Strike winds through AFM

WGA walkout causes anxiety

For New York film executives in Santa Monica, the AFM is a tale of headaches over looming writers and actors strikes, catching up with old Los Angeles friends and wrapping up unfinished business.

Execs from New York, where many indie companies are headquartered, are used to getting the short end of the stick in nabbing big-name talent looking to work for a price. Strike threats -- from not just the WGA but also SAG and the DGA -- have only made that worse.

"There's a lot of pressure from prospective partners here to settle for casting that's less than ideal, and it's caused problems on more than one of our films," said ThinkFilm's Mark Urman. "Actors normally on a one on/one off indie/studio film schedule now are looking for big paydays in big, stupid Hollywood movies."

Some New York execs like Miramax's Michael Luisi had their AFM trips delayed a few days to complete strike-related deals back home, while others like Picturehouse's Bob Berney canceled theirs altogether for this and other reasons, having Los Angeles-based colleagues link online to reels and e-mail scripts instead.

"This is the last big market where you can get projects made before the much-discussed March 1 SAG/DGA pre-strike deadline," Luisi said, referring to the start date the industry is eyeing in order to be assured that principal photography can be completed before any possible SAG/DGA strike takes place. "No one really knows how long the WGA strike will last, so they're hesitant to pay big bucks now. All the indies and specialty divisions are circling projects and kicking tires."

Some are kicking off the tension with soccer, like Sony Pictures Classics exec Dylan Leiner, who's a 10-year vet of the Europe vs. World United AFM game held last Saturday. His company gets through AFM by strategically targeting projects -- focusing on two this year -- instead of looking through a ton of product. "There's a sense of anxiety here because films aren't selling for what they have in the past or working the same way they have," he said.

Or that they may not work at all. "There's a great concern (that) people are selling films that don't end up getting made because of the strike," says another New York-based exec, the Weinstein Co.'s Glen Basner, whose studio is close to nabbing the Pathe horror film "Eden Lake."

IFC Entertainment's Arianna Bocco isn't fazed by the strike, in part because her slate is heavy with foreign films out of the strike firing line. "AFM is about maintaining relationships, and it's the last place before Sundance you can go to make sure contracts on all your deals are signed."

Berney agrees. "Some foreign executives don't go to Toronto, so it's a great place to close deals," he said.

Tribeca Film Festival director of programming David Kwok, like many other New York visitors, loves the chance to combine AFM duties with West Coast meetings. "I can touch base with international sales agents and local producers at the same time," he said. "It's early enough to get talks started and follow up in the next few months to see what'll be ready for spring."

While AFM has a bad rep among some indies for its schlockier fare -- one New York-based exec referred to it as "Trash Cannes" -- others manage to find some jewels among the rubble. But it's no easy feat. When asked the secret of detecting which films would be best for her new art house genre label, one New York acquisitions exec replied, "If I knew the answer to that question, I'd be a lot less stressed out right now."