With Stars Shooting for the Silver Screen, Is TV (Slowly) Killing the AFM?

Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell in 'True Detective'

The lure of small-screen projects is drawing A-list talent away from film, making it increasingly difficult for producers to package midbudget films. Says one: "It's the worst I've ever seen it."

Dealmakers have found a scapegoat for the dearth of hot titles and the distinct lack of buyer buzz at the American Film Market this year: television.

The boom in television production, so goes the argument, is drawing talent away from film projects, making it increasingly difficult to attach A-listers to features.

Speaking at the AFM Finance Conference, financing consultant Roy A. Salter noted that the boom in TV comedy and drama has sucked the oxygen out of the film business. The volume of production on U.S. TV networks "has literally doubled in the last three years," said Salter. "There’s less talent available [for films]. The attention has been turned to the T [television] rather than the F [film]. Is it affecting features? Yes."

That sales agents are finding it harder to put together packages is evident to anyone walking the [half-empty] halls of the Loews.

"It’s either: the cast is great but you don’t trust the director; or the actors are A-list but it’s the wrong genre for them; or the package is great but the script isn’t there yet," says Al Munteanu, president of German distributor Square One Entertainment. "It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it." Munteanu, however, noted that he still bought four films out of this market —including Midnight Sun from Mr. Smith Entertainment—but that he had to work a lot harder to find them. 

The somber mood at AFM, and every other major film market this year, is in sharp contrast to the mood at the MIPCOM TV market in Cannes last month, where a flood of high-profile productions gave the event the feel of a boom town.

Whether TV is really to blame for AFM’s blues, however, is debatable. Some A-list talent certainly is migrating to the small screen — see Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell on HBO’s True Detective or Clive Owen taking up residence (together with director Steven Soderbergh) on Cinemax drama The Knick. "But they can’t all be doing TV," notes Munteanu.

Recent high-profile talent shuffles on big presold projects — Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow exiting hot femme-focused comedy Bad Moms to be replaced by the trio of Mila Kunis, Christina Applegate and Kristen Bell; Edgar Ramirez replacing Gerard Bulter on Alcon’s Point Break reboot — had nothing to do with TV. Alicia Vikander jumped out of IM Global’s Dave Eggers adaptation The Circle (to be replaced by Emma Watson) in order to appear in another film (the upcoming fifth Bourne film, with Matt Damon) not a TV show.

Other factors — a declining home video market, a sharp decrease in TV licensing revenue in many territories and a cinema market increasingly hostile to midbudget fare — appear to be at least as significant as the TV boom in explaining the current AFM drought.

"The fact is, films in the middle range aren’t working the way they used to," said Stephan Giger of Swiss-based buyer Ascot Elite. “It seems to be getting harder for everyone to pull these projects together."

Salter, at least, predicted that the production cycle will swing away from television and back to film "in the next two to three years."

But even if TV dramas fade and the talent’s calendars begin to open up, it likely won’t mean an end to the deeper problems in the indie film business.