The first big play in Hollywood's slide towards an all-out strike in 2008 inevitably cast a pall over the American Film Market (AFM). As the world's buyers and sellers descended on Santa Monica last week, the big question was whether the disgruntled writers would go on strike for the first time in 19 years. They did, on November 5, and talk of further action from the actors and directors guilds next summer only served to heighten concern over the solidity of start dates and talent attachments.

While the leading sales companies and the rising stars like Paramount Vantage International, Kimmel International and IM Global all reported strong business, others bemoaned a glut of average product that gave rise to what they called the slowest AFM in years.

On a more positive note, South Korea is buying again. Sales agents noted that more acquisitions teams from the sixth biggest international territory were on the lookout for foreign films. Soaring budgets and diminished revenue from local titles has seen market share drop by approximately 30% to 45.7% in a year, and the hunt was on for prime overseas fare.

Sensing the onset of Hollywood woes, many buyers arrived to work early. Los Angeles-based IM Global managing director Stuart Ford sat through two days of back-to-back meetings before the market officially got underway on October 31, and like his peers fielded repeated questions about the availability of actors and their contractual commitments.

Vibrant market

There was already a lot on buyers' minds, so IM Global focused sales activities on two new titles, Nailed and The Prodigy. Nailed will be directed by David O Russell and stars Jessica Biel as a nymphomaniac political ingenue who charms her way into Washington's inner circle aided by Jake Gyllenhaal's disingenuous congressman. The Prodigy sees Richard Gere play the overly ambitious father of a child genius.

Both films are due to go into production soon, well ahead of the April 15 deadline that is generally regarded as the final date by which an average eight-week production needs to begin shooting before the potential actors and directors strikes kick off on or around July 1.

'I would describe business as solid,' Ford said. 'We're experiencing a rush of deals to close. That said, we're happy to have our new locomotive titles because normal trade is definitely tougher this year.'

Jim Seibel and Bill Johnson of Inferno Distribution planned their market around a pair of high-impact titles. 'There's too much product out there,' Seibel said. 'We decided to introduce only a couple of new projects so buyers could focus on that, and we're doing very well with them.' Inferno's new titles were Revelations, a thriller to be directed by James McTeigue, and an untitled supernatural thriller from Iain Softley.

Paramount Vantage arrived with six new titles, even though Alex Walton and his team had commenced pre-sales at Toronto on the Overture Films duo of Traitor and Last Chance Harvey. With a slate that included Chris Kentis' follow-up to Open Water and horror title Carriers starring the red-hot Chris Pine, it was little wonder that business was brisk. 'It's been a vibrant market for us,' Walton said. 'We've been especially happy with how the line-up has been received in our first market.'

Kimmel International chief Mark Lindsay maintained a narrow focus during the market. He pushed his company's Jennifer Aniston project Management, which co-stars Steve Zahn and began filming in mid-October, and virtually completed sales on Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. The Weinstein Company's Glen Basner pre-sold major territories on Richard Kelly's upcoming horror-thriller The Box with Cameron Diaz, while Hyde Park International's Lisa Wilson announced a raft of deals on Scott Free's upcoming horror-thriller Tell-Tale with Josh Lucas.

'The overall market was subdued and lacking energy,' said Focus Features International chief Alison Thompson, who commenced sales on Brandon Camp's untitled Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy. 'Happily, business at Focus was brisk and wasn't negatively affected. We are in the process of concluding multiple deals.'

Pre-strike jitters

Thompson said it was too soon to assess the full impact of pre-strike jitters, although she conceded that 'the perception from buyers is that many films for sale here may not get made, which has added to caution in the market'.

The trickle-down effect of industrial action has driven up prices for the newly in-demand lower tier actors and led to frantic requests for assurances that A-list talent will stay on certain projects. Nowhere is this more evident than on the two competing projects about the Colombian crime lord Pablo Escobar.

Essential Entertainment's Jere Hausfater was at Le Merigot talking up Escobar, a $40m-plus Oliver Stone production that Antoine Fuqua will direct in Puerto Rico early next year. The film will star the little known Edgar Ramirez, who fought with Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum.

Next door to Hausfater in the Loews, Bob Yari's sales chief David Glaser was educating buyers about the $40m-$50m Killing Pablo, also lined up for early 2008. To make things harder for buyers, Killing Pablo's attached star Javier Bardem is only around for a short time. Unless director Joe Carnahan can make this his immediate priority, Bardem will exit the project and prepare for his lead role in Rob Marshall's Nine for the Weinsteins.

The prevalence of private equity money in Hollywood has caused budgets on independent productions to spike, and this has filtered down to the sales corridors. 'I've had meetings where people are asking three times as much as they normally would for something that isn't even special,' one veteran production and acquisitions executive who asked not to be named said. 'These are the kind of prices we used to be quoted for studio titles.'

Jab in the arm

'The strike has put more of a magnifying glass on what's available,' one major studio buyer said. That said, domestic deals have hardly been a mainstay at AFM over the years, and that was not likely to change after Summit Entertainment's spectacular eight-figure North American acquisition of The Brothers Bloom last month took one of the most attractive propositions off the table.

A subdued North American buying scene received a jab in the arm when reports circulated that Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group (Spwag) was closing in on North American, English-language and other territories on District 9. QED International is fully financing and was selling worldwide rights on the mysterious sci-fi project that Peter Jackson will produce and Neill Blomkamp, his collaborator on the stalled Halo adaptation, will direct.

Spwag swooped on Latin America, Japan, Australia and France and other territories on the upcoming thriller Crank 2: High Voltage with Jason Statham and took all international rights to The Punisher 2: War Zone. Both deals were negotiated with Lakeshore Entertainment. The Weinstein Company picked up North American rights from Wild Bunch to a trio of genre films: Dorothy Mills with rising international star Carice Van Houten, Martyrs and Dante 01.

Eager to revive their fortunes and fill pipelines for 2009 and into 2010, the South Koreans turned out in force. Mirovision was the most active of the bunch, acquiring Ed Zwick's wartime Resistance saga Defiance from Essential, Jason Reitman's comedy Juno from Mandate International, and Paul Verhoeven's thriller Winter Queen from Seven Arts International. Showbox and Eureka were also busy.

'We certainly remarked on the number of Korean buyers at the market being far greater this year,' Summit International president David Garrett said. 'They're returning because the Korean audiences are tiring of local and Japanese productions and want to see more high-profile American fare. Over the last 12 to 18 months there has been a plethora of local Korean titles that haven't worked at the Korean box office, and it's cheaper to pick up a good foreign film than to make one.

'What's interesting is that the Japanese market is probably going through the same thing right now and I suspect we might see a similar reaction there when they revert to having a taste for foreign films.'

Summit International unveiled the comedy Sex Drive with Seth Green and Josh Zuckerman and Catherine Hardwicke's vampire romance Twilight, both of which are set to begin shooting within the next few months.

Market fatigue at the end of a cycle

Kimmel International's Lindsay said he had sold out in South Korea, while Focus Features International's Thompson said the territory was 'improving, though prices remain modest and it's still a cautious market'. She added: 'Japan has also shown traction and we hope to conclude a number of Japanese deals. CIS and Eastern Europe continues to be bullish.'

AFM's calendar slot means that many industry professionals arrive in Santa Monica at the end of a whirlwind couple of months.

'I think there's market fatigue after Toronto, London, Venice and Rome for the high-end product and Mipcom for the low end,' PorchLight president of worldwide distribution Ken DuBow said. 'It's perceived as being the end of a cycle.' Thoughts have already turned to Berlin. n