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American Film Market In Santa Monica Flooded By Dot.com's

By Peter Besas
 

Santa Monica -- Causing the most comment, and a definite innovation at the 20th edition of the American Film Market market was the huge presence of Internet (dot.com) companies. No one knows whether or not the dot.coms will revolutionize the business of buying and selling of independent films will be transacted in the future. And the dot.coms were coming out of the woodwork in Santa Monica, what with huge promotion banners draped over the balconies of the atrium, as was the case with Filmbazaar.com, and page after page of ads in the trade dailies and weeklies.

A dozen of the latter were distributed each day at the entrance to the Loews by babes forming a veritable battery of handouts of informative magazines. There must have been a dozen of these "trades" circulating, ranging from the Hollywood Reporter to the Parisian Le Film Français. Some of the dot.coms were new. Others had already surfaced at the Toronto Film Festival last fall as well as in Milan for the MIFED in October, and certainly in Sundance just this past January.

For the 10th year running, trade professionals elbowed their ways through the hallways of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, the main venue of the market. Jonathan Wolf is vice-president of the American Film Market Association, which organizers of the event. This year, Wolf said, there were 149 sales companies on hand, most of them from the U.S.,and 327 exhibitors. THe market showd over 400 feature films, up 14% over last year, according to Wolf. While the central focus of activity of the mart is the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, where buyers and sellers huddle in the suites on seven floors as well as in the huge atrium of the hotel and around the large outdoor pool, the screenings transpired on 23 screens in six nearby theatres within walking distance.

Certainly, the AFM has come a long way since the days in 1981 when it organized its first market after years of disgruntlement with Cannes and its ancillary market, which had been the main international emporium for the buying and selling of independent product until then. Though the AFM never succeeded in its aim of making the Cannes market superfluous or of eliminating Milan's MIFED market (held in October), it successfully consolidated its own position. The AFM's clout is probably greater than ever before, more so now with the advent of US-based internet companies plunging headlong into the field and the hefty presence of foreign production and sales companies involved in financing US films and vice versa.

Most of the film-sales-related dot.coms haven't been around for more than a half-year or so but their number is impressive. Several offer product listings of films for sale. Thus Filmbazaar.com, for example, claims to have 150 buyers on its system and lists over 1,000 titles. Another outfit, Internetstudios.com, in addition to product listings, plans to offer boxoffice details and a "one-stop shopping area", while Mipinteractive.com, an offshoot of the Reed Midem organization which runs the big MIP and MIPCOM TV markets in Cannes, currently has a listing of 1,200 buyers with detailed business profiles and over 13,000 titles. Dozens of others dot.coms were vying for attention at the market, among them rightsmart.com, reelplay.com, alwaysindependentfilms.com, spectrocom.com, screenexchange.com. In all, there was a dizzying array of dot.coms providing everything from street maps of film festival sites to boxoffice results of films in release and mucho palaver about web sites and "virtual studios" on the Internet.

What the end result of the proliferation of the dot.coms will be can only be guessed at, and presently seems as inscrutable as the potential of the internet and that of the NASDAQ. Some argue that if buyers can view films and promo reels from their own offices and save the time, expense and inconvenience of traipsing all over the globe to attend markets, then it may change the very nature of the markets themselves. Others point out that the personal touch is still imperative for important business transactions, especially in the matter of negotiating prices, sales conditions, nailing down output deals and sizing up trading partners. There are also those who enjoy the seasonal outings to some of the markets and sales venues.

Big Asian, Euro Presence

In addition to the flurry of dot.com mania at this year's AFM, the market hosted an unprecedented number of sellers from Korea (31 this year), as well as hefty attendance from every key territory in the world, from Argentina to Norway. High-powered Koreans were pushing sales of film packages including Shiri, the country's biggest boxoffice hit. Cineclick, Asia's first internet sales company, peddled a raft of features. The Japanese were out in force as well, with sales suites occupied by Shochiku, Kahukura Productions, Fuji Bank Ltd., Toei Company, to name just a few. Some big purchases have been racked up by Nippon banners over the recent past, most notably Nippon Herald Films picking up a three-picture deal with Franchise Picture for about $15 million, much of it for the Sylvester Stallone starrer Champs, and Shochiku-Nippon Herald's purchase of Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York from Initial Entertainment Group. One large Japanese banner, Gaga communications, had a 31-member delegation at the AFM.

Europeans, too, were very visible, both for sales and purchases. Four large Spanish companies took Loews' suites , including Aurum, Sogepaq, Filmax and Andrés Vicente Gómez's Lolafilms, the country's biggest producer, who just announced a slate of 20 features to be produced over the coming years. Germany was repped by Bavaria Film International, Atlas International, Export Union, Sascha Film, Studio Babelsberg, Initial Entertainment Group (half owned by German Splendid Group). Many eyes have been on the push by German heavyweights, such as distrib/exhib Kinowelt (which has joint ventures with Canada's Alliance Atlantis) to enter the U.S. arena more directly. Kathy Morgan, Chairwoman of the AFMA, recently averred that German companies now contribute up to 15% of the financing for bigger-budget Hollywood independent films, about double that of five years ago

The inclusion of 27 films that screened at the Sundance Film festival was considered an added coup for the market and was designed to heighten interest for buyers from around the world seeking the next American "sleeper". Among the titles were Miramax's About Adam, New Line Cinema's Love And Basketball, AKA Movies' What's Cooking? and Good Machine International's Tao of Steve. The AFMA also included various "premiere" screenings of new product, such as two comedies from Kushner-Locke, The Last Producer, directed by and toplining Burt Reynolds, and Picking Up The Pieces, by Alfonso Arau, with Woody Allen and Sharon Stone.

Running concurrently with the film market four of the days were symposia organized by the AFMA. One, pointedly, zeroed in on the question "Will the Internet and E-commerce Change How Films are Financed?" Two other days were dedicated to the future of feature film financing, and the fourth to production of Latino films in the U.S.

Though the dot.com phenomenon may have added a new wrinkle in the sales patterns, the overwhelming presence of U.S. films on screens around the world, and their ever-increasing market share, is sure to reinforce the importance of the American Film Market. Indeed, the AFMA recently signed a contract with the Loews in Santa Monica for yearly markets up to the year 2004.

(Frank Segers contributed to this report)

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