AFM Lacks Standout International Indie, to Dealmakers' Dismay

Courtesy of Warner Bros.; Courtesy of Lionsgate; Courtesy of Photofest
'Blade Runner 2049,' 'The Hitman's Bodyguard' and 'The Hateful Eight,' which all topped AFM in previous years

A shortage of big-name, must-have projects is leading to plenty of dealmaker grumbling at the market, with some buyers wondering if this year marks the "death knell" for the indies: "It's B-, C- and D-quality stuff."

Last year it was the Sacha Baron Cohen silly train that rode into Santa Monica, the funnyman's remake of hit Danish comedy Klown with Annapurna becoming the talk of Loews (and his presentation prompting a swift cancellation of any clashing meetings). The film quickly sold out internationally, with eOne, Constantin and Sun among the many buyers.

In 2015, Blade Runner 2049 was on the shelves (although it was soon swiped by Warner Bros.), while Millennium’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard — starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson — offered some major A-list action chops (and justified its buzz by earning $176.6 million globally earlier this year). And the hot ticket in 2014 was the script for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which buyers could only read at The Weinstein Co.'s Beverly Hills HQ (and only after scoring an invite).

But on the mega, headline-generating, get-me-a-meeting-now front this year, there’s nothing, and AFM attendees have noticed. "It’s been bad for years, but this year there’s really nothing, not a single big project,” says Rudiger Boss, acquisition exec for German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1. “It’s B-, C- and D-quality stuff, with B-, C- and D-quality stars. There’s nothing for us.”

AFM, famously, has been the market that launches indie tentpoles — Twilight, The Hunger Games — that transform the industry. But these days those projects are most likely to land at Netflix or a studio (see Warner Bros. with Blade Runner), leaving slim pickings for the big international players who used to rely on AFM for the flagship features to anchor their distribution slates.

“We have an output deal with STX Entertainment, so we know we have product coming in, like A Bad Moms Christmas,” says Peter Eiff, managing director at German indie Tobis. “For those who don’t have those arrangements, it’s tough.”

There are still good films to be found at AFM and, potentially, money to be made. Rocket Science has Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance starring Jesse Eisenberg; Highland Film Group is shopping Josh Hartnett starrer Gut Instinct; Voltage Pictures has buzzy Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins; and Bloom is shilling Hugh Jackman starrer The Front Runner from Jason Reitman.

But none is an obvious slam dunk, the kind of studio-lite project with broad mainstream appeal and A-list stars that indie distributors can bank on. "There weren’t many packages going into the market," said one head of a sales company that also has a distribution arm. “Is this it, is this the death knell? Something needs to change.”

Some buyers are adjusting to the new normal at AFM, either by producing more in-house — there is a mini-boom in local-language production underway in Europe, Asia and Latin America — or by lowering their expectations. "There aren’t any big films available, so you have to focus on the small stuff that could break out. Quirky movies with no cast,” says Aluisio Leite, a scout for Orange Entertainment, who advises indie distributors in multiple territories worldwide.

There is definitely a business model in the smaller quality pictures with no cast but a great idea (see the success of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winner Moonlight, which grossed a very respectable $65 million internationally, despite ticking none of the typical boxes foreign buyers count on). But betting on quality, not star power or franchise brands, is risky business, and more risk is the last thing anyone at AFM is looking for.

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