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Saturday, March 13, 1999

Schlock-shopping in cinema's bargain basement

The American Film Market is to Hollywood what the school rummage sale is to Main Street USA: something of an event, something of a joke. Everybody sneers at the shoddiness of the merchandise -- mainly B- to Z-grade titles from American indie producers -- and everybody buys.

How much? Speaking at an AFM seminar on the second of the market's 10 days, AFMA president Allen Frischcorn estimated that the 1999 market would generate $800 million to $900 million in sales -- rather impressive when one considers that the average buyers are not big Hollywood studios, but video vendors from Italy and pay TV operators from Hong Kong.

Now held annually from late February to early March at the Loews Hotel -- a green glass and concrete pile on the beach at Santa Monica, Calif. -- the AFM was, in the heyday of the video boom, trash cinema heaven. Want Jean-Claude van Damme kick-boxer flicks up the kazoo? Teen slasher pics up the kazaam? Line up right here, behind that gentleman from Brazil with the bad haircut and bulging checkbook.

This year, however, the screening schedules were full of Sundance and Toronto also-rans and wannabes, together with a sprinkling of titles featuring real live movie stars: Wesley Snipes in Franchise Pictures' "Art of War," Jackie Chan in Golden Harvest's "Gorgeous." Also the gentleman from Brazil was gone, together with many of his fellow globalization victims from South America, Russia and Asia.

If buyers from these disaster areas were present they were either renegotiating old deals (exchange rate fluctuations do nasty things to one's bottom line), or shopping selectively. Gone were the days when eager crowds of Korean buyers would snap up anything with explosions in the promo reel.

"The films must have name actors attached," said Samuel Lee, a veteran Korean buyer of theatrical and video rights. "But name actors in the U.S. are not necessarily name actors in Korea. That is why I am interested in films with older stars who may not be popular in the U.S. now, but are still big with Korean audiences."

Charles Bronson, where are you when we need you?

What was I doing there? Roaming the suites for a U.K. movie trade magazine to round up stories for their market dailies -- A4-size glossy giveaways filled with market news, feature stories, screening schedules and, of course, ads, ads, ads. This was my seventh AFM so I had the drill down pat -- market preview on Day One, mood of the Asian buyers piece on Day Three and deal stories on Day Seven -- the end as far as we were concerned. By then the market screenings were all but over, meaning that ad sales -- our raison d'e^tre -- were trending toward zero.

We had a rival -- a U.K.-based magazine called Moving Pictures that sprang into existence only for the three big markets -- AFM, Cannes and Milan. The two Hollywood trades, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were also there, but their attitude toward the AFM was that of the Detroit Free Press toward an auto show -- they gave it ink, but not necessarily above the fold.

We at Screen International, on the other hand, lived, breathed and ate AFM, from breakfast muffins off the cart in the Loews lobby to canapes at film company parties. One imagines glamour at the later events; one discovers that the reality is often loud, pounding music, long food lines reminiscent of a Kosovar refugee camp and the same Hollywood bottom feeders one has been avoiding in the corridors all day.

Occasionally, though, one lucks out. Jackie Chan made a surprise appearance at one party I attended. Being a cool, jaded industry professional, I followed him around the room, grabbed his hand at the first opportunity and gushingly compared him to Buster Keaton. He was graciously amused, if not noticeably surprised. I had my picture taken with him to prove my acquaintance to friends, relatives and total strangers.

I knew there was a reason for coming to this thing.

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