Published by Variety
Written by MATTHEW ROSS
Docs, horror and action are still tops with buyers
On the heels of the Cannes and Toronto fests (and markets), which underwhelmed buyers with their surfeit of “dark, arty” titles, the American Film Market arrives this fall with a healthy dose of genre fare geared mainly toward the international television and video buyers.
“AFM is typically not a place to premiere a completed film for North American theatrical buyers,” says Matt Littin of Gotham-based indie financing and sales firm Cinetic Media. “It is, however, a great place for maintaining relationships and creating new ones. At AFM, we’ll monitor the films that we’ve sold at Toronto and see how their secondary deals are going, but for us it’s much more about financing than it is about sales of finished films.”
For others, however, AFM is absolutely essential. And while it may be a different marketplace from the big festival scene, expect some of the trends that have emerged at fests and at the box office — most notably the remarkable ongoing nonfiction bonanza — to continue at AFM. Here’s a genre-by-genre rundown of what to expect this year.
The theatrical market for docs in the U.S. is hotter than ever. Warner Independent’s “The March of the Penguins” continues to march toward the $100 million mark Stateside, while Toronto saw high-priced pickups for titles as diverse as “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (bought by Focus), “The Heart of the Game” (Miramax), and “AKA Tommy Chong” (ThinkFilm). The international outlook is perhaps not sizzling, but healthy.
“Nonfiction doesn’t have the same theatrical growth potential in other countries as it does here, but there was already a solid overseas market to begin with,” says Lions Gate Intl. prexy Nick Meyer, who’ll be selling international rights for “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and Stateside Universal release “First Descent,” a unique co-production with Mountain Dew about snowboarders.
With its cross-cultural appeal and its popularity on homevideo, horror pics have long been a staple at AFM, and this year won’t be any different. “Horror’s been hot for a few years now, we certainly hope that continues,” says Dan March, head of international sales for sales agent/distributor Echo Bridge. “I’d say the main reason horror is in demand is that it works so well on DVD — it’s still the genre you cannot get on television.” March, who’ll be selling rights for Latin America, Central Europe and Australia for cult director Tobe Hopper’s “Mortuary” at the market (he’s already sold the other territories), adds that “the distinction between the U.S. and abroad — especially for genre titles — is becoming less and less of a factor. We’re selling the same material to everybody.”
As the international cable market continues to expand, so does the need for family programming on niche channels. Consumer demand, coupled with the extremely lucrative children’s homevideo market, should make it a good year for youth-oriented projects. Still, buyers may be more keen about completed shows as opposed to development projects. “Unless you have a children’s character whose pedigree ties into a Hollywood blockbuster, you’re better off screening a finished film,” says Doug Schwalbe, head of worldwide distribution at Classic Media, who’s coming to AFM with animated films about Casper and the Lone Ranger. “In general, buyers want established characters or series that are pre-packaged with promotional partners, like Nestle,” adds Marvista Intl.’s Michael Jacobs.
IDT Entertainment will tout “Yankee Irving,” a high-end CG animated pic inspired by Christopher Reeve and featuring voice talent including Whoopi Goldberg, William H. Macy and Rob Reiner. Fox releases it domestically next year.
Push Worldwide, meanwhile, will be focusing on its extreme-sports documentary “Kids Who Rip,” and are hoping that the overall popularity of nonfiction will translate to the teen market.
Unlike slasher and creature pics, laffers don’t rank on international sales chart. The reason: comedy is usually culturally specific and thus easily lost in translation. “A high-concept, low-budget indie comedy is something equity financiers in the U.S. are very interested in right now, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the international side,” says Cinetic’s Littin. “For one thing, certain humor might be considered too ‘American.’ In addition, international buyers usually want a high-caliber cast, whereas if the budget is low enough, domestic equity financiers may be satisfied with up-and-comers that have little profile outside the States. ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ which we launched at Sundance, would probably never have acquired interest from abroad as a pre-sale at AFM.”
Despite the high-profile sale of “Thank You for Smoking” at the recent Toronto fest, few overseas buyers pre-bought the pic.
Jelena Tadic, of the sales agency Push Worldwide, adds comedies “almost don’t work at all in Asia. If they work anywhere in the non-English-speaking territories, it’s in Europe, and even that’s rare.” In fact, this summer’s boffo “Wedding Crashers” (New Line) didn’t sell to Asian buyers until after they saw how well it worked at the U.S. box office.
The market for straightforward shoot-’em-ups is pretty anemic compared with the old days at AFM, when a Dolph Lungren commando pic made for a hot property. “Independent production houses just cannot compete anymore on a special effects/technique basis,” says Ehud Bleiberg, an AFM veteran who recently started his own production and sales firm, Bleiberg Entertainment. “As a result, the few regular action films that used to be straight-to-video are hardly to be found in the market.” Instead, buyers should expect a lot of mixed-genre hybrids, like action/sci-fi or action/horror, or, in Bleiberg’s case, the action/claymation pic “Disaster.”
Also, the international success of films like “Ong Bak: Thai Warrior” has some companies banking on the return of the old-school martial-arts pic. Art Birzneck’s production and sales company Birch Tree Entertainment will be screening “Honor,” helmed by “Bloodsport’s” David Worth, to AFM, and has already secured a multipicture DVD deal with Japan’s Gaga Communications. “I think it’s time,” says Birzneck, “for the return of the classic Bruce Lee movie.”