An embarrassment of riches at AFM

'W.,' 'Religulous' among completed projects on offer

It's both the pits and the pendulum at Wednesday's opening of the American Film Market in Santa Monica as sellers scramble for deals amid a glut of completed product on offer.

Likening the current state of the market to a "lifeboat with too many people in it," IFTA executive vp Jonathan Wolf told The Hollywood Reporter that there is "no silver bullet" for the glut.

A total of 1,022 films competed in 2008 are on offer at AFM -- which Wolf says is a likely record.

Among the numerous completed titles vying for buyers' attention are Odd Lot International's Holocaust drama "Good" starring Viggo Mortensen, IM Global's Bill Maher docu "Religulous," Myriad Pictures' thriller "The Cry of the Owl" starring Julia Stiles, QED International's "W." and NuImage/Millennium's cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest."

Most of the hottest titles have yet to be filmed or completed, including the Weinstein Co.'s all-star musical "Nine," Focus Features International's drama "Agora," starring Rachel Weisz, Mandate International's action comedy, "Men Who Stare at Goats," starring producer George Clooney and the Film Dept.'s thriller "Law Abiding Citizen," starring Jamie Foxx and producer Gerard Butler.

Usually AFM's optimistic cheerleader, Wolf added: "If you look at this as a pendulum you see too much product and so prices are soft. When it swings the other way with too little product prices are high -- you want that pendulum to be at an equilibrium. Right now we are on the high side with a glut -- but it will come back."

Former Weinstein Co. and Focus Features vet Glen Basner concurs with Wolf in terms of volume at the market while adding: "A lot of films may be available, but if they're good, they can command a terrific price. It's the ones situated in the middle that will be treated like a commodity."

Said Basner: "If people don't see a significant difference between a group of them, then there are likely to make decisions based on where they can get the best deal. Those not selected immediately are the ones that will get killed. It used to be titles had value even if they just went straight to video. Now if films don't get a theatrical run their value drops precipitously."

"I would not make the assumption that people will be careful writing checks," Wolf said. "There is a risk transfer in every transaction in the entertainment business. ... These are companies that live in a risky environment, this is what they do. If they are bigger risk takers they will be buying in preproduction, presales, but then they take on two risks: one, that the film will meet the expectations of the company making it, and two, that it also works in their (buyer's) country.

"The problem we have seen over the last three years is that you have seen a world glut (in completed films for sale). ... there has been so much production that buyers do not need to take as much risk. Now they look at the market and see so much product and (ask) why take both risks when I can wait until the film is finished?"

Some sellers, of course, started the market with an air of supreme confidence. Despite the misgivings about the glut of finished product crowding out any ideas of presales and the current global financial meltdown, this year's AFM sees established sellers setting out their stall as normal.

Veteran sales and financing executive Guy East, who arrives in Santa Monica as chairman of the freshly launched Exclusive Film Distribution, selling titles from L.A.-based Spitfire Films and London-based Hammer Films, is confident about doing some business.

"Early indications from buyers we know well lead us to expect a very enthusiastic response, despite the current financial climate," he said.

While on paper the strengthening dollar makes presale prices look more realistic for buyers from overseas -- largely because budgets are generally drawn up in bucks -- the prices will be lower, according to one financier.

"The main thing for sales companies to remember is there has to be a realistic level in prices," the financier said. "With the right cast and the right price, the deals will be done."

One international buyer was rubbing his hands with glee at being able to call the dealmaking shots. "It's a buyer's market, if you ask me. There are a lot of films needing a home and buyers who are all being very cautious with their money."

Wolf believes that the failing global economy might ironically contribute to a shift in the market through reduction of government funding in many countries for film -- possibly even rewrites of benign film taxation clauses.

"Overall we are seeing continued increase (in production) from the developing countries and from the Eastern Block while there is a slow decrease in American product," Wolf said of the market in general.

But he warned, "I believe that most government agencies around the world are in for a bit of a shock in the coming years ... many have aging populations and there is a demand for more social services in the face of global recession ... and film subsidies will be the first to go, not right away because governments move slowly. But we are going to see subsidies pulled back as states balance budgets."

The pressurized state of the market appears not to have impacted overall attendance, which Wolf expects to run at about the same levels of the past few years.

"We have seen nothing that would indicate that what is going on in the global world has affected attendance," he said. "And I don't think it will impact the number of feet on the ground -- but will those feet be making acquisitions? We will find out in the coming week."

Gregg Goldstein contributed to this report.
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