Dialogue:  Shebnem Askin
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As the international sales arm of Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's collection of entertainment companies, 2929 International has the strength of 2929 Productions big-name talent and medium budget product to sell at AFM. For three years president Shebnem Askin has led sales of films landing at both indies and majors with director of international sales & marketing Michelle McDonald, vp international sales administration Jodie Adair and vp post production & worldwide services Marc Wuertemburg. On the fourth day of the market, she gave her assessment of it all to The Hollywood Reporter.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did your company get its start at AFM?
Shebnem Askin: We launched in 2004, and our first slate included George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" and Alex Gibney's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." We ended up getting seven Oscar nominations a year later, so it was a very good start.
THR: What's the main way this year is different from last?
Askin: The strike changed the feel of AFM. We're hearing from a lot of distributors that there are too many projects with the same cast attached, like more than one movie with John Cusack and Bruce Willis set to start before the actors strike deadline next summer. The buyers are a bit frightened. There's a lot of anxiety because people don't know if a film will get made or be delivered on time.
We have three prestrike movies. One starts shooting Monday: James Gray's "Two Lovers" with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow (and) "The Burning Plain" starts shooting Tuesday with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. That's the directing debut of Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote "21 Grams" and "Babel." We also have "The Road" with Viggo Mortensen, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. John Hillcoat is set to shoot that in February.
THR: What other changes have you see this year?
Askin: This is the first time I'm seeing so many distributors coming so early. Usually you have one or two arrive early, but this year it feels like AFM started two weeks in advance. Everyone is trying to figure out what's really happening with the actors strike.
THR: What are they saying to you?
Askin: Nobody knows. As far as we're concerned, it already happened. A lot of key territories have been presold on our films -- so far, so great.
THR: How are you planning to sell the films in North America?
Askin: We don't have domestic sales on them -- as with "We Own the Night" selling to Sony while it was playing this year in Cannes, we want to screen the films and get people's reactions. "The Road" was the exception to the rule because Dimension Films was extremely interested in it.
THR: What's your strategy for AFM?
Askin: We want to be in a very low quantity, high quality business. We're not introducing six, eight, 12 films in the market, just a handful of films from very talented filmmakers with A-list stars. We're a very small company in terms of overhead, so we have the luxury of being able to carefully pick the movies we sell. There are just four people on our staff, and Marc Wuertemburg has the dual role of being in charge of worldwide services and post production on our movies.
I've been working with my staff for about eight years now since our days together at Pandora/Gaylord Films, where I was executive vp of worldwide sales. Before that I was vp of international co-productions and sales at Trimark Pictures, so I've been doing this a while.
THR: What advice would you give to new sellers after doing this for so long?
Askin: You really have to listen to what the buyer is looking for. You have to look closely at every situation in every country to be able to price a movie right. If your expectations are too high you wont be able to sell it, and if they're too low your producers will lose out. You need to travel to each territory at least once or twice a year to find out as much as you can. Having current information is essential.
THR: How would you assess the various territories this year?
Askin: The healthiest markets are the U.K., Australia, Germany and France. One troublesome market is Spain -- there are a lot of problems with TV deals with distributors and deals with exhibitors, and it's difficult to sell them a film because of that. The good news is that Japan is coming back, but a main problem that remains is being able to book a wide number of theaters. Smaller films requiring just one screen, though, are easier to sell, just not wide releases with big budgets.
THR: How has the market been for you so far?
Askin: Well, on a personal note, I have a torn cartilage in my leg and I'm on crutches. I have surgery on Friday, so this has been the most difficult AFM so far. I'm on my way to the pharmacy now (laughs). You can't say the sales execs are lax about our markets -- we don't let anything get in our way!