Fuelled by fears of an industry-wide strike and financed by Wall Street's billions, Hollywood's production schedules are in overdrive to get projects in front of the cameras before next April.
North American and international distributor schedules are already packed with US projects to see them through 2008. Following a sluggish Toronto film festival, international sales outfits and producers are worried that business at the American Film Market (AFM) will also be slow.
'The movies we saw (at Toronto) were pretty disappointing,' says one buyer. 'Just because people are throwing money at product doesn't make them all good.'
'My sense is the market was a bit slower on the acquisitions side than people would have expected,' says Danny Rosett, COO of Overture Films. 'That said, we (picked up) arguably the most positively reviewed film in the festival (Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor), although it wasn't the biggest film in town.'
The writers could be the first to down tools after their contracts expire on October 31. The Writers Guild of America's (WGA) leaders have been given clear authorisation by the membership to take action if contract talks remain deadlocked. The actors and directors may follow suit and go on strike next summer.
Trying not to panic buy
Although the initial impact of any strike will be felt first by the US TV industry (TV writers work just weeks, sometimes days in advance) and distributors have stockpiled screenplays, the studios will soon start to feel the crunch. With such a huge number of release slots to fill, now is the time to find material to develop and prepare for production for 2010 and beyond. And the scramble is driving up the cost of talent and having an impact on the entire industry.
'The A-list actors have already committed to projects, so now the B-list and C-list actors are coming at a premium,' says one Los Angeles-based sales agent. 'We have to be careful because we don't want to get caught up in the frenzy and choose the wrong elements for a project.'
'Even though we are full for next year, this strike could impact on the first half of 2009 so it will make us look at things very closely,' says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, whose 2008 line-up includes UK comedy Run, Fatboy, Run, the European co-production Mongol and hit Spanish horror The Orphanage. 'But we will have to temper ourselves not to snap something up just for the sake of it at AFM.'
'We don't want to do anything differently whether or not there's a strike pending, because if you do, you end up making bad movies,' agrees Overture's Rosett. 'One of the weird consequences of being a start-up is we don't have this huge pipeline to fill.
The worst thing we could do now is change our business model to accommodate a strike. We are seeing movies becoming more challenging to cast because the studios are ramping up and rushing films into production.
'The upshot of that is it's hard to get answers. It's tricky to get scripts into development because you don't want to start working on a script that you won't be able to finish.'
One US sales agent points out that if international buyers have not yet grasped the urgency of the strike situation, they soon will. 'That's all we're going to be talking about on the first day of meetings (at the AFM), and I'm sure it'll be on everybody's agenda,' he says.
What are buyers looking for'
It is either a good time or a bad time to be producing non-US fare right now, depending on who you talk to. While US distributors in particular are certainly bursting at the gills with product, newcomers such as Summit Entertainment and The Film Department have more scope for acquisitions, starting at the AFM. What's more, there is concern the quality of some, rather rushed US projects is below par and their price hugely inflated. Buyers may be tempted to turn elsewhere for product.
'I'm looking for new talent and films by first-time directors,' says Peter Goldwyn, vice-president of acquisitions at Samuel Goldwyn Films, whose recent slate includes Julie Delpy's comedy 2 Days In Paris, the birth of Israel drama O Jerusalem, and Michael Apted's Amazing Grace. 'I'm not looking for something to drive a machine.'
There will of course be plenty of star-studded English-language projects available, including The Prodigy, starring Richard Gere, Incendiary, with Rachel Weisz and Ewan McGregor, and The Other Side starring Katie Holmes.
The growing number of studio international co-productions may also have a bearing on independent distributors, as it potentially removes from the table a certain number of prestige foreign titles.
Picturehouse's Berney knows how to turn a foreign film into a success, as the $37.6m North American run of Guillermo Del Toro's Spanish-language Pan's Labyrinth proves. Earlier this year, Picturehouse released the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose and grossed close to $10m, and Mongol is set to roll out in June 2008.
Berney says: 'Studios in general are reticent to do foreign language, which leaves an opening for others. We're going to be doing more international co-productions.'
For sure, the international focus of the studios reflects the global mood. 'We want to find a UK partner,' explains Overture's Rosett, whose company is presently shooting Last Chance Harvey, starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, in London.
'If you look at the good independent movies of the last few years, they're coming out of the UK. If your business is based solely on acquisitions, it's a tough space to be in now. That's why Working Title left everybody in the dust - because they set up a deal with Universal. DNA has been prolific over the last few years with its deal with Fox. Pursuing the co-financing model up front is the way to go.'
Such bullishness seems to fly in the face of the weak dollar, which is seriously hampering US-UK co-productions.
'There are a tremendous number of good film-makers and good writers (in the UK) who aren't working at full capacity,' said US veteran Mark Gill at the inaugural Production Finance Market in London this week. 'In the US, it's beastly hard to find a good script, and the material is remarkably better (n the UK); it's two to three times as easy to find good material.'
Gill recently raised $200m for his production and distribution start-up The Film Department. He said he hopes to produce four to six films per year, but is struggling to find strong enough US projects to fill those six. 'The US has money but a shortage of stories. And here (in the UK) there is material and talent without financing. It's a marriage made in heaven.'