Mike Fleming

AFM kicked off today, and my has that indie business changed over the years. The schlock is almost all gone, and the chase is on for fewer movies of higher quality, with recognizable stars and filmmakers who have classed up a business. The elevated level of product has been made possible by studios vacating the tweener film space, leaving a lot of orphaned development available to the indies.

That means it’s a lot less fun. When I first got to Variety in the ’90s, I was dispatched to AFM and asked to come back with a report about what it all meant. A distributor friend recounted observing a stranger who was going around making tiny offers on films for his obscure home territory. Based on what he was buying, he seemed to have zero taste. Finally, somebody stopped the guy to see what he was doing. Turned out he was a distributor — but produce, not movies. He had a chain of outdoor vegetable stands, and showed movies to his customers. The worse the film, the more vegetables his patrons bought to throw at the screen.

Any thoughts I had that this was a too-good-to-be-true story faded when I got there. You could throw a rock and hit Fred Williamson, the gridiron great-turned-star of many forgettable action films. And hey, be careful, you almost stepped on Nelson de la Rosa, the world’s smallest man who would go on to become Brando’s sidekick in The Island Of Dr. Moreau. The halls were lined with one-sheets where all the creativity went into the titles. And while the Weekly Variety AFM issue was thick as a phone book, I’d hear salesmen grumble about getting stiffed for ads on movies that didn’t sell.

Aside from a few titles still exploiting the bogus Sharknado craze, it’s a world of different now. The schlock meisters are relics, and the projects ringing the bell with distributors coming from all over the world are the ones that have name directors like Woody Allen, David Koepp, Tom Tykwer, Tommy Lee Jones, and stars like Meryl Streep, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Ian McKellen, Jesse Eisenberg, Tom Hardy, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, Michael Fassbender and Nicole Kidman. These are studio-caliber names.

“You will see the occasional hilarious poster, but since the high end studios abandoned everything but superheroes, the independent financiers and producers have been the beneficiaries,” said Millennium Films president Mark Gill. “Olympus Has Fallen would have had studios all over it five years ago. We were able to do it.”

Gill’s boss, Avi Lerner, has more than a couple of schlocky films on his resume, but he now comes to AFM with a solid franchise in The Expendables, another with Olympus Has Fallen, and potentially a third with The ExpendaBelles, with action heroes from the fairer sex. “Millennium needed to get out of that business, which was dying, and Avi saw that.”

The market got underway today with news that the remaining Blockbuster outlets were shuttering, as well as confirmation that Focus Features International also was closing. It’s an indication that the business continues to change rapidly, and that is reflected in the product here.

“What it all means is the route to survival for buyers and sellers is fewer movies, better movies, and bigger movies,” Gill said. “So many fewer horrific scripts are getting made nowadays. They used to be considered a piece of business, but now it’s code for a producer looking for a fee. When he ran Fox Searchlight, Peter Rice once famously noted that the business was changing and mediocrity would be punished. Now, you are punished for good films. They need to be very good, because there is little margin for error.”

One reason that the projects are better is that a lot of it was developed by studios, which now let things go so they can recoup the costs of movies they are no longer interested in making. Financiers that don’t develop will scoop them up, maybe get a rewrite, and then put together a package. It is not dissimilar to the way that a golden age of pay and basic cable series was created by studios abandoning the mid-budget action thriller, forcing those writers and producers to make a living elsewhere.

So the discussion I am hearing is whether buyers are willing to pay high prices on films like Alcon’s Point Break remake. While there might be a surprise package or two, here are the titles I hear are generating the most interest from buyers:

Point Break, Alcon Entertainment. Erickson Core, director. No cast yet. FBI agent and ex-extreme sports star Johnny Utah goes undercover to catch some hardcore bank robbers.

999, Panorama. John Hillcoat, director. Logline unavailable.

Imitation Game, FilmNation. Morten Tyldum, director. Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong star. WWII British hero cryptographer Alan Turing prosecuted for being homosexual, which led to chemical castration and suicide.

Solace, FilmNation. Afonso Poyart, director. Anthony Hopkins, Colin Farrell star. A promo will be shown.

Suite Francais, TF1. Saul Dibb, director. Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenarts star. Young woman reads her mother’s journals 50 years after her mother died in a concentration camp. Promo shown.

Cold In July, Memento Films. Jim Mickle, director. Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard star. Man kills armed burglar in his house, and corpse’s father swears vengeance. Promo to be shown.

Rocketman. Michael Gracey, director. Tom Hardy stars. Fantasy based on formative years of iconic singer Elton John.

55 Steps, Atlas Film Germany. Bille August, director. Helena Bonham Carter, Vera Farmiga, John Goodman, star. Workaholic lawyer defends schizophrenic patient in her right to refuse invasive treatment.

Incarnate, Blumhouse. Brad Peyton, director. Aaron Eckhart, Rosario Dawson star. Wheelchair-bound exorcist seeks revenge on the demon that killed his family and now is possessing a small boy.

Boy Choir, Embankment Films. Francois Girard, director. Dustin Hoffman, Alfred Molina, Kathy Bates star. Juvenile delinquent with angelic voice enrolls in elite boarding school choir.

The Homesman, EuropaCorp. Tommy Lee Jones, director. Jones, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank star. Fiercely independent female farmer partners with fugitive to bring three insane women to Iowa in mid-19th century.

Skiptrace, Exclusive Media. Sam Fell, director. Seann William Scott, Jackie Chan star. A Hong Kong detective has been tracking a local crime boss, and when the lawman’s niece gets in trouble with the syndicate, the cop’s only hope is a fast-talking American gambler also on the run from that mob as well as a Russian assassin.

Magic In The Moonlight, FilmNation. Woody Allen, director. Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver star.

Regression, FilmNation. Alejandro Amenabar, director. Ethan Hawke stars. Cop in Minnesota investigates a secret network of satanic cultists.

A Slight Trick Of The Mind, FilmNation. Bill Condon, director. Ian McKellen stars. Senile, 90ish Sherlock Holmes struggles to remember a 30-year-old cold case before he dies.

American Ultra, FilmNation. Nima Nourizadeh, director. Jesse Eisenberg stars. Small-town stoner wakes up one day to discover he’s a trained CIA assassin they want dead.

Disappointments Room, Foresight Unlimited. D.J. Caruso, director. Kate Beckinsale stars. Woman moves family to the countryside only to go crazy as the Gothic history of her home reminds her of everything she is running from.

Brooklyn, Hanway Films. John Crowley, director. Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent star. In 1950s New York, a young immigrant struggles to leave behind her tranquil life in Ireland for a thriving city.

Kill The Trumpet Player, IM Global. Don Cheadle, director. Cheadle, Zoe Saldana, Ewan McGregor star. After his record label steals his comeback album before he’s ready for it to be heard, Miles Davis hunts it down with a journalist and a junkie jazz musician.

99 Homes, Hyde Park International. Ramin Bahrani, director. Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon star. Contractor gets evicted and apprentices with shady broker to get back his house.

Killing Hasselhoff, Intandem. Howard Deutch, director. Chris O’Dowd, Patrick Wilson, David Hasselhoff courted. A gambler realizes after a string of losses that his only hope of surviving a loan shark is to win his celebrity death pool by killing former Baywatch star Hasselhoff.

Gods Of Egypt, Lionsgate. Alex Proyas, director. Nikolas Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush star. Egyptian mythology come to life.

Love & Mercy, Lionsgate. Bill Pohlad, director. John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Dano star. Life and times of legendary Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson.

Mortdecai, Lionsgate. David Koepp, director. Johnny Depp, Olivia Munn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor star. English detective must recover lost painting sought by the Russian mob.

Candy Store, Lotus Entertainment. Stephen Gaghan, director. Robert De Niro, Jason Clarke, Omar Sy star. Ex-spy and disgraced cop try to thwart a terror plot.

Hologram For The King, Lotus Entertainment. Tom Tykwer, director. Tom Hanks stars. Dave Eggers-penned tale of failed American bizman who travels to Saudi Arabia to sell an idea to a king.

The Water Diviner, Mister Smith Entertainment. Russell Crowe, director. Crowe, Olga Kurylenko star. Australian farmer heads to post WWI Turkey to find the bodies of three sons killed in Battle of Gallipoli.

Caught Stealing, Myriad Pictures. Wayne Kramer, director. Patrick Wilson, Alec Baldwin star. Man cat-sits for his neighbor and learns the hard way that criminals seek the millions the cat owner stole and hid in the house.

Imagine, Mister Smith Entertainment. Dan Fogelman, director. Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale star. Aging musician receives letter sent to his 19-year-old self by John Lennon, which prompts a journey of self-discovery.

Lost City Of Z, Panorama. James Gray, director. Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Pattinson star. British army officer tries to find mythical city of gold, El Dorado, in the dangerous jungles of South America.

The Family Fang, QED. Jason Bateman, director. Bateman, Nicole Kidman star. Performance artist parents enlist their dubious children in one last game-changing stunt.

Harry And The Butler, QED. George Wolfe, director. Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson star. Nearly homeless American jazz musician living in Denmark inherits a fortune and hires a butler who helps him find true path.

Dying Of The Light, Red Granite. Paul Schrader, director. Nicolas Cage stars. Alzheimer’s-stricken CIA agent must kill an old nemesis before his memory fails.

Ballad Of Pablo Escobar, Relativity International. Brad Furman, director. John Leguizamo. Rise and fall of Colombian drug kingpin.

Best Of Me, Relativity International. Michael Hoffman, director. Paul Walker, Michelle Monaghan star. Ex-lovers get second chance when they are named executors of the estate of a mentor.

1:30 Train, Sierra. Chris Evans, director. Chris Evans, Alice Eve Star. Woman misses last train from NY to Boston, and a street musician tries to help get her home.

Lance Armstrong Project, StudioCanal. Stephen Frears, director. Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Gillaume Canet star. Biker’s rise from testicular cancer to Tour de France victor, torn down by cheating.

Mary, Mother Of Christ, Stealth. Alister Grierson, director. Ben Kingsley, Peter O’Toole, Julia Ormond, Wes Bentley, Kellan Lutz star. Story of Mary and Joseph to flee Herod and safeguard Jesus Christ.

Fathers And Daughters, Voltage. Gabriele Muccino, director. Russell Crowe stars. Troubled writer raises daughter in New York, and 30 years later, she lives with the shrapnel.

Stangerland, Wild Bunch. Kim Farrant, director. Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving star. Two teens go missing in Australian Outback.

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