Saturday, October 24, 2009

AFM focuses on projects, economics

AFM focuses on projects, economics

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Hope springs eternal in the independent film business, as new foreign sales companies get up and running in the middle of some of the worst market conditions around.

So far, much of the expected consolidation of the sector looks more like a fragmentation. Long-established names such as Capitol, Odyssey and Intermedia are gone, but their former executives have re-emerged in a variety of guises. Faced with banners such as Sierra, FilmNation, West End, Metropolis, Timeless, Protagonist, Exclusive and IM Global, it's a challenge for buyers to work out who's who, and which of them can really deliver what they are promising.

"I'm still getting lots of scripts in, but the players have changed. Instead of coming from a few top companies, now they can come from anywhere," says Mirjam Wertheim, an L.A.-based consultant who reps buyers in 10 territories.

Glen Basner, the former Focus Intl. and Weinstein Co. sales topper, launched his FilmNation shingle a year ago, right into the breaking storm.

"I had seen changes in the marketplace that I thought would take place over a two- to four-year period. But then in the last week of September and the first week of October last year, it all happened in just a couple of weeks," he recalls. "Did I see it coming? No. Was I prepared? By luck I was. I hadn't had time to build up overhead, and I didn't yet have any films out in the market at the wrong prices. As a new company, I could be very nimble and adapt quickly."

A year later, Basner has a slate of half a dozen projects, including John Carpenter's ghost thriller "The Ward" and Oz-shot 3D adventure "Sanctum," exec produced by James Cameron.

Basner admits it was an uphill battle at first, because it was much harder to get movies into production. "The biggest issue now is understanding what's presellable in today's market," he adds. "The target area has got a lot smaller. It's not good enough for me to be able to sell something anymore, it has to create value in the marketplace. If it's not at a budget level that allows distributors to make money, it's no good."

Stuart Ford's IM Global had been going for a year when the crisis hit. He has emerged as one of the strongest sellers in recent months, with niche pics such as Tom Ford's directorial bow "A Single Man" and low-budget horror pic "Paranormal Activity."

"We've adapted by keeping our overhead lean, and being very, very meticulous about the projects we bring to the marketplace given the change in the market," he says.

"Instead of setting out our stall to just handle a certain type of bigger-budgeted, star-driven movie, we have become a broad church for anything that has quality written through it. So we started our Acclaim label to handle high-end specialty movies, and we have evolved our straight-to-DVD label Octane into something for low-budget theatrical genre movies."

After selling Capitol Films to David Bergstein, Sharon Harel reappeared at Cannes 2008 as chair of West End Films, a boutique run by two of her former execs, Eve Schoukroun and Maya Amsellem.

"When the crisis hit the market, I kept thinking we were in a very good situation, because we're so picky and our overhead is so small," Harel says. "Buyers are doing very much what we are doing -- picking the one thing they think might work, because there's much less cushioning for a mistake."

So far, West End has boarded just five projects, including Stephen Frears' "Tamara Drewe" and Rodrigo Garcia's "Mother and Child." "We have the luxury of only saying yes to projects we are really passionate about," she says. "If we saw two more projects this week that we loved, we would do them."

Penny Wolf, another Capitol alumna, recently joined Goldcrest to bring the company back into theatrical sales after several years of library trading. Goldcrest has money to invest, but Wolf isn't rushing.

"If you start in challenging times, you need a much more measured approach," she says. "We're going to AFM, but we probably won't have any films until Berlin. We want to steer away from doing films just for the sake of it. If it takes a few months to find the films we want to handle, so be it. Hopefully a lot fewer films will be made."

Wolf says she aims to work on four to five films a year with established filmmakers and budgets up to $10 million. "Not the $10 million-$20 million range, because you'd have to get $1 million out of the major territories, and, my God, you can't do that now," she adds. "It's a much meaner and leaner time. Those days of spending huge amounts on glossy brochures as we used to do at Capitol are gone. Everyone realizes the business model has got to change. Budgets have got to come down."

Ben Roberts, who launched Protagonist in early 2008, echoes that sentiment. "There's a lot to be said for enforced caution," he says. "A difficult financial climate can be quite liberating, because it forces you to get rid of the excess that you didn't really need in the first place."

Former Intermedia toppers Guy East and Nigel Sinclair returned to the sales business when they launched Exclusive Film Distribution at last year's AFM. "When we set up, we thought we'd be doing more movies, but we quickly realized that was not sensible," says EFD's sales chief, Peter Naish (ex-Icon and Capitol). "Instead of five or six films a year, we've scaled back to three or four. But we've done pretty well for launching in a difficult time; presales against our targets are pretty good."

The suspicion remains, however, that this proliferation of new shingles is just a Darwinian phase in the consolidation of the indie film business. Only those best adapted to harsh conditions will survive.

"It's going to continue to be challenging, but I don't see a problem with that," Basner says. "If we continue to be smart and bring films in at price points that give value to our customers, then we'll be fine."

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