How are AFM buyers and sellers handling strike challenges, Hollywood budget cuts, and bespoke theatrical release strategies?

The American Film Market (AFM) is currently underway in Santa Monica, bringing together sales agents and distributors in the hopes of striking deals and reconnecting with buyers. Despite the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike and a lackluster Toronto Film Festival, industry insiders are hopeful that AFM will provide some much-needed momentum for the market.

However, the strike and other industry challenges have put a strain on the marketplace. Major studios and streamers are tightening their belts and shifting their focus, making it more difficult for projects to secure funding and distribution. Nevertheless, the return of buyers from China to AFM after a few years away is seen as a positive sign for the industry.

While many international sales agents and talent agencies are holding back on showcasing new high-end packages, there is still resilience in the independent market. Dylan Leiner, Senior Executive Vice President of Acquisitions and Production for Sony Pictures Classics, notes that the wide range of films coming from international territories, as well as documentaries, provide options for companies seeking diverse content.

U.S. and U.K. sales agents are relying on thrillers and horror projects to attract buyers at AFM. Some of the hottest packages being shopped include “Now You See Me 3” from Lionsgate, “Above the Below” co-directed by Idris Elba, and “Eden” (previously titled “Origin of Species”) from AGC. Other notable projects include “Levon’s Trade” starring Jason Statham, “She Rides Shotgun” starring Taron Egerton, and “The Process” and “Novocaine” from FilmNation.

Most of these projects are expected to roll out in the first half of 2024 with interim SAG-AFTRA waivers or by filming abroad. Gaumont’s Paul McCartney feature “High in the Clouds” and “Night of the Zoopocalypse” from Charades/Anton are among the high-profile animated projects at AFM. Additionally, Anonymous Content will be presenting documentaries such as Penny Lane’s “Mrs. America” and the feature “House of Stairs.”

Despite the presence of numerous projects, some industry insiders expect a low-key AFM with only a few packages of real substance. The strikes have created uncertainties that may prevent titles with waivers from being showcased. However, companies like Arclight Films and AGC Studios are navigating the challenges by focusing on projects in pre-production and those filmed under global rules and in foreign countries.

In addition to the strike challenges, industry players are also concerned about the sluggish state of the U.S. theatrical market. The market has been affected by the strike, with studios and productions shutting down. However, there is an anticipation of a content glut in the market post-strike, which may lead to a demand surge.

Furthermore, U.S. distributors who are still active in the market are taking an active approach to theatrical releases. Sony Pictures Classics, for example, is adopting bespoke theatrical release strategies to meet the changing demands of the theatrical environment. Other distributors, such as Neon, A24, Bleecker Street, and FilmNation, are also focusing on early involvement in projects.

The buying power and confidence of U.S. distributors to release movies theatrically are currently constrained. This has led to a change in the selection process for films, with streamers becoming more selective in their acquisitions. Buyers are also more risk-averse due to the lack of guaranteed ancillary revenues. As a result, horror projects have gained popularity at AFM as they don’t necessarily require big-name actors.

The industry is now navigating the new ecosystem where both streamers and traditional theatrical distributors have become pickier. However, some challenges remain, such as the difficulty in getting cast attached to projects and the state of the global theatrical box office, which is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.

In conclusion, the AFM is facing numerous challenges, including the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, Hollywood budget cuts, and changing appetites at major studios and streamers. Despite these obstacles, there is still resilience in the independent market, with a wide range of films and documentaries available for buyers. Thrillers and horror projects are expected to attract attention at AFM, and while there may be uncertainties and cautiousness among industry players, there is hope for a post-strike content surge. The industry is also adapting to the changing dynamics of the theatrical and streaming markets, with distributors focusing on bespoke release strategies and streamers becoming more selective in their acquisitions. It will be interesting to see how the industry evolves and how upcoming film festivals like Sundance and Berlin will impact finished films without distribution.

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