Can AFM Reshape Its Bottom-Feeder Image Amid Rebranding?

American Film Market Day 6 - Getty - H 2017
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Organizers hope to move the market beyond its reputation as a repository of Hollywood riffraff with a rebranding effort that has placed more of an emphasis on legitimate projects and theatrical releases.

When comedian Adam Carolla visited the American Film Market five years ago, he pithily summed up the popular image of the event after one swing through the lobby of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

“If al-Qaeda hit that lobby,” he quipped of the market's headquarters, “it would take America years to replenish its supply of douche bags.”

Carolla had a point, admits AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf, who acknowledges the world's leading film market has long suffered from a bit of an image problem. AFM is at the heart of the American independent film industry, and movies, ranging from indie darlings like I, Tonya to blockbusters a la Twilight, started life here.

“But the only optics you had was those goofballs in the lobby,” Wolf says of the carnivalesque mix of cheap suits, bad hairpieces and desperate sales pitches that was AFM's front-facing image.

But not this year. By banning the riffraff — no one this year can access the Loews lobby without an official AFM pass — the market has cleaned up its brand. The Hollywood Reporter spotted a handful of the hoi polloi of old — including an impressively dedicated Elvis impersonator — but, by and large, AFM in 2018 is all business.

The market's rebranding mirrors a shift in the indie industry on display this year, with far less mid-budget genre fare and straight-to-video schlock on sale (that business has largely gone online) and a new focus on movies with theatrical potential. While there were only a handful of truly big titles on offer — including George Miller’s genie-themed Three Thousand Years of Longing, starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, which FilmNation is selling; Millennium's fantasy epic Red Sonja from director Bryan Singer; and Voltage Pictures' Tate Taylor-helmed, Jessica Chastain-fronted action-crime pic Eve — there was a sharp uptake in smaller but better projects.

AGC Studios' Breaking News in Yuba County, also directed by Taylor and starring Allison Janney and Laura Dern; Endeavor Content and Sierra/Affinity's Diane Keaton comedy Poms; Memento's Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg pic Against All Enemies; and The Exchange's Sesame Street documentary Street Gang, from Mad Hot Ballroom director Marilyn Agrelo, were all attracting major interest from studios and independent buyers alike.

Recent corporate shake-ups in the indie space, including the demise of The Weinstein Co. and Donald Tang's short-lived Global Road, have rattled the market, which was already worried about declining box office in key territories such as Germany and consolidation (French giant Wild Bunch scrambled to refinance this summer, and EuropaCorp was badly bruised by its pricey flop Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets).

“The consolidation we're seeing across the film business now makes things quite binary,” says John Friedberg, president of international sales at STX Entertainment, whose AFM titles include the big-budget animated feature UglyDolls and the actioner 17 Bridges, Chadwick Boseman's first film after Black Panther. “You're either a large company, like ours, with the financial capability to make big, commercial, wide-release titles, or you are making much smaller films.”

Pics budgeted at $50 million-plus, with top stars and name directors, remain in high demand, as do low-budget hidden gems with theatrical potential. What's missing is the middle: the mid-budget, middling quality pictures that once were AFM's bread and butter.

But big or small, the secret to making it in the current climate is to get your movie into theaters.

“All the films in our slate have a strong theatrical focus,” says The Exchange exec Brian O'Shea, pointing to the Drew Barrymore romantic comedy The Stand-In and the Latino superhero film El Chicano. (The latter was picked up by Tom Ortenberg's upstart distribution venture Briarcliff Entertainment for U.S. distribution ahead of AFM.)

“With the lack of ancillary markets now — the video stores are gone, TV is not buying indie pictures in the numbers they used to — a theatrical play is key to drive your upside,” says O'Shea.

So keep it upscale and keep it classy — or you won't even make it into the lobby.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 4 daily issue at the American Film Market.