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When it comes to the post-summer box office blues, Taylor Swift: Eras Tour has helped shake it off. The film’s phenomenal success — it’s already the top-grossing concert film of all time in North America, not adjusted for inflation — as well as its unique rollout, in which Swift teamed up directly teaming directly with AMC Theaters, bypassing traditional studio distribution, is a bright light in an independent movie market sorely in need of some good news.
Sadly, there is only one Taylor Swift. The rest of the independent film world, representatives of which will be gathering in Santa Monica for the American Film Market Oct. 31-Nov. 5, sees few reasons to dance in the aisles.
The market’s new location, at the Le Méridien Delfina on Pico, exchanges the seaside views and beach vibe of the Loews Hotels, AFM‘s home for the past 30 years, for the more elusive charms of a hotel located right next to the I-10 overlooking Santa Monica High School.
The optimism generated by the end of the writers strike — and revived hopes that SAG-AFTRA will soon reach its own deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — does, however, appear to have kick-started the AFM, with a late flurry of high-profile packages announced on the eve of the market. Agencies and sales execs are betting on pent-up demand from international buyers starved of new projects during the walkouts.
“The actors strike in some ways is having a bigger effect on us than the writers strike did,” says Christian Vesper, CEO of Global Drama at indie powerhouse Fremantle, which secured an interim agreement (IA) to begin shooting on Maria, the new film from Spencer and Jackie director Pablo Larraín, starring Angelina Jolie as legendary opera singer Maria Callas. “Even outside the U.S., so many of the major international actors are SAG and it’s been tricky, with a waiver or not, because actors, quite rightly, have been very careful (of working during the strike). It’s led to a general production slowdown.”
“I think people are looking for projects,” notes Alice Laffille of Filmnation, which is bringing the high-concept actioner Novocaine with The Boys star Jack Quaid and the Halle Berry psychological thriller The Process as pre-sale packages to AFM this year. “I think it will still be a busy market, and people should be happy with the projects that will be out there.”
In truth, the international indie business has been in a holding pattern at least since the summer, with many global buyers wary to commit to projects that can’t guarantee when they will go into production, much less when they will be delivered. The indie business is in “a particularly paralyzed moment right now,” says Vesper.
“For a lot of buyers, the big question is: ‘Is this actually happening’?” notes David Garrett of Mister Smith Entertainment, whose AFM lineup includes the finished title Greedy People, a comic thriller starring Lily James, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Himesh Patel. “In a lot of cases, the answer is: We can’t be sure.”
Even for finished films, things have been tough. There were some 50 new titles available for U.S. distribution on offer at the Toronto Film Festival this year but only a handful walked away with a signed deal, the biggest being AGC Studios’ Hit Man. Netflix dropped $20 million for rights in the U.S., U.K., Australia and other key territories to the Richard Linklater action comedy, starring Glen Powell and Adria Arjona. The streamer did a smaller, but still eight-figure, deal at TIFF for another AGC-backed film, Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut Woman of the Hour.
Neither title signed an IA with SAG, so they could be sold to AMPTP members.
There were a few indie fall buys: A24 took Greg Kwedar’s true-life prison drama Sing Sing and A24’s Priscilla — Sofia Coppola’s Elvis-era biopic starring Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi — sold out worldwide following its Venice competition bow; Bleecker Street pre-bought Brit period drama spoof Fackham Hall which will star Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Thomasin McKenzie, and Katherine Waterston; and Sideshow and Janus snatched up Bertrand Bonello’s sci-fi romance The Beast with Léa Seydoux and George MacKay.
But many, many more high-profile films — among them the Kate Winslet/Andrea Riseborough period drama Lee, the Viggo Mortensen-directed Western The Dead Don’t Hurt with Vicky Krieps, Michel Franco’s Memory starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke’s Flannery O’Connor biopic Wildcat featuring Maya Hawke and Laura Linney — are, despite rave reviews coming out of the fall festivals, still looking for a domestic buyer.
Strike or not, unless your name is Taylor Swift, the box office prospects for an independent movie remain precarious. Just weeks before the American Film Market, Lionsgate and Millennium’s Expend4bles, the sort of star-driven action movie that is the lifeblood of AFM, opened to a dismal $8.3 million at the domestic box office, the worst-ever bow for the franchise.
“The fact is, unless you’re a horror film or a Marvel movie, there’s no clear path to theatrical these days. So the numbers you can generate from pre-sales are much, much lower than they used to be,” says Dean Devlin, CEO of Electric Entertainment.
“COVID changed the theatrical market, and it still has to find a way back,” notes Garrett. “Everyone needs to do more to grow the theatrical business or we don’t have a sustainable business model because the cost of producing and marketing films has not gone down, but the revenue you can generate from them has dwindled dramatically.”