AFM Dealmaking Sags as Market Shifts

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
'Queen of the Desert'

With presales down and the rise of VOD, the indie film business is emphasizing quality over quantity: "There are too few good films for too many buyers."

The strains of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon …”) played on a loop over the sound system of Santa Monica’s Loews Hotel, headquarters of the American Film Market, setting a suitably somber mood for an industry facing an uncertain future.

The traditional business model that has long fueled the independent film industry —using presales to foreign territories to secure 60-70 percent of a film’s budget, backed by guaranteed ancillary revenue from the home video market — is slowing unraveling, and no one crowding the halls of the Loews knows exactly what will replace it.

“Fifteen years ago you could make a $5 million straight-to-video horror film and that was a good business,” says AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf. “Now, if you go straight-to-VOD and your budget is over $1.2 million, you’re going to get into trouble.”

International buyers, hit by the decline, or demise, of DVD sales, are increasingly focusing on movies that can play in theaters, a shift that means they want fewer, but better, films. AFM, long dominated by the volume business — “movies by the pound,” as they used to say — is becoming more and more about quality.

Wolf notes that while the number of companies attending the market this year has held relatively steady, dipping around 8 percent from 2015, the number of films being screened fell by a quarter year-over-year. “There are too few good, commercial films for too many buyers,” says Rudiger Boss, head of acquisitions at German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1. “In the next few years we are going to see a consolidation, both on the sales side and on the distribution end.”

There were few big international deals announced at AFM this year — though Sacha Baron Cohen’s English-language remake of hit Danish comedy Klown is expected to sell out, with bidding wars already underway in some territories, according to sources.

Interestingly, there was almost more action on the domestic side, with titles picked up by U.S. distributors, including South African drama The Forgiven, starring Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana, which Saban Films nabbed for North America; Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, which IFC will release in the U.S.; and The Vault, a supernatural heist thriller starring James Franco, which FilmRise acquired in an all-rights deal. “The biggest trend we’re seeing is the market leaning more toward prebuys for the U.S. or companies buying off of footage, not just taking completed films,” says Saban Films president Bill Bromiley.

But the biggest buzz at AFM this year was around China. Investment from Chinese companies such as Wanda and Tencent in U.S. films and film companies has raised hopes that the Middle Kingdom will compensate for the decline in more traditional markets. “It’s hard to get over $50 million in sales for international, whatever the budget [of the film], unless you have China,” says Mark Damon of Foresight Unlimited. “We have a $135 million film [the Samuel L. Jackson starrer Inversion] but China is paying half of that.”

Luke Xiang, vp and head of international for Beijing WeYing Technology, a Chinese online ticketing platform partly owned by Wanda and Tencent, says that despite the recent box-office slowdown in China, “there was still tremendous opportunity to grow. In China, the average is now one [movie] ticket per capita, while it’s 3.8 in the U.S.” The MPA’s William Feng also notes that DVD/Blu-ray sales — a market that hardly existed in China a few years ago — are growing strongly.

Whether that growth will be enough to cure what ails the indie film business is the question that will determine the future of the industry and the future of AFM.

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Five AFM Titles With (Extremely Early) Awards-Season Potential

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath’s feminist classic could be a lock for awards-season noms — if Kirsten Dunst, who is helming in her directing debut, can pull it off and stars Dakota Fanning and Jesse Plemons bring the semi-autobiographical book to life.

Fonzo
Tailor-made as a vehicle for Tom Hardy’s (long overdue) Oscar, this project from Chronicle director Josh Trank would see the Mad Max star play legendary American gangster Al Capone in the final stage of his life.

Disobedience
An adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s debut novel, this lesbian love story will star Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as former lovers in London’s tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community.

Wildlife
Another bold choice for an actor-turned-director, Paul Dano’s first turn behind the camera will star Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan in an adaptation of the Richard Ford novel about the breakup of a marriage from the perspective of the couple’s child.

Brad's Status
Comedies struggle in awards season, but the script for this dramedy is getting raves from buyers. It follows a man (Ben Stiller) who, while taking his son on a college tour, is confronted with his feelings of failure compared to his more successful school chums.

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