'Difficult market decisions' at AFM

Financial crisis making deals harder to come by

It seems to be a case of who blinks first for attendees stalking the halls at the American Film Market.

The buyers are trying to pick and choose from myriad desirable finished titles while the sellers with topline products continue to look for high-end prices as this year's market moves into the home stretch Sunday.

With just a few days left for face-to-face dealmaking at the AFM, the sunny weather helped mask the dark clouds of economic doom and gloom enveloping the Loews.

Snippets overheard on the quick walk around of the halls here and at the Le Merigot are dominated by "difficult market conditions" and the continuing mantra of "tough times" ahead for everyone.

Given the treacherous marketplace, newly appointed Senator Entertainment U.S. president Mark Urman said that commercial appeal is at the top of everyone's agenda. "People should not be spending $30 million for a movie where everyone ends up dead at the end," he said.

One U.K. acquisitions chief noted that that some sellers were sticking to their guns on pricing. "It's hard for everyone right now, but some of the sellers aren't willing to shave some dollars off their asking prices. You'd think they'd be taking into account the global economic situation as well."

Unlike in the past at previous markets which have cyclically suffered from a lack of available product or a shortage in script stage options, the AFM is certainly experiencing the global nature of the financial downturn.

One U.S. buyer said: "I don't think I've ever seen it (the marketplace) this bad. When you go into sellers offices there is almost never a wait to see someone."

Everywhere reps from Asia, to the domestic industry and across Europe, are having to work harder than ever to do deals.

"In terms of foot traffic it has been pretty good," said Virginia Leung, head of sales at Hong Kong-based Distribution Workshop. "We are very happy in terms of the foot traffic, but buyers are very slow making decisions. It is now much harder to close pre-sales on Asian films. That has been hard for the past couple of years."

But topline U.S. sales companies including Summit Entertainment, Lakeshore International, Mandate International, IM Global and Bold Films continue to list movies attracting players in the stare off.

A brace of action comedies from Mandate International's slate -- Robert Luketic's action comedy "Five Killers," with Ashton Kutcher and Jackie Chan starrer "The Spy Next Door" -- has buyers banging on the door. The Film Dept.'s romantic comedy "The Rebound," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, also is bouncing around.

And Summit Entertainment's Denzel Washington starrer "The Book of Eli" is high on buyers' wishlists.

IM Global's Stuart Ford, who has AFM buzz title Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity," noted that production slowdown caused by the stalemate between the majors and SAG might not be all bad. "It may be having a positive impact for some U.S. indie sellers," he said. "There's a need for broadly based studio-caliber projects that are completed or near completion, one of the bright spots for companies like ours."

Other hot titles include the Halle Berry starrer "Who Is Dorys Payne," about the notorious jewelry thief, at sales and finance company In Tandem, and Mandate Pictures' "Men Who Stare at Goats" with George Clooney, and Zack Snyder's "300" sequel "War of Gods."

"The bar is set pretty low given what's going on in the world," producer-producers' rep Jonathan Dana said. "For a couple people, activity is actually OK, but any number of people are saying it's pretty empty, all depending on what films you have."

Nukool Sukthawork, the international marketing director of Thailand's 20th June Entertainment, which is here for the first time said: "We were really pleased with the turnout to a presentation we did here, but foot traffic has been slow as it is the first time we are here."

20th June is selling its feature film based on the 2004 tsunami, "2022 Tsunami." Sukthaworn also said that the company is looking to go international with a proposed feature film on the infamous World War II battleground the river Kwai, made famous by David Lean's 1957 film "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

Whatever attendees travails may be, the AFM itself is bringing a boost to the local Santa Monica economy. According to the Santa Monica Daily Press' front page Saturday, the convention should bring an estimated $13 million-$14 million in spending to Santa Monica. So at least the buyers and sellers are spending cash at Cha Cha Chicken and other local eateries.

Liza Foreman and Gregg Goldstein contributed to this report.