertainment
Producers: Adrian Grenier, Bert Marcus
Synopsis: The provocative documentary explores how public policy and government drug enforcement have struggled to creatively adapt and dissuade Americans from dealing drugs.

Imagine

Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Renner, Julianne Moore
Director: Dan Fogelman
Sales company: Mister Smith Entertainment
Producers: Denise Di Novi, Jessie Nelson, Nimitt Mankad
Production company: Inimitable Pictures
Synopsis: Aging 1970s musician Danny Collins (Pacino) is still living the hard life and playing to sellout shows. When he decides to straighten out his life on his 64th birthday and reconnect with his son (Renner), he discovers an undelivered letter written to him when he was 19 by John Lennon.

Joe

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan
Director-producer: David Gordon Green
Sales company: WestEnd Films Production company Worldview Entertainment
Synopsis: A man (Cage) becomes the unlikeliest of role models to 15-year-old Gary Jones (Sheridan), the oldest child of a homeless family ruled by a worthless father. Together they try to find a path to redemption and the hope for a better life in the rugged, dirty world of a Southern town.

Kill Your Friends

Starring: Rafe Spall
Director: Owen Harris
Sales-production company: Altitude Film Entertainment
Producer: Gregor Cameron
Synopsis: Based on John Niven’s cult novel, this is billed as a no-holds-barred satirical take on the music industry at the height of the 1980s Britpop glory days of Oasis and Blur. It follows an A&R man (Spall) who ends up going to killer lengths to find the next hit.

The Last Five Years

Starring: Anna Kendrick
Director-producer: Richard LaGravenese
Sales company: The Exchange Production company Lucky Monkey Pictures
Synopsis: The film adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s hit off-Broadway musical deconstructs the love affair and marriage between a struggling actress (Kendrick) and a novelist.

Money Monster

Starring: TBA
Director: Jodie Foster
Sales company: IM Global
Production companies: The Allegiance Theater, IM Global
Synopsis: In this drama, Lee Gates is a TV personality whose insider trading tips have made him a guru on Wall Street. When Kyle, a viewer who lost his family’s money on a bad tip from Lee, holds Lee hostage on the air, ratings soar as the country tunes in to this media frenzy to find out just how much a man’s life is worth. Production is scheduled to start in early 2013, and the cast could be announced during AFM.

Non-Stop

Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Sales company: Studio Canal
Production company: Dark Castle
Synopsis: Unknown director Collet-Serra reteams with action star Neeson for this thriller centered on an air marshal battling to rescue an international flight.

Philomena

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Director: Stephen Frears
Sales company: Pathe
Production companies: BBC Films, Pathe, Baby Cow Productions, Magnolia Mae Films
Synopsis: Based on a true story, the bittersweet comedy features an Irishwoman (Dench) who sets out with a cynical journalist (Coogan) to find the son taken from her by well-meaning nuns and sent to America for adoption 50 years ago.

Reykjavik

Starring: Michael Douglas, Christoph Waltz
Director: Mike Newell
Sales Company: HanWay Films
Production companies: Headline Pictures, Scott Free Productions, Participant Media, Mark Sennet Productions
Synopsis: The politically minded biopic features Douglas as Ronald Reagan and Waltz as Mikhail Gorbachev. The plot focuses on the leaders’ nowfamous meeting in Iceland in 1986 that signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Turkeys

Starring: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson
Director: Jimmy Hayward
Sales company: Relativity Media
Production companies: Relativity Media, Reel FX
Synopsis: The animated film, slated for release in 2014, is billed as an adventurous buddy comedy in which two turkeys from opposite sides of the track (Wilson, Harrelson) put aside their differences to travel back in time and change the course of history — and get turkey off the menu for good.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Kyle Chandler Director: Martin Scorsese
Sales-production company: Red Granite Pictures
Synopsis: The financial thriller, based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, is expected to be one of the hottest titles at AFM. Red Granite waited to shop the film to foreign buyers until it had secured a domestic distributor. On the eve of the market, Red Granite announced that Paramount will market and release the movie domestically and is planning a winter 2013 release.

Untitled Woody Allen Project

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Emerson, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich
Director: Woody Allen
Sales company: Focus Features International
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum
Synopsis: TBA

The Zero Theorem

Starring: Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges
Director: Terry Gilliam
Sales-production company: Voltage Pictures
Synopsis: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an eccentric and reclusive computer genius living in an Orewellian corporate world ruled by the “Management” who sets out to solve the mathematical formula that will reveal if life has any meaning.

Stuart Kemp and Aurelie Godet contributed to this report.