Post-AFM, Deals Have Yet to Trickle in as Indie Industry Awaits End of SAG-AFTRA Strike

A few days after AFM wrapped in Santa Monica, the dearth of substantial deals trickling in is pointing to a weakened film sales market which is grappling with structural changes and the reverberations of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Global industry players came into the AFM with reasonable hopes of dealmaking after a quiet Toronto festival, even if many packages were held back due to the strike. Yet, the main talking point of this AFM came down to the dysfunctional logistics of the event which was held for the first time at the Meridien Delfina hotel instead of the beachfront Loews.

More from Variety

“The logistics of AFM were more noisy than the actual market of AFM,” admits Scott Shooman, who was named head of film earlier this year at AMC Networks, a portfolio that encompasses IFC Films, RLJE Films and the streaming service Shudder.

Dylan Leiner, the senior EVP of acquisitions and production at Sony Pictures Classics, says the future of the AFM is at stake. It’s been “in need of a reboot for six to eight years” and is now “in need of a complete reimagining,” says the New York-based film veteran.

“Hotel lobbies around Santa Monica were far busier than (at the Delfina), the main venue of the market,” he says. “If that’s not a signal to the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA) needs to completely and radically change the way that business is done, then they’re not looking and they’re not listening.”

Another talking point of the AFM was the impact of the strike, along with structural changes, on the indie film landscape.

Delphine Perrier at Highland Film Group says the strike is “definitely affecting the independent business, even though the independents are not part of the negotiations.” She predicts the result of the strike will affect the way movies are produced and financed “since the parameters are going to be changed.”

“All the independents are waiting to see where the residuals and percentages are going to land,” says Perrier, adding that it’s difficult to put together a finance plan at present with skyrocketing interest rates.

The strike is like the “drop of water that makes the vase overflow, but everything has been out of balance for a couple of years already,” says the French native, whose team is repping “Blood for Dust,” a new action-thriller starring Scoot McNairy, Kit Harington and Josh Lucas; and “Rosario,” a high-concept horror film starring Emeraude Toubia (“With Love”) and David Dastmalchian (“Oppenheimer“).

“Everywhere in the world, people are like, ‘We don’t know what we are doing.’ It’s like everything is changing and it’s become near impossible to predict what will work,” says Perrier.

Over at Germany’s Constantin Film, a leading distribution company, Martin Moszkowicz noted that “closing deals seems to be taking longer than in previous years.” “There’s a sense of caution among buyers, undoubtedly influenced by the ongoing strike. While many anticipate that the strike will resolve imminently, its ultimate impact on our industry remains uncertain,” he added.

The volatility of the market has been the driving force behind a global rise of films based on strong IP or genre movies which represented the bulk of projects launched at the AFM.

“It was interesting to see this push to genre,” says Shooman. “The market has responded to the consumer in the way that tastes have evolved and the viewing habits have changed.”

While genre has been gaining ground for several years, Shooman says what’s changed is that the output is no longer limited to the U.S.. “It’s coming from every region, with a lot of the European and specifically the U.K. based sales agents, companies that never really had much of a genre presence are having slates that have quite a few,” Shooman continues. The exec said that specialty film is also becoming more consumer-friendly, with several genre titles performing well in theaters, and believes the “next generation of auteurs is coming through the genre space.”

He cited the solid theatrical performance of “When Evil Lurks,” a critically-acclaimed Argentinian film which has also made waves on streaming. The company will also release its Christmas-themed slasher “It’s a Wonderful Knife” across 800 screens in North America.

“The moving target” for sellers and buyers today, Shooman says, is the “equilibrium of what it costs to make and what it costs to exploit, and where the commerce lies.” The company is also handling France’s Oscar candidate, “The Taste of Things,” Trần Anh Hùng’s culinary romance starring Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel, for U.S. release.

Over at Sony Pictures Classics, which hasn’t jumped on the genre bandwagon, Leiner says the company is still pursuing director-driven specialty movies but “the quality has to be even better than ever before.” The company is releasing Matthew Brown’s “Freud’s Last Session,” as well as İlker Çatak’s “The Teachers’ Lounge,” the German Oscar entry, among others.

Traditional distributors have also seen international market structures pivot with less options to sell to pay TV and broadcast networks while streamers aren’t taking up that slack. In the U.S., big and small independent movies alike often struggle to find distribution partners – or at least not ones who can pay significant minimum guarantees.

In Europe, the biggest international market for independent productions, distributors have even less guaranteed ancillary revenue. In Italy, for example, Sky has stopped buying, and in Germany, many broadcasters are cutting back on spending and buying certain kinds of movies. Unless distributors can sell to Netflix, Amazon or other streamers – which have become the sales business’ gatekeepers – they can only offer the smallest of minimum guarantees on films.

Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann, the CEO of leading German distributor Telepool and sales agency Global Screen, said the company’s acquisitions are now geared “more towards mainstream movies and not so much arthouse.” The group, which is owned by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook, is handling movies like “The Amazing Maurice” via Global Screen, as well as “Has Fallen“ and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” franchise via Telepool.

Higuchi-Zitzmann says the focus on mainstream is primarily due to the weak theatrical market which is “recovering from the pandemic step by step but is dominated by big U.S. releases like ‘Barbie’ and franchise titles.” “We don’t expect films to become such huge box office hits on par with pre-Covid era” and will be “happy with a good modest result now,” says Higuchi-Zitzmann.

While streaming and straight distribution deals have become scarcer, AVOD players like Tubi and Pluto are “the new active players in the industry,” says Brian Beckmann, the CFO/COO at Arclight Films, who launched “What Remains of Us” starring Kit Harington at the AFM. “They’re not big numbers but they’re acquiring more and it’s a new source of revenue,” says the executive.

Going forward, Beckmann predicts the forming of “an artificial bubble” due to the amount of projects that have been pushed due to the strike.

One of Arclight’s projects that was supposed to go into production in the fourth quarter of this year is “Assassination” starring Viggo Mortensen, Al Pacino, Shia LaBeouf and John Travolta. “Because of the strike we’ve had to push that, and once it lifts, we’re going to go immediately into rescheduling it.”

“Assassination” will be fine because it’s a “high profile project,” but smaller projects might get stuck in the queue for a long time, Beckmann predicts.

The good news at this AFM was the return of Asian buyers. “China is opening up its doors again,” says Beckmann. He said China was mostly focusing on TV product since the start of the pandemic and now the theatrical hunger has come back. “They’ve been shut down so much and they have this big thirst for Western content.”

So far, only a handful of deals have been announced but a few could be finalized in the coming weeks with offers floating on a number of titles. The slowness of the AFM is symptomatic of the way film markets have evolved since the pandemic. “There used to be a sense of immediacy at an independent film festival, where you’d watch a movie and the people who made that decision were in that room and would walk out and say, ‘let’s go with this amount, let’s do it,'” says Shooman, who’s placed several bids. ‘Since the pandemic it just takes longer for the process to play out.”

John Hopewell contributed to this report.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.