By Rebecca Green
Over the years, AFM (the American Film Market) has gained a reputation for being an international swap meet of sorts. An event where once a year, filmmakers from around the world convene to pitch their their low-budget horror film, over-the-top action flick or ‘creature feature’ in the hopes of securing financing or a distribution deal. The hallways of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel are filled with posters of films that don’t yet exist with plotlines so ridiculous you lose all faith in the industry.
However, while the schlock does exist, you can’t deny that AFM is a microcosm of the worldwide film industry with 7,000 participants from more than 80 countries attending including acquisition and development executives, sales agents, attorneys, distributors, festival directors, financiers, film commissioners and producers. If you are someone who is trying to get a movie off the ground, you would be remiss to not pay any attention to the business being done at AFM and the trends seen out of this year’s market.
AFM 2018 came to a close last week so for those of you who swiped past the AFM headlines, here is a digest of excerpts from articles containing valuable information that are worth taking the time to read…
Netflix is wonderful for directors, writers, actors and cinematographers, [but it] is destroying the entrepreneurial producer,” he said, “who historically would have had a back end.”
The streamer, Wolf said, “is following a 1940s studio model: Everyone is work for hire [and] no one has any participation,” or upside on the back end. And on the consumer side, he added, Netflix isn’t selling movies at all: “They’re selling subscriptions, which is a different thing,” since all the streamer needs are just enough content in various categories that it becomes a must-have for any given subscriber.
Where is all this going? Wolf offered that today the market is bifurcating. “The budgets are getting bigger or the budgets are getting smaller, [while] the middle ground” — which he defined as $2 million to $8 million pictures — “is disappearing.” But he had no predictions for next year’s AFM, other than that “the films will be different, and that’s always exciting.”
Nadine de Barros, head of Fortitude Intl., asserts that buyers have become far more selective. Her company launched sales this week on the Nick Robinson-Michael Shannon burglary drama ECHO BOOMERS. “When I was first here four years ago, I was able to sell out END OF THE TOUR with Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, including a sale to A24, but there’s really not much of a market for smaller dramas any more,” she admitted. “That’s why films like BOOK CLUB are perfect for AFM.”
Buyers and sellers agree there’s a clear opportunity for the independent world, given that the six majors tend to avoid projects that aren’t the start of a franchise and don’t qualify as “event” movies. Recent success stories include Amy Schumer’s I FEEL PRETTY, which grossed nearly $100 million worldwide for STX; Anna Kendrick-Blake Lively’s A SIMPLE FAVOR for Lionsgate; and Diane Keaton-Jane Fonda’s BOOK CLUB, which sold at the 2017 AFM to Paramount.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, ex-Summit and Lionsgate boss Patrick Wachsberger admits it would be “very difficult under current market conditions” to create a mini-major on the Summit model. “You’d need a lot of money, and you’d need to really have a hit out of the gate,” he said, “otherwise you’d be done.”
So at this year’s AFM, instead of empire building, the focus has shifted to more niche distributors, to the likes of recent upstarts A24, Neon and Annapurna, with established boutique firms like Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features also enjoying a revival. This year’s indie hits — films like A24’s HEREDITARY ($44 million U.S. gross), Annapurna’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU ($17.5 million) and Neon’s documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS ($12.3 million) — don’t fit into any simple model but succeed by targeting audiences outside the traditional theatrical mainstream.
It’s telling that two of the higher-profile deals to come out of AFM 2018 thus far have been from these artisanal distributors: A24 picked up North American rights to the military drama THE KILL TEAM, starring Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard, and Neon nabbed domestic rights for PARASITE, the new film from SNOWPIERCER director Bong Joon-Ho.”
The rising horror tide has been a boon for producers and sales companies across the spectrum. “Things have really begun to change. We’ve seen distributors going from revenue sharing to paying real minimum guarantees for films. We’re seeing proper theatrical releases for films that would have been straight-to-VOD just a few years ago,” says Miguel Govea, managing director at U.K.-based production and sales outfit Alief, which recently inked a pair of domestic deals for Venezuelan supernatural chiller THE WHISTLER and Brazilian demon drama OUR EVIL with U.S. indie distributors Uncork’d and Dark Star Pictures.
For art house or foreign language horror, Govea notes, the route to market is old school. To attract attention and generate sales, producers and sales agents rely on strong critical reception and word-of-mouth from a reputable festival with a good genre reputation — such as Fantastic Fest in Austin, Sitges in Spain and the Midnight Madness sections of Cannes and Toronto. Buyers then do a traditional rollout, usually involving a small theatrical release followed by video-on-demand and even physical home entertainment. “The Blu-ray business is booming again for certain kinds of horror,” says Govea. “Fans are willing to pay money to own these movies.”
The alternative, of course, is to do a worldwide rights deal with Netflix, which typically pays a $250,000 flat fee for low-budget horror, often enough to cover a producer’s costs with a small profit. But that digital market has largely dried up as Netflix buys less, preferring to make its own scary movies in-house. On the extreme low-end of the scale, there is a business for quick and dirty horror that recoups its entire investment online.
While studio execs may flinch when recalling the summer of 2013 (the one in which THE LONE RANGER lost Disney about $150 million), over in the (very) independent arena, a quite remarkable moment occurred. On July 13, a schlocky Syfy movie, made for $1 million and not expected to create any sort of lasting impression on the world, somehow became an overnight cultural phenomenon.
SHARKNADO — an intentionally preposterous tale in which an AMERICAN PIE star, one of the original cast members from BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and the dad from HOME ALONE battle a tornado that sucks up great whites and hammerheads and spits them out over Los Angeles — was by no means the first insane-sounding monster disaster flick. It wasn’t even the first film with a crazy title about sharks starring D-list talent that had appeared on Syfy.
But rather than becoming just another outing from The Asylum, the schlock-masters behind an impressive catalogue of cheap disaster, horror and so-called “mockbuster” films, SHARKNADO sparked a feeding frenzy. Thanks to social media and a growing haul of celebrity fans, the film rode a wave that would produce five sequels and three spinoffs.
At AFM this year, there are at least a dozen new projects featuring actors making their directorial debuts. HanWay has Viggo Mortensen’s family drama FALLING as well as FARMING, a Nigerian-set coming-of-age tale from SUICIDE SQUAD actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Cornerstone has GEORGETOWN, the first film directed by double Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s literary adaptation THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND. Endeavor Content is selling MONKEY MAN, an Indian-set action revenge film that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE star Dev Patel will direct, and is handling global rights for EL TONTO, a Hollywood satire directed by, and starring, IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA’s Charlie Day.
“Films like A STAR IS BORN, A QUIET PLACE … these tangible success stories are excellent flag-bearers,” says HanWay managing director Gabrielle Stewart. “We’ve sold first-time directors who aren’t actors, and it takes more convincing.” (Greta Gerwig helped convince when she earned an Oscar nomination last year for directing LADY BIRD, and Maggie Gyllenhaal recently acquired the novel THE LOST DAUGHTER for her directorial bow.)
What actors, particularly stars, bring to the table, Stewart notes, is a built-in marketing hook.
So what films are creating the most excitement now? Bold Films CEO Gary Michael Walters is a panelist at the Nov. 4 conference called Producing Studio Films With Independent Budgets, which pretty much sums up his company’s new approach.
“In some respects, it’s easier to make two $30 million movies than six $10 million movies. There’s only so many ‘Nightcrawlers’ and ‘Drives’ out there,” he says, referencing some of his past lower-budget hits.
As far as content, Walters now subscribes to “the ‘Mary Poppins’ principle: You need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I think we’ll be sprinkling more accessible things onto our projects — maybe more action components, more commercial genres, more scope. And it feels like a lot of the heavier dramas are really gravitating to television, so we are probably going to be leaning into beefing up that TV strategy.”