Zombies, Sex and Thrills: AFM Returns to Its Roots Amid Pandemic

Peninsula still 1- Publicity-H-2020-1604010851
COURTESY OF EDKO FILMS

South Korean zombie flick 'Peninsula' ($27 million at the box office)

COVID-19 has sparked a boom in the kind of genre fare the market was built on — but will it last?

For independent producers, it is the worst of times. The pandemic has shut down or emptied cinemas, new COVID-19 protocols have added 5 percent-10 percent to the budget of every production — provided you can even find a place safe enough to make your movie — and financiers, insurers and bond companies are running scared, none willing to cover the losses that would ensue should the world enter a second lockdown.

But then, there's After We Collided. The young-adult erotic drama, the sequel to the 2019 sleeper hit After, sold by Voltage Pictures, is on track to gross $50 million at the box office, almost all of it from still open theaters outside the U.S.

And there's Greenland. The Gerard Butler starrer, produced, financed, and distributed by Anton, earned $34 million internationally and scored a major domestic SVOD deal with HBO Max.

More recently, there's Honest Thief, the by-the-numbers Liam Neeson action thriller — shopped to buyers at the American Film Market in 2018 by The Solution Entertainment Group — which has topped the U.S box office charts two weeks running, taking in $7.5 million in its first 10 days in release.

There's even Peninsula, the Korean zombie actioner from director Yeon Sang-ho that grossed a blockbuster-worthy $27 million at home — where theaters have bounced back from the COVID-19 slump — and also picked up a decent $1.2 million in the U.S., via release from Well Go USA.

For the producers, sales agents and indie distributors scheduling their Zoom meetings ahead of this year's all-virtual AFM, the fact that the moneymakers right now are YA sex dramas, Butler and Neeson thrillers, and Asian zombie flicks should give them hope. AFM, after all, was initially set up to finance movies for the so-called ancillary markets — basically home video and international. Amid the pandemic, those markets are just about the only game in town.

"It used to be the focus was on theatrical. Buyers were taking more aggressive bets on strong directors, on auteurs, with the idea that if it worked in theaters, the ancillaries would come," says Brian O'Shea of veteran sales outfit The Exchange, which is introducing Bruce Willis' action film Apex to AFM buyers. "Now it's almost the opposite — buyers are looking for the safety of a movie with a strong ancillary. If you have a Liam Neeson or Jason Statham or Gerard Butler project, you know you'll get very aggressive bids."

For the first time in years, independent producers are on the right side of the supply-demand chain. The global COVID shutdown means film production, effectively, stopped from March through August while demand — driven by bingeing, locked-down consumers — skyrocketed.

"For six months, nobody made anything and everyone consumed as much as they could on streaming. So there is a gap," says producer Jonathan McCoy, who has recently begun shooting on Lionsgate horror title Cobweb, starring Antony Starr and Lizzy Caplan. "And it is going to continue like that because only so many things can get made right now."

The independents, or mini-majors like Lionsgate, have an advantage over the studios at the moment because even when studio features can be shot, continued COVID uncertainty means it's anyone's guess when these movies will be released. The list of studio releases that have been bumpedDune, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, The Batman, No Time to Die — is long (and seemingly growing by the day). Indie productions that can get to market quickly will face less competition.

German mini-major Constantin Film brought forward the release of several of its titles — including the Milla Jovovich starrer Monster Hunter — to fill the void left by studios pushing their 2020 tentpoles to next year. Constantin scored a COVID hit with After We Collided. The feature, which grossed nearly $10 million in Germany, has been the No. 2 title in the territory since the lockdown, behind only Warner Bros.' Tenet (about $18.8 million).

Constantin executive board chairman Martin Moszkowicz noted that even if cinemas operate at lower capacity, indies can still make the number work. "As long as there are few films being released, you can adjust for that, by just opening on more screens," he told THR, speaking before new lockdowns in Germany were announced Oct. 28.

Provided the cinemas stay open. In early October, Constantin set a Dec. 3 release date for Monster Hunter in Germany. On Oct. 28, the German government announced it would be re-shuttering cinemas nationwide Nov. 2, for at least four weeks. Making plans during COVID-19 can be a fool's errand.

Insurance is another major uncertainty plaguing indie producers, who unlike studios do not have existing pre-COVID contracts. There is no insurance company willing to cover the risk of another COVID-19 lockdown, where production would halt entirely. Some countries, including Germany and the U.K., have set up government-backed funds as a stopgap to allow shovel-ready shoots to go ahead. U.S. productions have to rely on angel investors willing to risk everything if things go wrong.

"Voltage took a big risk with us, because we have insurance for everything but no insurance if we have to shut down because of COVID," says After producer Brian Pitt, speaking from the Nu Boyana Studios set in Bulgaria, where he is shooting After 3 and 4. "Voltage rolled the dice. Others might not have been as willing to."

For those investors in indies willing to take the chance, and for those buyers logging in to virtual AFM, the current market — where a limited supply of new films faces decreasing competition from studio tentpoles and a growing demand from consumers — offers a unique, perhaps fleeting, opportunity.

"If you look at the schedule for 2021, it is hugely overcrowded [with studio titles]," said Moszkowicz. "At the moment, we have little competition, and there is a lot of capacity. I'm not sure things will stay that way."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.