B AS IN BLOCK- BUSTER: AFM 2000
by William C. Martell
What do BATTLEFIELD EARTH starring John Travolta, U-
571 starring Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton, GET CARTER
starring Sylvester Stallone, THE PLEDGE starring Jack
Nicholson, 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND with Kurt Russell and Kevin
Costner, LITTLE NICKY with Adam Sandler, THE WHOLE NINE YARDS
with Bruce Willis, THE ART OF WAR starring Wesley Snipes, WHAT
WOMEN WANT starring Mel Gibson, and GANGS OF NEW YORK starring
Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese have in common?
They were all made by independent production companies outside
the studio system... companies that regularly attend the American
Wait a minute? Is this the same AFM that has been called the
K-Mart of films? The B Movie market where foreign rights to films
starring the likes of Shannon Tweed, Don "The Dragon" Wilson,
Michael Madsen, Gary Busey, and many silicone-enhanced young
women, are sold to distributors in Malaysia and other parts of
the world? The schlock-fest? The place where every poster seems
to have a busty blonde holding a machine gun with a helicopter
hovering overhead and a giant fireball in the background?
Two years ago I reported that most AFM companies seemed to
be unsure what direction to take. Was AFM a B Movie market? The
place were Sundance Festival films are sold? A genre film market
specializing in science fiction, thrillers and action? A market
for Indie dramatic films starring actors known only for their
work in commercial genre films? A schlock market? A quality
market? Two years ago AFM seemed to be going through an identity
crisis. This year, many AFM companies seem to have evolved into a
more efficient version of the big studios. The B in their movies
now stands for Blockbusters.
WHAT IS AFM?
Major studios like Warner Brothers, Paramount, and
Universal, have long standing deals in place with foreign
distributors. But Independent Producers make their foreign
distribution deals on a film by film basis. Selling each film to
each individual country. Every year producers would fly to
Cannes to sell their product. Twenty years ago, a group of
American Indie Producers decided to start their own market. Why
fly to France when the French can fly here?
Every year since then, from the last week end in February to
the first weekend in March, Indie Producers from all over the
world set up shop at the Leows Hotel in Santa Monica to sell
their films. Beds are removed and replaced with office
furnishings, turning the luxury hotel into the world's most
exclusive office building. Security guards are posted at the
elevators and stairwells, to keep the uninvited off the sales
floors. Only those with badges are allowed. American producers
selling films to foreign countries, or foreign producers selling
films to America.
These films have ranged from sub-B movies like THE HORRIBLE
DOCTOR BONES to Oscar nominees like THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY
with the majority of the films falling into the cable market.
Action films for HBO, thrillers for USA Network, and sci-fi films
for the SciFi Channel. The type of genre films you find on the
middle shelf at your video store. Though you will still find
plenty of B Movies at AFM, now they're sharing space with films
starring Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis.
Film has always been a global business. The same Tom Cruise
film that we see in the United States will be exported to France
and Italy and Japan and Zimbabwe. Sixty percent of the average
film's earnings come from outside the United States. In the past,
this has always been a bonus income for the studios... but rising
costs have made foreign box office increasingly important. With
the average film costing $78 million and many blockbusters
costing north of $100 million ( Mission Impossible 2 cost over
$200 million to make!), studios NEED films to be hits overseas.
But most studio based producers have little or no knowledge of
what will fill a theater in Zimbabwe. The companies at AFM
specialize in knowing what will sell foreign and are taking
advantage of this knowledge.
SAY YOU WANT AN EVOLUTION?
When I sold THE VICTIM'S WIFE to actor Andrew Stevens
(THE FURY) and producer Ashok Amritraj over seven years ago
they were making typical B movies like the NIGHT EYES series.
Ashok had made a cop-action movie with Don "The Dragon" Wilson
and I pitched them GRID RUNNERS and CRASH DIVE . They bought
the sci-fi script and it became the HBO World Premiere Movie
VIRTUAL COMBAT , but the submarine film was too big for them. A
few years later when they formed Royal Oaks Productions they
could afford to make CRASH DIVE for HBO and that began a wave
of "blockbusters on a budget" for cable like STEEL SHARKS and
BLACK THUNDER . Internationally, Royal Oaks became a force to
contend with... and they made a ton of money producing films that
looked like studio blockbusters but were made for a fraction of
Two years ago Ashok and Andrew joined forces with another
AFM producer and launched Franchise Films which makes films that
compete with studio pictures. Using the foreign financing
connections they have been developing for a decade, they can now
afford big name stars like John Travolta and Bruce Willis. The
studios have access to the 40% of the financing that comes from
domestic release of their films, Franchise has access to the 60%
of financing from foreign territories. Not only do these guys
have access to more money than the studios, they also know how
best to spend it. All of those "blockbuster on a budget" tricks
are being used to keep costs down. Their first film, THE WHOLE
NINE YARDS , was a limited location script shot in Canada (using
Canadian tax incentives) and has made $57 million in domestic
release as I write this. That's more than either SABRINA or
SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS made, but unlike either of those studio
films Yards was already in profit from the sale of foreign
rights before the film was even released. AFM companies don't
gamble. Every film is made on a budget that guarantees a profit.
That's why ex-Disney chief David Hooberman teamed up with
Ashok to form Hyde Park Productions. Not only does Ashok have
access to hundreds of millions in foreign funding, he also knows
how to make films at a cost that guarantees a profit... something
that studios seem to have forgotten.
Recently Producer Gale Anne Hurd (TERMINATOR 2,
ARMAGEDDON) left Paramount Pictures for a five-year production
and distribution deal with Germany's Kinowelt. The deal calls for
Kinowelt to provide Hurd with financing for films budgeted at $20
million to $80 million. "I hope to make between two to three
pictures every 18 months over the course of the deal," Hurd told
Hollywood Reporter. "The biggest challenge is to get ramped up
really quickly so we spend the first two years actually making
movies, as opposed to being in development." Why is Hurd leaving
Paramount for an international producer? That's where the money
is, and that's where the bureaucracy isn't. One way that AFM
producers keep costs down is by doing away with development -- if
they buy a script, they make it. No money is wasted on scripts or
books or magazine articles that aren't going to be actually made
"We buy screenplays, we don't develop," Regent
Entertainment's Mark R. Harris told me. "We're constantly getting
scripts from agents, friends, friends of friends. Agents are the
most frequent source, but I believe that a screenplay can come
from anywhere." Regent produced last year's Oscar winner for Best
Adapted Screenplay, GODS AND MONSTERS, the thriller ONE FALSE
MOVE, and the upcoming Haley Joel Osment film I'LL REMEMBER
APRIL. What does Regent look for in a screenplay? "Does it have
a market for international? Does it have a market for domestic?
It has to fit both markets for you to get your money back. You
have to protect yourself going in. We can't take the risks that
the majors do. If we did, we'd be out of business." Regent makes
twelve films a year, every year. Six are designed as independent
theatricals, and six are thrillers for a cable network. Harris
says that they'd be out of business if they only made films like
GODS AND MONSTERS and I'LL REMEMBER APRIL. The thrillers pay
Thrillers are still paying the bills. "There is a consistent
need for action-adventure and thrillers," Artist View's Scott J.
Jones says. "You have to remember that dubbing and subtitling is
very common in most territories, so it's tough for those buyers
to get an arm around a dialogue-driven drama with 50 characters."
"Our focus has always been the thriller and suspense
markets, products with a long shelf life," Pat Theroux from
Everyone at AFM was looking for thrillers, and it was the
second largest genre this year with 166 new films... for the
first time eclipsing the action genre.
Reiko Bradley of Filmtown Entertainment says, "We find that
being able to categorize a picture in a specific genre helps in
gaining initial buyer interest. Thrillers seem to be popular
right now, but so much still depends on having a quality script
Though this year at AFM saw an increase in the number of
horror films due to the popularity of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and
continued popularity of the SCREAM franchise, Pat Theroux
cautions, "We're a bit shy of horror films because horror doesn't
play on TV very well, and there are territories where it's very
difficult due to censorship and restrictions on violence." This
year there were 69 films in the horror and sci-fi genre as
opposed to last year's 35 films. Writer-director Rolfe Kanefsky
had a surprise hit this year with his eight-year-old horror-
comedy THERE'S NOTHING OUT THERE in which characters try to
survive by following the rules of slasher movies... years before
the same gag would be used in SCREAM. "We made the film in 1991
and then the horror market collapsed," Rolfe says. "The movie
ended up playing midnight shows in Santa Monica on Fridays and
Saturdays in 1992. People liked the humor of it, that's really
what made the movie. Audiences were building from good word of
mouth... and then we had the riots. The Mayor imposed a curfew.
No one could be out after ten O'clock. Under law, our film could
not be shown!" Eight years later THERE'S NOTHING OUT THERE has
been granted a second chance. The tag line calls it SCREAM with
monsters. "Slasher films have been overdone. I think people are
more interested in the supernatural: more NIGHTMARE ON ELM
STREET than FRIDAY THE 13TH," Rolfe says. His next film THE
HAZING promises to be the next evolution of the horror film.
"We're filming it at the end of summer. It's a horror-comedy.
SCREAM meets EVIL DEAD. It's about possession -- what are the
rules when there aren't any rules?"
What are the rules of AFM? "Action is still the best
performer," Brazil's Otelo Coltro told Hollywood Reporter. Though
there was a slight decrease in action films this year with 159
new titles compared to last year's 165, those numbers may be
misleading. Within the 361 new films under the catch-all of Drama
were many films described as "Crime Drama" and "Police Drama"
which are obviously action movies. "It's always been action",
Judy Gold from Nu Image explained. "Family films have begun to
fade, but action remains strong."
Though there were as many comedies at AFM this year as there
were thrillers, IEG's Graham King cautions, "The bottom line is
that if the script doesn't work culturally for a given market, it
won't perform." That means that verbal comedies will have a tough
time finding a market. The biggest comedy import to Japan in
several years has been the sight-gag comedy MR. BEAN according
to Gaga Pictures' president Kaz Tadashiki.
SELLING YOUR SCRIPTS
Most writers got their starts selling to Indie producers,
from Pat Duncan's first sale (BEACH GIRLS) to Robert (VERTICAL
LIMIT) King's killer cockroach film for Roger Corman to Robert
Towne's first sale THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (about a serious post-
nuclear war babe shortage). Unlike the big studios, Indie
producers are more than willing to read scripts from unknown
writers... provided the scripts have a limited number of
locations and a limited number of speaking roles. Concept is the
star, here, so be creative... not expensive. Where do you find
The Hollywood Reporter publishes a special "bumper" issue
for AFM (in late February), the Cannes Market (mid-May), and
MIFED (in October) that lists all of the Production Companies
attending, key personnel, and films offered. The issue usually
sells for around $5 and is like a phone book for Indie producers,
listing all of the information you will need to contact them and
possibly sell them your script. But first we need to know what to
look for... how to decode the listings. My friend Jeff Beach at
UFO Films makes science fiction and techno-thrillers. Their new
film DEEPCORE has a group of scientists drilling to the center
of the earth. LOST VOYAGE concerns an ocean liner that
disappeared thirty years ago popping up in the Bermuda Triangle.
By studying what types of films a company has made you can get a
pretty good idea of what interests them.
The cast list gives you a clue to the budgets. Does the film
star Sam J. Or Tommy Lee Jones? The bigger the names, the bigger
the budgets. A company which produces films with smaller name
actors will be more likely to read a script from an unknown than
a company making big theatrical blockbusters like Franchise. This
year's most popular AFM actors were Daniel Baldwin, Patrick
Bergin, Gary Busey, Judd Nelson, Eric Roberts, Roy Scheider,
David Carradine, Gary Daniels, and Corbin Bernsen. Video stars
like Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Joan Severance, or Michael Dudikoff
also indicate a company that may be open to new writers.
Read over the listings until you find a producer who
specializes in the genre you are writing. Then send them a query
letter with a brief description of your script. Personalize your
letter by mentioning the company's current productions. There's
a good chance they will ask to read your script. If you have a
great script, it will sell. As the film business continues to
evolve, these AFM companies may replace the studios as a source
of blockbuster films. Some day, one of those blockbusters may
even be yours. Good luck, and keep writing.
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