AFM Dealmakers: We Need More Talent!

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Spike Lee

With castmembers remaining an essential selling point overseas, AFM insiders complain that the battle for bankable stars leads back to the same handful of names.

On the eve of AFM, Foresight Unlimited’s Mark Damon and Timothy Scott Bogart were in marathon negotiations to close a deal for Spike Lee
to direct Justin Timberlake in Spinning Gold, a biopic of legendary record executive Neil Bogart. The timing was agonizing for Damon, who wanted Lee in place before the start of the American Film Market.

It was a familiar story for sales agents at AFM, who are increasingly frustrated at the difficulty in closing talent deals as the pool of viable stars becomes overfished. The pact with Lee was made official just as AFM got underway Wednesday — but not a moment to soon.

Lotus Entertainment and Worldview Entertainment found themselves in an even more precarious position this week as Lotus officially began shopping Nancy Meyers comedy The Intern. Reese Witherspoon offered a powerful selling point in discussions to star, but Lotus can’t say that she’s in for sure to foreign buyers.

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In May, distributors rushed to buy sci-fi epic Passengers when Witherspoon became attached to star opposite Keanu Reeves. The Weinstein Co. struck a multiterritory deal with Exclusive Media. But then Witherspoon dropped out. On the eve of AFM, it was announced that Rachel McAdams is now the female lead.

“In a way, we’re reaping what we’ve sown,” says Lisa Wilson, co-founder of The Solution Group. “There’s a handful of actors and actresses that we’ve made valuable. We’re all making the same offers to the same actors.”

The battle for bankable names has resulted in fewer high-profile projects being introduced at the premiere film markets. The trend, which was evident at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, continues at AFM.

The problem: Because the theatrical release of an indie film has become such a risky proposal, buyers are only willing to bet on an actor who can open a film worldwide.

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“Who is in the cast is everything, especially for international,” says Marsha Metz, senior executive vp business & legal affairs at Constantin Film, speaking at AFM’s film financing forum. “We would love to go with that great unknown actor, but when we go to our sales agent, they tell us, ‘No one knows who this guy is, we can’t sell him.’ So we have to pick someone from their cast list.”

And that list is very short indeed, as evidenced by the number of A-listers with multiple projects being shopped at this year’s market. Gerard Butler has Lionsgate’s Gods of Egypt and Nu Image’s Olympus Has Fallen; Tom Hardy titles include Elton John biopic Rocketman and QED’s The Outsider; ex-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe is signed on to play a crime journalist in Tokyo Vice and British Olympic champ Sebastian Coe in Embankment Films’ Gold. Russell Crowe has Fathers and Daughters for Voltage Films and his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, which co-stars Olga Kurylenko.

Kurylenko, in turn, is a headliner on The Solution’s November Man and on Moonrise Pictures’ Momentum. But AFM’s true multiproject champ is Pierce Brosnan, who is headlining about a half-dozen projects, among them November Man, the revenge thriller I.T., Sierra/Affinity’s The Coup and The Solution's rom-com How to Make Love Like an Englishman. Both buyers and sellers know the situation is untenable. They are counting on a new generation of stars — Joel Edgerton, Luke Grimes, Jai Courtney — to break through to broaden and deepen the talent pool.

“Look at what happened with Bradley Cooper, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence or Carey Mulligan, they came out of nowhere and now you can package them,” said Wilson. “We just need a lot more names like them.”