Why the Rich Get Richer as AFM Hits Schlock Bottom

John Russo
'Hypnotic,' the action thriller from Robert Rodriguez starring Ben Affleck, is set to sell out worldwide after Rodriguez pitched the project to international buyers at the market this week.

Big-budget, star-studded titles see brisk business, but insiders say the Santa Monica event is steadily becoming less viable for the purveyors of the B, C (and Z)-level fare: "There is a bifurcation of the market."

For a handful of high-profile, star-studded titles at AFM, business has been good. For example, Hypnotic, the action thriller from Robert Rodriguez starring Ben Affleck, is set to sell out worldwide after Rodriguez pitched the project to international buyers at the market this week.

Solstice Studios, which is producing Hypnotic with Studio 8 as well as handling international sales, said it has already closed deals with most of the world and expects to mop up the last few major territories before AFM wraps this week. Hypnotic is reportedly budgeted at $60 million-$80 million.

"The appetite from international buyers is fierce," says Crystal Bourbeau, head of acquisitions and international sales at Solstice. "They want these kind of movies and are really stepping up to the plate."

The sales follow a major deal by Lionsgate with MadRiver International and CAA Media Finance for domestic and a selection of international rights on Gerard Butler’s The Plane. MGM also nabbed Miramax’s Jason Statham thriller Cash Truck, which Guy Ritchie will direct, for North America, Latin America and Scandinavia, and the Solution Entertainment Group closed presales on a good chunk of the world for Liam Neeson thriller Ice Road.

Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi pic Inferno starring Taylor Kitsch (AGC Studios), Jodie Foster drama Prisoner 760 (STX International) and road trip comedy Dog, starring and directed by Channing Tatum (FilmNation and CAA), also are expected to sell out globally.

But the near-empty halls at AFM’s Lowes Hotel headquarters point to another reality: that for producers and sellers of low-budget schlock — and low-budget shlock is what built this market — business is tough.

"Every film used to have a value, because you could sell to home video, you could sell to pay TV. That isn’t true anymore. A lot of films now are worth nothing," says AGC Studios chief Stuart Ford, who believes AFM "will get a lot smaller" in the future.

Many of the biggest indie film companies — AGC, Endeavor Content, STX, Voltage and Sierra/Affinity among them — have already moved out of the Lowes. This year for the first time, AFM has allowed companies to register for the market without booking exhibition space.

"There is a bifurcation of the market — the big are getting bigger and the smaller are cutting back," notes AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf, who nevertheless argues the market remains "incredibly efficient" for film companies, who, in addition to "the transactional side" of buying and selling movies, can use the eight-day event to meet with studios, streamers and talent agencies to discuss future productions.

Others aren’t so sure. "It feels like MIFED toward the end," notes one veteran buyer, recalling the once-mighty Milan-based film market that shuttered in 2004. "It takes a long time for these things to die. But our business is changing fast, and unless AFM does something to adapt, it won’t be around for much longer."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 10 daily issue at the American Film Market.