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A Power Shift at American Film Market: More A-List Titles as Studios Scale Back

6/13/2014 Liza Foreman

By Liza Foreman

The American Film Market kicks off this week with 50 new exhibiting companies bringing A-list projects starring the likes of Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor and Nicolas Cage and signaling a shift in power to independent producers in the movie business.

"We have noticed a lot of big studio product looking for partners and money, and that is what distributors want," said Mark Damon of Foresight Unlimited, a leading sales agent that brings a number of hot titles to the market including "And So It Goes," starring Douglas and Diane Keaton.

It's certainly a step up from the low-budget zombie movies that have long been a hallmark of the annual AFM, which takes place in Santa Monica's Loews Hotel from Oct. 31 to Nov. 7. And while the zombie movies haven't gone away, AFM will see more big-budget, star-filled films  looking for independent financing, as Hollywood movie studios turn more to franchise and blockbuster films.

This year, there are 442 screening films, including 82 world premieres and 327 market premieres, 1,500 registered buyers and 351 exhibiting companies, as of Monday.

Many sales companies are among the 50 new exhibitors attending this year, including:

>> Altitude Film Sales (William Clarke and Andy Mayson),

>>Embankment Films (Hugo Grumbar and Tim Haslam),

>>Good Universe (Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane),

>>Mister Smith Entertainment (David Garrett),

>>Radiant Films International (Mimi Steinbauer),

>>Speranza13 Media (Camela Galano)

>>The Solution Entertainment Group (Lisa Wilson).

And many of these companies are also handling big films, such as "5 to 7" with Diane Kruger (above) and Anton Yelchin, which The Solution is selling. In addition, Worldview's "Joe" with Cage, which is being sold by Westend Films and CAA, and "Son of a Gun" with McGregor, which is being sold by Altitude. Arclight, a veteran sales company that has previously favored a blend of bigger and smaller titles, such as "Crash" and "Wolf Creek," has a slate this year that includes  films with Christopher Walken, Ethan Hawke, Toni Collette, Ernest Borgnine, Liev Schreiber, Ryan Kwanten, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi.

"We celebrate more buyers," Jonathan Wolf, AFM managing director and executive vice president of Independent Film & Television Alliance told TheWrap. "When there is a glut of product, it softens prices, which is not good for anything. If there are more buyers coming, that is good."

The country with the most new buying companies this year is South Korea (25), followed by China (13), the U.S. (11), Japan (6), Turkey (6), and Russia (5), France (4) and Italy (4). New companies attending include Snap TV from Argentina, Lume Filmes from Brazil, JY Entertainment from China and Mountain Pictures from South Korea.

Whether this will impact the roughly $800 million in business conducted at the market – remains to be seen. But that figure puts it on a par with the Marche du Film in Cannes.

"We are seeing more new international buyers come to the market than in a decade," Wolf said. "Part of it has to do with China and Asia growing. A bigger part of it has to do with subdistributors attending for themselves from other countries."

Speaking of the international buyers, Wolf was cautiously optimistic: "We are not yet sure if they are growing or if they are in need of more product. When you spend that expense to come to a market, you are ready to buy. We anticipate this to be a very good market."

Hollywood studios have had a near-monopoly on major titles with A-list stars for as long as anyone can remember. But this year, more quality titles are becoming available to independent distributors than has previously been the case. Consider a package being presented by CAA for a space-set feature from Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis now known as "Monument Valley." Despite its high-end talent, that film has not found financing from any major studio and is now turning to the independent marketplace for backing.

"We get more interest in studio pictures, which have already secured a theatrical release in the U.S.," Damon said. "People don't want films in the $10 million to $15 million range."

Some of the smaller titles that Damon, often referred to as the granddaddy of foreign sales, has handled in the past include Richard Loncraine's "The Ledge" from producer Michael Mailer and Rob Minkoff's "Flypaper" starring Patrick Dempsey.

Still, some onlookers remain skeptical of these developments.

"Any films that are going the independent route are essentially studio rejects, because whether or not producers are still based on the lot, they still go to the studio first," one banker involved with indie financing told TheWrap. "And the other thing to consider is this: Independent films rarely make any money."

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