Europeans at AFM

AFM, no matter what the problems, remains a can't-miss market

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After the annus horribilis that was 2008-09, there were signs of green shoots at the Venice, Toronto and the MIPCOM markets. But most European buyers setting up stalls at AFM this week are still in crisis mode.

"I wouldn't say we see the light at the end of the tunnel, not yet. Everyone is still looking to push down prices." saysAnn-Kristin Westerberg, head of the international division of Sweden's Svensk Filmindustri, whose AFM lineup includes two Norwegian horror titles "Cold Prey" and "Detour" as well as the World War II spy thriller "Betrayal." "Either the crisis isn't over yet or buyers are still using the crisis as an excuse to pay less."

"The summer was very slow, though things have started to pick up since and MIPCOM was quite strong," adds Irina Ignatiew, executive vp international for Germany's Telepool. "We're pretty confident going into AFM."

Among Telepool's highlights this year is the German supernatural mystery "The Door." Directed by Jan Berger, the film features Danish star Mads Mikkelsen as a man who finds a door that allows him to travel back in time and get a second chance to correct past mistakes. Telepool will also be screening "Cargo," a spooky Swiss sci-fi thriller directed by Ralph Etter and Ivan Engler and a promo reel for kids animation feature "Thor -- The Edda Chronicles." The Norse fairy tale, from the team that produced Christmas hit "Niko & the Way to the Stars," focuses on Thor's salad years as a young blacksmith who does not realize he is actually the son of Odin, king of the gods. Production is set to wrap by January 2011.

Confident but cautious optimism could also describe the mood of Fortissimo chairman Michael Werner. Werner is coming off a strong performance in Venice and Toronto, where Fortissimo closed multiple territories on Todd Soldonz's black comedy "Life During Wartime" Robert Kenner's hit documentary "Food, Inc." and Hirokazu Koreeda's manga adaptation "Air Doll," but he admits sales figures have not returned to levels seen a few years back.

"The key right now is to have a film or project that captures the market's attention, that gets buyers excited. If you do that, you will do well," Werner says. "But it is still very difficult."

Instead of chasing trends, Werner says Fortissimo is taking a more long-term approach, which includes balancing more traditional art house fare such as "Norwegian Wood," Tran Anh Hung's drama based on the international best-seller by Japanese author Haruki Murakami with genre-flavored titles including horror thriller "Dream Home" from Hong Kong helmer Pang Ho Cheung; Su Chao-pin's martial-arts actioner "Jianyu Jianghu," produced by John Woo and Terence Chan and starring Michelle Yeoh and "The Shock Labyrinth 3D," from Japanese horror master Takashi Shimizu ("The Grudge").

Actually, it's hard to find a single European sales outfit at this year's AFM without a few genre titles in its lineup. Celluloid Dreams is handling German vampire tale "We are the Night," director Dennis Gansel's follow-up to his boxoffice hit "The Wave." TFI International, making its market debut selling UGC titles alongside its own slate, is screening a promo reel of Romain Gavras' rage-filled road movie "Redheads," starring Vincent Cassel and Olivier Bartelemy. Spain's 6 Sales has Suri Krishnamma's English-language thriller "Locked In" while Content Film International's AFM slate includes action title "The Fallout" from "Hitman" director Xavier Gens.

One of the most buzz-worthy genre titles at this year's AFM comes from British sales outfit HanWay. "Super," set to start shooting in December, stars Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page and Liv Tyler in a skewed take on the superhero film written and directed by "Day of the Dead" scribe James Gunn.

"A few years a go, a world sales company could make a living on art-house movies without big stars or a specific genre hook, but that market is dead," says Ida Martins, in AFM with Media Luna New Films, a relaunch of her Cologne-based sales banner. "Genre now is very strong in the market. Art-house titles without big stars or a big director attached need to have a very strong genre element -- thriller, horror, comedy, romance, whatever."

Thus Media Luna New Films' AFM lineup includes a U.S. thriller -- Stuart Culpepper's psychodrama "Jordon"; "Rescue," a Spanish crime tale set on the high seas; and a Belgian action comedy "Dirty Mind" from director Pieter van Hees.

But when it comes to full-on genre fare, it's hard to match Russia, which continues to pound out action, horror, sci-fi and war films at a pace that would make any central planner proud. Fyodor Bondarchuk and Dmitry Rudovsky's outfit Art Pictures Media has a geek-load of easy-to-label titles. Highlights include futuristic actioner "The Inhabited Island," Bondarchuk's latest, in which a Russian cosmonaut crash lands on a distant planet ruled by fascist overlords and "The Phobos," a chiller directed by Oleg Assadulin featuring a group of teenagers trapped in an underground night club.

Central Partnership is bringing action thriller "Man of the East" and hitman drama "The Ghost" to AFM along with "Tara Bulba," a big-budget period piece from director Vladimir Bortko focusing on the 16th century Cossack invasion of Poland.

Russian Film Group adds to the body count with its monster thriller "Viy." Set in 18th century Transylvania, the horror title is inspired by Slavic myths of the Viy, a swamp monster whose stare can corrupt the human soul.

But from Moscow to Madrid, the thing that most terrifies European sales companies is shrinking margins. And with budgets tight, many smaller outfits have decided to opt out of AFM.

"Buyers are going to fewer markets -- you find buyers going to Hong Kong, Venice and Toronto but not Rome or AFM or another going to Tokyo, Rome and AFM but not Pusan, for example," argues Michael Werner of Fortissimo.

The combination of more markets and fewer sales, however, means AFM attendees have to be a lot smarter with their budgets. Recognizing the problem, European Film Promotion this year launched a new film sales support program. The scheme covers 50% of the cost of AFM market screenings, market badges and the production of promotional material for selected films.

While traditional sales are less lucrative and harder to come by, the economic crunch is also creating opportunities. Svensk reports a shift toward more catalog product, a trend reported by several Euro sellers. International broadcasters in particular appear keen to bulk up on lower-cost library titles to plug holes in their schedules. Additionally, the international digital TV rollout continues unabated. That means new players entering the market, all of them hungry for product.

"We are seeing an explosion of the digital market -- in Spain, in France, in Eastern Europe," says Ignatiew of Telepool. "All these new channels need programming. I see this market fragmentation is a real chance, particularly for companies like ours, which have a strong back catalog. This year is looking to be a good year for us."