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 Film Market.

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.


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.

What happened?

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.


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 the cost.

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 into films.

"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 the bills.


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 Alliance adds.

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 and cast."

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.


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 these producers?

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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