UPDATED: Buyers may have been reporting high prices but this year’s American Film Market underlined the strength and resourcefulness of the independent space. Jeremy Kay analyses the market.

In contrast to the deadly Storm Sandy that ravaged the east coast on the eve of the AFM at the end of October, the pace of the market itself some 3,000 miles away in Santa Monica was far more languid. While the digital domain continues to evolve, theatrical playability remains of the utmost importance and A-list product with broad commercial appeal has been thin on the ground.

Red Granite International’s Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio reunion on The Wolf Of Wall Street was always going to be the must-have title of the show and by the end of the market Danny Dimbort and Christian Mercuri had closed a major deal with Universal Pictures International for the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Scandinavia. The studio also acquired German-speaking Europe, Spain and Scandinavia on the Daniel Radcliffe fantasy Horns and Spain and Scandinavia on crime thriller Motel.

Lionsgate’s Transcendence with Johnny Depp was a hot draw and there was plenty of interest in StudioCanal’s Non-Stop starring Liam Neeson, whose starring role in Taken 2 has generated more than $320m worldwide.

Buyers reported asking prices for the top titles were high particularly for China and Latin America.

That these must-haves are taking their time to sell out speaks to the fact distributors, engorged by the recent glut of product, feel no need to rush given some pipelines are full until early 2014.

“There is not that much demand for that many movies so for the movies where there is demand you can do your business,” said FilmNation CEO Glen Basner, who was busy with David Michod’s Animal Kingdom follow-up The Rover, as well as the feature directorial debut of former Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage on Genius, James Marsh’s Hold On To Me and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. “In good times and bad times, the film has to make sense and here you ‘re really seeing it in the magnifying glass,” says Basner. “If films do not definitively make sense, the people will wait and see.”

Spain and Italy remain challenging and there are growing concerns over German TV deals. Then again, some sellers reported a healthy buyer profile in Germany, so the level of product and the pedigree of those packages is of the utmost importance.

“The market is increasingly difficult because of depressed economies, particularly in Europe,” says Mister Smith chief David Garrett. “Buyers are becoming more risk averse. They are looking at everything more forensically than before. It’s still a great business but everyone now has to be more clever, more focused and more intelligent.” Just as sales agents have taken time to educate producers on the need to be focused about material, talent and budgets, so buyers have trained themselves to become more exacting about what they pursue.

“It is very much about script and the attachment and it’s not about one or the other now,” says Lisa Wilson of The Solution Entertainment Group.

Wilson joined forces with Myles Nestel to launch the company at the start of the year and in nine months they have completed one project the Toronto world premiere Writers that sold to Millennium Entertainment for the US and put two more into production, namely Grand Piano, with the in-demand pairing of Elijah Wood and John Cusack, and Felony with Joel Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson. Third-party project Two Night Stand is in post. The company also teamed up with Siren Studios and brought on Ruzanna Kegeyan to run genre label Synchronicity.

“Everybody is so script-driven and you have got to have everything right,” says Wilson. “It doesn’t matter how many years you have been in the business, when you announce a new company you have to prove yourself. This was Solution’s third market and we have one completed film and three in production. It was a solid market, it was steady. People seem to have done their homework and we were getting offers right from the beginning.”

Wilson was happy with sales on the Pierce Brosnan vehicle November Man. The thriller launched in the Cannes market at a time when there was a glut of new product, so AFM offered a good opportunity to play catch up. “There was such a tidal wave of activity in Cannes that even substantial packages got a bit overlooked,” says Wilson.

Alex Walton, president of international sales and distribution at Exclusive Media, also reported solid business led by new JFK drama Parkland starring Paul Giamatti and Jacki Weaver. “It has been very well received. Having our producing partners from Playtone Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman meet buyers was a big validation of the commitment of all involved in this important film.”

New sources of star power

The hunt is on to find the next bankable star of the independent space. Jason Statham has made a terrific living in this area for the last few years but — say it quietly — his name was not plastered over as many new titles in the Loews as it has been in the past. The UK star of Safe, The Bank Job, the Expendables franchise and upcoming releases Parker, Hummingbird and Heat is not going anywhere soon, but there was a sense it may shortly be time for someone else.

But who could that be? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis continue to prove their enduring appeal with a string of projects but it will not be long before they court the grey dollar. The talented Elijah Wood and John Cusack are on fire, but neither is everybody’s idea of a star who can drive a must-have title. The Hemsworth brothers, Bradley Cooper and Gerard Butler are booked up and Jeremy Renner is now in the studio game.

Different cast work for different projects. “Buyers are being selective but definitely buying,” notes Mimi Steinbauer, CEO of Radiant Films International. “It was a good market for films with name cast. We had three new titles this year that we feel fit that bill and really enhanced our slate — As Cool As I Am [featuring Claire Danes from small-screen smash Homeland]; Decoding Annie Parker [Rashida Jones, Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton]; and Trust Me [Sam Rockwell, William H Macy].”

Lightning president Robert Beaumont noted there were fewer buyers on the scene but that did not preclude steady traffic through his offices. “The slate was well received,” says Beaumont. “We had a sense there weren ‘t as many people at the market but most of the buyers we frequently do business with were there and we didn ‘t have any trouble with our slate. Hot Flashes and How To Make Money Selling Drugs in particular did well. The market is cyclical. As time goes by, new top-tier packages will emerge, stars will be born, pipelines will thin out and the more urgent demand of recent markets will return.

The consensus seems to be that the independent space remains resourceful and by way of illustration, Sierra/Affinity chief Nick Meyer cut co-financing deals with Paramount on the Denzel Washington Oscar contender Flight and Michael Bay’s s summer 2013 prospect, Pain & Gain. Paramount does not distribute directly in Germany or Spain so it offloaded the territories to Meyer. The deal was announced during the AFM to coincide with the November 2 release of Flight in North America, when it emerged Meyer had licensed the film to StudioCanal for Germany and German-speaking Switzerland and to TriPictures for Spain and Spanish-speaking Andorra.

Neither Meyer, Paramount nor the two independent distributors were available to discuss the deal. However, it is understood from talking to buyers the studio approached Meyer during the greenlight phase and the sales agent in fact concluded negotiations with StudioCanal and TriPictures a while ago. Talks with potential buyers on Pain & Gain are ongoing. By laying off some risk early in the projects ‘ cycles, Paramount placed its faith in the independent space and the space looks to be delivering. That is cause for optimism, indeed.

Additional reporting by Andreas Wiseman