AFM Deal Wrap: Streamers, Studios Edge Out Indies for Biggest Films

Getty Images
The American Film Market is held annually at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel.

This year's few notable deals didn't follow the old patterns.

Although this year's American Film Market, which wrapped up Nov. 8, didn't hit the nine-figure global sales highs of markets past, a few standout deals showed how much the independent film industry is changing.

While the traditional system of agencies and producers packaging projects for sales companies to pre-sell (with foreign distributors committing when the movies get made) isn't exactly dead, one of the biggest deals at AFM was Netflix's global (outside of China) buy of the Maika Monroe- and Ed Skrein-starring A.I. flick Tau from Ken Kao and Alex Walton's film sales company Bloom, which itself became part of a novel paradigm of making and distributing indie movies when it was acquired by Endeavor in August. Endeavor Content also brokered the other major AFM deal: Paramount's $10 million pickup of North American, U.K. and French rights to June Pictures' comedy Book Club, whose all-star cast will include Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen.

That a streamer and a studio made the biggest moves was significant, as these deep-pocketed players increasingly squeeze out traditional independents for the biggest, most commercial movies. Meanwhile, the rise of Donald Tang's Global Road Entertainment, which looks to combine theatrical distribution in the U.S. and China to build a new mini-major, also dominated the conversation. Global Road had little to announce in the way of new projects or major deals, but newly appointed CEO Rob Friedman was busy at AFM putting together the pieces of the production and distribution puzzle.

With the market in transition, many of the regional heavyweights who typically dominate AFM with huge pre-buys, like Germany's Constantin or Japan's Gaga, were mostly quiet. The Exchange CEO Brian O'Shea, who spent AFM finalizing worldwide sales on Max Winkler's Flower, starring Zoey Deutch and Adam Scott, notes strong pushback from larger distributors unwilling to change their all-rights model: "The big guys are saying, 'Forget it. Don't talk to us about splitting up rights, giving some to online, some to a studio. That's our business. Stay out.' They are not as open to that kind of windowing."

But even the big boys might be forced to change. Rocket Science CEO Thorsten Schumacher, who inked a big deal to sell Nicole Kidman-starrer Destroyer to China's Bliss Media, says disruption of the old distribution models is the new normal: "When I launched Rocket Science a year ago, we had a distribution component but threw it away. Things are changing so fast, the model that works now could be gone next year."

Even the idea of what makes a hot title is changing. The old AFM hits were male-focused action thrillers and horror fare, with known stars and easy-to-sell premises. This year's few notable deals — such as The Orchard closing much of Europe for Louis C.K.'s disturbing black-and-white comedy I Love You, Daddy; or Embankment preselling to much of the world for Red Joan (Judi Dench as a British grandmother exposed as a KGB spy) — didn't follow the old patterns. "The films that are working at theaters now surprise you. They aren't the same-old, same-old," says Voltage topper Nicolas Chartier, who reported strong interest in his Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a PG-13 Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron as the serial killer and Lily Collins as his girlfriend.

Despite the disruption, Michael Ryan, founder of producer/sales agent GFM Films, believes the indie business will continue to thrive. Although Santa Monica's Loews Hotel felt emptier than usual, 445 exhibiting companies attended AFM, up 18 percent from 2016. "The marketplace is changing every day," says Ryan. "People shouldn't be crying, 'My theatrical model is broken.' They should be finding a way of mending it." 

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.