AFM 2020 Hot List: Projects With Emma Thompson, Dave Bautista and Armie Hammer Generating Sales Buzz

Emma Thompson
Nick Haddow

Oscar-winner Emma Thompson could be the unlikely star of AFM 2020 with two hot titles selling in the market.

There's no shortage of new independent films heading to the online-only American Film Market this year, even if COVID-19 is changing how everyone does business.

Cinemas across Europe have gone back into lockdown, theaters in much of the U.S. — including L.A. and New York City — remain shut (about half of the country's total screens) and the studios have pushed or pulled nearly every one of their big tentpoles (will the new James Bond, No Time to Die, ever hit theaters?). 

But looking at the lineup of new projects — from finished films to in-development packages —heading to the online-only version of the American Film Market this year, you'd never think we were in the midst of a global pandemic. The movie business is going through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, but independent producers keep making films and international sales agents keep selling them to distributors worldwide.

Business at virtual Cannes and virtual Toronto was robust and sellers scheduling back-to-back Zoom meetings ahead of AFM, which kicks off on Monday, expect a similar response from the last film market of 2020.

Gabrielle Stewart, managing director of HanWay Films, which will be pitching Cold War thriller The Billion Dollar Spystarring Armie Hammer and Mads Mikkelsen, and Sia's directorial debut Music to AFM buyers, thinks these online-only markets favor "packages with clear hooks, clear talent and in clear genres." Discoveries, however — films from an unknown director with lesser-known talent — might need physical markets or festivals to generate buzz.

"For a discovery, you sell off the heat in the room," she says. "That's hard to replicate online."

Theatrical releases remain a tricky business, but several indie titles — including YA erotic drama After We Fell, Gerard Butler actioner Greenland and Liam Neeson vehicle The Honest Thief — have done solid business by releasing opportunistically where and when they could.

"If you're pre-selling a film right now that hasn't begun production, for release in 12 months, there's no problem, because people assume the issues around COVID will be solved by then," notes Voltage Pictures president and COO Jonathan Deckter. "If it's a finished film, then the ancillary markets —how the movie can work in [video-on-demand] play a greater factor."

Overall, AFM 2020 looks to be a sellers' market, with distributors big and small, domestic and international, hungry for new films.

"Production is slowly and steadily returning, movies are getting made," notes Deckter, who is wrapping up final pre-sales on the third and fourth After films, currently being shot at the Nu Boyana Studios in Bulgaria. "Our biggest challenge right now is inventory management, knowing how and when to release our films. The worst-case scenario for us would be to run out of content. But I don't see that happening."

Here is The Hollywood Reporter's Hot List of a dozen new titles likely to generate buzz, and major sales, at the AFM this year.

Universe's Most Wanted

Sales: AGC Studios/CAA Media Finance

Director: Brad Peyton

Stars: Dave Bautista

Buzz: High-octane action is the safest bet for international sales at AFM, so expect this tasty package — combining Guardians of the Galaxy star Bautista and San Andreas director Peyton in a sci-fi adventure comedy about intergalactic criminals who crash land in a small U.S. town— to sell out quickly.

Lakewood

Sales: Mister Smith Entertainment (international), UTA Independent Film Group/Endeavor Content/CAA Media Finance (U.S.)

Director: Phillip Noyce

Stars: Naomi Watts

Buzz: Female-focused thrillers continue to make inroads on the international indie market and the latest from Salt director Noyce, featuring Oscar-nominee Watts as a mother in a small town racing to save her child during an active shooter incident, looks designed to play well in ancillaries, even if most cinemas remain shut.

The Things They Carried

Sales: MadRiver (international), MadRiver/CAA Media Finance (North America)

Director: Rupert Sanders

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Tom Hardy, Stephan James, Pete Davidson, Bill Skarsgard, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sensmeier, Moises Arias, Angus Cloud

Buzz: Hacksaw Ridge proved there's life left yet in the Vietnam War drama, and this star-studded package, with Snow White And The Huntsman helmer Sanders directing a cast of in-demand talent, based on Tim O’Brien’s acclaimed collection of stories the young men of Alpha Company, should be an easy sell both at home and abroad.

The Billion Dollar Spy

Sales: HanWay Films (international), CAA Media Finance/Endeavor Content(U.S.)

Director: Amma Asante

Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Armie Hammer

Buzz: Spy thrillers with A-list casts are precious rarities on the indie market, which should boost pre-sales bidding on Asante's upcoming feature. The based-on-real-life drama stars Hammer as a CIA agent who develops a bond with a  Soviet engineer  (Mikkelsen), who has access to military secrets that could change the course of the Cold War.

Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

Sales: Cornerstone Films (international), Cornerstone Films/CAA Media Finance (U.S.)

Director: Sophie Hyde

Stars: Emma Thompson

Buzz: The notoriously selective older female audience is the holy grail of indie art-house cinema and this comedy, featuring Emma Thompson as a 55-year-old widow on the hunt for good sex who hires a 20-something gigolo (the eponymous Leo Grande), could prove just the right mix for global buyers.

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Sales: Studiocanal

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Stars: Emma Thompson, Lily James, Shazad Latif

Buzz: Elizabeth director Kapur returns to feature films with this cross-cultural rom-com featuring the box-office friendly combo of Thompson (again!), James, and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel actor Latif.

Every Note Played

Sales: STXinternational (international)

Director: Michael Sucsy

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Christoph Waltz

Buzz: A piece of quality cinema for high-end buyers, this romantic drama stars Oscar-winner Waltz as an accomplished concert pianist who receives a diagnosis of ALS. As his disease worsens, and he is no longer able to play the piano or live on his own, his ex-wife Karina (Oscar-winner Jolie) reluctantly steps in to be his caregiver.

The Lost King

Sales: Pathé

Director: Stephen Frears

Stars: Steve Coogan

Buzz: Frears, Coogan, and co-writer Jeff Pope—the trio behind $100 million global hit Philomena —re-team for this comedy-drama based on the unbelievable true story of how Philippa Langley found the remains of British monarch King Richard III under a Leicester car park. Coogan will play Langley's husband.

Revolver

Sales: Endeavor Content (International), UTA Independent Film Group/CAA Media Finance (U.S.)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Maya Hawke

Buzz: The father-daughter combo of Ethan and Maya Hawke provides a tidy marking hook for this period dramedy that's looking to appeal to both dad's Boyhood and daughter's Stranger Things fan base. The plot has Maya playing Jane, a teen in Anchorage, Alaska, circa 1966. When The Beatles make an unexpected stop in the sleepy city, Jane devises a plan to lose her virginity to George Harrison.

Mother's Instinct

Sales: Anton (international), Anton/CAA Media Finance (U.S.)

Director: Olivier Masset-Depasse

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway

Buzz: Box-office draws Chastain and Hathaway star as best friends and neighbors who have their idyllic lives as 1960s housewives shattered by a tragic accident. Masset-Depasse will direct the English-language adaptation of his 2018 Belgian sleeper Duelles.

Wash Me in The River

Sales: Highland Film Group (international)

Director: Randall Emmett

Stars: Robert De Niro, John Malkovich, Taylor Kitsch

Buzz: Lone Survivor and The Irishman producer Emmett makes a rare move behind the camera in this action thriller with enough star power to almost sell off the poster art alone.

Not Bloody Likely

Sales: Cornerstone Films

Director: Joel Hopkins

Stars: Helena Bonham Carter, Pierce Brosnan

Buzz: A rom-com targeting the more up-scale cinema crowd, this Brit pic sees Brosnan as famed playwright George Bernard Shaw, determined to cast Bonham Carter's Mrs. Pat Campbell in the role of Eliza Doolittle in his new play, Pygmalion (aka My Fair Lady). Meanwhile, there's a downstairs romance developing between Shaw's production assistant and the "real-life Eliza" he finds to help Campbell develop her performance.