AFM: Russell Crowe, Don Cheadle Trumpet Projects

Russell Crowe
Russell Crowe
 Tullio M. Puglia / Getty Images Entertainment

Adapt or perish appears to be the motto of this year's American Film Market as top stars and filmmakers embrace an increasingly important component in getting an indie movie made: the celebrity sales pitch.

An unusually large number of actors and directors are turning up in Santa Monica this year to personally tout projects to foreign distributors in the hopes of finding precious financing. This practice certainly isn't new, but it's been increasing in intensity over the past two years as sales agents urge talent to take a more active role.

The cavalcade of names showing up Thursday included Russell Crowe and Don Cheadle, who are trying to raise financing for their respective directorial debuts, post-World War I drama The Water Diviner, and Miles Davis pic Kill the Trumpet Player (both also star). Vince Vaughn and actor-turned-director Peter Billingsley touted their action thriller Term Life, while Blake Lively spoke to buyers about romantic comedy The Age of Adaline. Nancy Meyers -- used to working within the cloistered studio system -- pitched her own romantic comedy, The Intern (with Reese Witherspoon and Robert De Niro circling the film). And Dustin Hoffman plugged his indie drama Boychoir.

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Late in the afternoon, buyers crowded into Santa Monica jazz club Harvelle's for a Q&A with Cheadle and IM Global's Stuart Ford. (They also were treated to what Ford called the "IM Global house band," a jazz trio that included key boarder Deron Johnson, who toured with Davis before Davis died.) Cheadle, who will star as the legendary musician, quickly dismissed the notion that it will be a traditional biopic.

"Let's kill that term, OK? I hope with this film we can kill the biopic. This film won't try to give a broad overview of Davis' life and give short shrift to this man's story." Instead, he said, the film would focus on the five years near the end of Davis' life, when he had stopped playing music. "For us as creative people, the time of his life that was most interesting was the five years when he wasn't playing, when he was silent. What was going on in his mind? And how did he come out of it and return to music?"

Monika Weibel, CEO of Swiss distributor Frenetic Films, was at Harvelle's and said personally hearing from talent could help push buyers like her to write a check.

"It's a bit like being romanced," she said. "You meet the stars, they talk about their passion project and it puts you in the mood to maybe take the risk with all that money."

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In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Billingsley said it was his first trip to a film market. Ditto for Vaughn. QED International, which teamed with Worldview Entertainment to finance Term of Life after Universal withdrew from the project, arranged to bring in the duo. The project, also starring Hailee Steinfeld, is a marked departure for Vaughn, widely known as a comedy star.

"The questions were really impressive. They especially wanted to know about tone," Billingsley said, adding that he begins shooting March 1 in Atlanta. "If I were a buyer, to get a chance to meet with the movie star and the filmmaker would make me a lot more confident going in. Vince liked the experience as well. Listen, when you really care about a movie, it helps to talk about it in a meaningful way."

At the same time as the Harvelle's event, Crowe and Mister Smith Entertainment held their own soiree for foreign distributors in the hopes of whipping up interest for The Water Diviner, co-starring Olga Kurylenko.

And on the eve of the AFM, Elton John, Tom Hardy and Good Universe hosted a swanky beachside buyers brunch for Rocketman, the Elton John biopic starring Hardy as the legendary musician. Hardy had double-duty at AFM, having also met with buyers to promote The Outsider, another QED and Worldview title.

One European buyer is cynical about all the star wattage: "The fact that they have to bring in the stars just shows you how difficult it is to get an indie film financed these days."

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