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There was a sense of 1990s nostalgia at the 2021 American Film Market.
Technically this year’s AFM, with its Zoom meetings, on-demand screenings, virtual keynotes and discussions, was cutting-edge. But the projects on offer and the stars attracting the most attention at AFM 2021 felt very old school.
Capstone’s Silent Night, a dialogue-free thriller set to star The Suicide Squad actor Joel Kinnaman and directed by action legend John Woo, marking his first English-language feature in over a decade, sold out in multiple territories within hours of it being unveiled to AFM buyers.
A long list of by-the-numbers action movies, most of them featuring greying stars from the 1980s and 1990s — Liam Neeson in Ireland-set thriller In The Land of Saints And Sinners, Dolph Lundgren as director and star in Millennium-backed action pic Wanted Man, the hitman thriller Fast Charlie starring Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson in ticking-bomb actioner Hot Seat — were some of the titles flying off the (virtual) shelves at AFM 2021. While some may eventually come to a theater near you, these are movies designed — with their recognizable stars and clear genre positioning — to play well for home entertainment.
There were a few AFM titles, such as Lionsgate’s John Wick spin-off Ballerina, which has No Time to Die star Ana De Armas circling as a possible lead, which are clearly positioned as theatrical releases, but with rising COVID cases across the U.S. and much of Europe stoking fears of another cinema shut down this winter, independent buyers are betting on movies they can easily sell on to a streamer or hawk directly to fans via video-on-demand.
“Everyone is looking at projects with not just theatrical in mind, but what the longer life into the ancillary markets will be,” says Gabrielle Stewart, managing director of HanWay Films. “There is very little risk-taking.”
HanWay secured multiple pre-sales on Paul Schrader’s crime-thriller Master Gardener, featuring Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver, including deals with Germany’s Leonine, The Jokers in France and VVS Films in Canada, on the back of the all-star cast and the buzz around Schrader’s latest release, the Oscar Isaac/Tiffany Haddish drama The Card Counter.
“What we are seeing, and have been seeing for a while, is that distributors are taking a lot longer to do deals,” says Stewart. “Negotiations start well before the markets and they often continue on long afterward.”
When it comes to the theatrical business, Stewart says the independent market is “still figuring out” what impact COVID will have and whether older audiences — the target group for much indie cinema, particular art house movies — will return in force post-pandemic.
“I’m still very optimistic, and I’m buying movies for both theatrical and VOD release [in Russia],” says Nadezda Motina, a veteran acquisitions executive who launched a stand-alone indie distributor, Arna Media for the Russian market just ahead of AFM 2021. “But it has become very difficult to find commercial titles on the independent market. The studios are making more worldwide deals, taking big movies off the market, and the streamers are buying everything up. When Netflix sees there’s a new Pedro Almodovar film coming out, they go out and get it.” (Netflix is releasing Almodovar’s upcoming feature, Parallel Mothers).
With Arna Media, Motina hopes to get earlier access to indie films by coming on board as an equity investor and producer at the script stage, a model used by many regional distributors.
“You see it in almost every major territory: the big distributors are producing their own movies,” she says. “It’s the only way to compete.”
Brian Beckmann, CFO at Arclight Films, said business at the 2021 AFM has been “very good, very brisk” with a strong response for Arclight’s upcoming thriller The Locksmith, starring Ryan Phillippe, Kate Bosworth and Ving Rhames, and fantasy drama The Portable Door with Christoph Waltz, but he’s more skeptical about a theatrical bounce back for the indies.
“When theaters first began to open up but before the studios were releasing their movies again, there was some opportunity [for independents],” he notes. “We released [Brandon Cronenberg-directed] Possessor with Neon and [Ellen Burstyn/James Cann-starrer] Queen Bees with Gravitas Ventures and they did well, maybe better than they would have if there wasn’t a pandemic [but] you can see the studios now are coming back and gobbling up most of those theatrical slots, making it a lot harder to get an independent film out there [into cinemas].”
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