Screen editor Matt Mueller looks back at AFM and discusses the continued emergence of VoD players.

Netflix is now acquiring rights for the universe, according to a panellist on Screen International’s session about the Asian video-on-demand (VoD) market that took place at the American Film Market (AFM) this week. That made me chuckle. As the same panellist pointed out, those rights will be useful once we start watching films on the moon. And that might annoy extra-terrestrials on the other side of the galaxy, given they haven’t even had a chance to bid for them yet (I thought I spotted a few disgruntled looking aliens roaming the Loews hotel in Santa Monica this week).

It’s an interesting contractual add-on as Netflix continues its aggressive international expansion, even if that has had mixed results. In Australia for instance, where it launched in spring 2015, the company quickly became a dominant player in the crowded VoD market, putting considerable pressure on local platforms such as Quickflix. In Japan, India and other Asian markets, where domestic streaming services have much stronger local content offerings, Netflix’s progress is slower, while China is still no-go terrain for the streaming giant - and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Overall, fragmented markets remain a good defence for local VoD players, noted one of our AFM panellists, and by 2021 the major platforms - led by Netflix and Amazon - are only expected to have 16% of the VoD subscription market, with the rest going to local providers offering a richer variety of customised local content. And good news for sellers of independent and English-language content: there are a number of hungry VoD players in Asia competing for content, so now is the time to explore those opportunities before market consolidation takes place over the next few years.

While much of the talk at AFM focused on how quickly the independent film business’s traditional models are evolving, there are rays of light that show the fundamentals of content consumption and the hunger for product from companies aren’t going away any time soon. The price points are changing, of course, but the transition from the heady days of DVD to the less certain - or profitable - ones of VoD, while painful, will eventually reach a point of stabilisation for the market.

The pre-sales model, backed by guaranteed ancillary revenue down the line, is shifting, but that also means international buyers are more focused on quality because they know they need movies that can play in theatres. It was a point made by AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf when he observed that while the number of companies attending the market this year had dipped by 7%, the number of films screening had dropped significantly, down by a quarter from 2015.

That left this year’s market feeling a little starved of product. AFM was short of the sort of headline deals that used to dominate the market, with an increasingly polarised independent space (while less content is available, more realistic budgets are good news for distributors) in which talent is migrating to TV, and the streaming giants and bold studio acquisitions teams are exerting more power.

But a few appealing packages still made their mark; Screen broke the news that Annapurna International had won a heated bidding war (over some pretty big guns) for Sacha Baron Cohen’s reported $20m-$25m remake of hit Danish comedy Klown. Baron Cohen turned up in Santa Monica and amused buyers with impressions of at least one well-known executive during his presentation for Annapurna, although that’s not likely to have stopped the chequebooks coming out.

I wonder whether anyone was offering to buy rights for the universe?