American Film Market By Cole Trickle. I love movies. Unconditionally. That’s not to say that I like everything that I see, but I like to see everything...
I love movies. Unconditionally. That’s not to say that I like everything that I see, but I like to see everything. I don’t care who made the movie. I don’t care if Soderbergh or Shumacher directs. Or if Merchant/Ivory or Irwin Allen produces. Bring it on.
Yet, despite this infatuation, every once in a while I find myself uttering the following eight words: How the fuck did this movie get made? It’s usually late at night; Skinemax is on and no matter how much hair pulling, silicone or Eric Roberts the movie has, I still come to that eight-word question. “How the fuck did this movie get made?”
My trip to the American Film Market provided an answer.
The film business is just that: a business. Every year that business has a gathering at the American Film Market. Miramax, Troma, Fox Searchlight? Come on down! The AFM is to the film business as Meijer Thrifty Acres is to people. There’s something for everyone. The purpose of the market is to sell off various rights to movies. The right to show the film in Germany. The right to distribute the video in Ecuador. The right to broadcast the movie on Japanese late night television. It’s all on sale. Some of the films are done; some are looking to sell off the rights to various domains in order to raise funds for the film’s completion. Much like Meijer’s, there’s an aisle for everything, except here each aisle is a room in the Loews Hotel, a scant few blocks shy of Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Looking for a little art house? Try the Lion’s Gate room where they’re offering deals on Comic Book Villains and Frailty. How about a little soft-core? You get the picture.
Now, I have some history with the AFM. I’ve been kicked out of it before. We never got out of the lobby. What little I glimpsed looked like paradise. The atrium was filled with producers and starlets. Toxie was working the floor, as was a Playboy Playmate, handing out copies of her issue. The festival has changed in the last few years since. People started realizing that “arty” movies can make money. If it can make money then you’ll see more. The atmosphere now? Everyone’s dressed up, talking on a cellular phone, holding a Variety under his or her arm while holding an actor/actress in the other. The gang from Troma and Playboy are still in attendance, but the booths/rooms are much more subdued.
Looking back on my first attempt to get into the AFM, my friend and I wanted to sell an idea. This is possible to do in Hollywood, but at the AFM we wouldn’t have gotten far. Here it’s about actors, directors, amount of skin, amount of explosions your film has. What’s it about? Who cares? Just roaming the halls the first day it’s clear there’s more to selling a movie here than a great idea. Take for example this exchange:
“Hey. How’s it going?” said the man in the gray suit, leaning on his hotel suite door, sipping on bottled water.
“Pretty good.” Said the bespectacled wary man carrying a large planner overflowing with business cards.
“Buying or selling?”
“Selling. I’ve got a picture in development. We’ve got German funding, but I’m looking for an international distributor.”
There’s a gleam in both of their eyes after this last word is said. It’s tough to tell who’s “zooming whom” if you will. But this is how movies are made. If you’ve got a star, that star is worth a certain price in overseas and various other markets. There’s actually a chart as to who is worth what (when asked, I was declined a chart). If you’ve got action, that action is worth a certain price in overseas markets. If you’ve got nudity...You get the picture.
Basically, after hitting the rooms, I learned two things: if you can get Michael Madsen or Eric Roberts to do your movie, get them to do your movie. Odds are it’ll get made. And second, I learned that “press” are not exactly welcome at the AFM. It’s not to say we’re shunned, but we’re basically supposed to show up at the big announcements and “ooh” and “ahh” that Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins are doing a movie together. As for the screenings, many are open to the public, but any other screenings have to be arranged with the distributor/producer of the movie. And many of these folks are wary of any pre-review buzz.
The lovely people at Lion’s Gate made this quite clear. I have nothing against them as a company. Well, okay, I’ve got one thing against them. Their logo looks like it was designed in the ’70s and looks to be trumpeting the opening of a porno rather than an arthouse classic. But it’s not like I told them that when I approached them to ask about their screenings. I simply said, “Hey. I’m not here doing any reviews (lie). I’m actually just hanging out and checking out the festival (lie). I’m a big fan of James Robinson and I saw his directorial debut was playing (true). I’d love to check it out (also true.) Any chance I can go?”
Okay. Fine. Keep your lame ’70s logo.
This was how my requests were generally met, including a request to see Thunderpants, the “hot” picture of the second daya picture about a boy mastering his superpowered farts.
Okay. Fine. I can take a hint.
I can also sneak in.
It’s not like I haven’t been kicked out before.
Third Street Promenade is peppered with multiplexes and single movie houses. Each theater holds morning, afternoon and early evening screenings. My hope was to see Comic Book Villains and Frailty, oddly enough two Lion’s Gate films (I also wanted to check out a third Lion’s Gate film, American Psycho 2, but it screened before I arrived). After spending most of the first day circling the floor and chatting it up with producers, financiers and distributors, I decided to conclude day one with Frailty, Bill Paxton’s directorial debut. I went back to Lion’s Gate and was told:
“No. Sorry. No Press.”
I assured them that my press badge was forged and I was actually just a huge Bill Paxton fan. “No. Sorry.”
Okay, on to the theater. Large men with headsets guard all of theaters. They look at badges, nod and then let people on by. I had a badge. I accept nodding as a gesture. I’m a person. What could go wrong?
“Sorry, no press.”
I tried the Bill Paxton excuse.
“Who’s Bill Paxton?”
“Oh yeah. That was a funny movie. Is this movie funny?”
No, it’s a southern gothic horror film.
“So, it’s not funny.”
Well, let me check it out and I’ll tell you.
“Sorry, no press.”
Day two started late, but I had a better feeling. Frailty had been playing at a single screen theater. I’d have better luck at the multiplexes. I checked out the AMC 14 and found out 8 Femmes was playing. It was a star-studded French film that people were talking about. Catherine Deneauve, Emannuelle Beart, Virginie Ledoyen and a bunch of famous French actresses How can a guy go wrong?
I walked into the multiplex thinking I needed to chat up the guard. We struck up a conversation about the weather. I complimented his jacket. And that was it. He nodded me through. Then, I found that the theaters downstairs were open to the public. The theaters upstairs were private. I was downstairs. Eight beautiful French women were upstairs.
But so was the bathroom.
I opened my complimentary Variety and rode up the escalator, turning my badge around. As I got upstairs, I saw three theaters. Folks in badges flanked two, but the third was open. The third theater was also playing 8 Femmes.
8 Femmes is a film about eight women who are cooped up in a country mansion during the dead of winter. All is fine until they discover the man of the house has been murdered. With the phone line cut and the roads snowed in they’re trapped with each other and one of them is the killer. What follows is a murder mystery as we find that each woman, from the wife to the daughter, is a possible suspect. Pretty standard stuff right? But here’s why it was different, the talk of the market, and French: instead of explaining their motivations, the characters would break into song. It was a musical. Not a Moulin Rouge, Singing in the Rain type, but rather, people just sang. I have to admit, it was jarring at first, but after a while the film found a nice rhythm and the mystery was pretty, well, mysterious. The performances were all solid, especially Denueve and Ledoyan.
After the film let out I exited the theater and noticed what was playing next door: Thunderpants. The talk of the market. A film about a boy and his super-flatulence. And they were giving away complimentary whoopee-cushions. I raised my chin, walked into the theater and was promptly asked to leave.
But it’s a film about a boy who farts.
“Sorry, no press.”
I tried the other two theaters, but distributor folks also flanked them. I got on an escalator and headed down to the lower levels. The pickings were slim: Steve Guttenberg’s directorial debut or an Asian action film called Volcano High.
There was, to my recollection, no “volcano.” I can imagine, if you were “high,” you might get more out of this movie. I’m pretty sure it was the story of a troubled youth with mystical powers who is sent to a private school specializing in kids with mystical powers. Now, before you get your X-men hackles up, the film is more about high flying kung-fu than it is about a group of students sworn to protect a society that fears and hates them. Volcano High is basically the story of a kid trying to fit into a school rampant with cliques, except in this school the cliques represent various fighting styles. Sounds promising. It still is. The film itself, however, was a wash of kung-fu movie clichésbad acting, over the top, unnecessary special effects and strange attempts at comedy (my Thunderpants failure made all the more painful as I was subjected to a character who was comatoseyet gassy). The premise was fun, but the filmmaking was sloppy and the story, when I could follow it, was sophomoric at best. I left the theater with two people who came in off the street. They summed it up for me:
“Dude, that would have been a cool video game.”
I checked the schedule: Frailty was playing across the street. I walked over and found a different guard, but the same response.
“Sorry, no press.”
Bill Paxton! CHET!
I walked the floor again. Free Variety. Free issue of Hollywood Reporter. I spotted a booth featuring an ad for an upcoming Ewan MacGregor/Tilda Swinton movie called Young Adam. I just had to look, having heard of the book. Inside I met a very friendly salesperson, and she basically broke the whole festival down for me. All that crap I opened this article with? I had no idea until she explained it to me. Young Adam had all of its money in place, but they put together three mock-ups (huge poster of MacGregor, Swinton and a faux movie poster) to generate buzz and pre-sell some more rights. I asked her about MacGregor, if his star has been on the rise because of Star Wars or Moulin Rouge. Her answer was neither; it’s all about Trainspotting. It was refreshing to hear that someone’s arthouse success was spawning other arthouse movies, rather than seeing a “successful” titty-rental begetting a titty-rental sequel.
After having the market explained, I checked the schedule. A film called The Escapist was playing, starring Johnny Lee Miller. Keeping on the Trainspotting theme, I decided to give it a go. Using the bathroom excuse I got upstairs and into the movie. When asked whom I was representing by one of the door lackeys, I responded:
“Lion’s Gate Films.”
This was probably the best film I saw. Or at least the most solid. The story is about a wealthy man whose life is taken from him when he witnesses his pregnant wife murdered in a botched robbery. The child lives, but the husband is left a shell of a man. The murderer gets sent to jail, but that’s not enough for “Sick Boy.” He gives the child away to his sister-in-law and then does the unthinkable. He gets himself arrested. And sent to prison. It’s payback time. What follows is a series of clever escapes and re-incarcerations, as he gets moved up from prison to prison, finally reaching the prison where his wife’s murderer is held. In this prison, however, the murderer has the upper hand. This was a really solid revenge story with a great lead performance from Johnny Lee Miller.
I left the theater with a grin and checked the schedule. Once again, Frailty was on. Once again I walked over to the theater.
“Sorry, no press.”
I arrived early to the hotel for the last day of the festival. It was mostly empty. All of the deals and contracts swept away. There were a few stragglers, but the gist of the market was over. I read my trade magazines, which told me that the AFM had been mixed, with buyers wary of a tumultuous world market.
I checked the schedule. Comic Book Villains was playing. I went back to Lion’s Gate, gave them my sob story. Got rejected. Now I was getting mad. It’s not like they were going to sell it the last day; I mean come on here people! I left dejected. And then headed straight to the theater.
I’d like to tell you that I cleverly snuck into the theater. I’d like to go into great detail about all the plans I hatched on the way there. Truth is I walked up to the theater and they let me right in. It was kind of anti-climactic. And so was the movie.
Comic Book Villains
This is a classic story of greed. The story follows two rival comic storeowners who discover that a fifty-year collector has passed away. The two seek out the collector’s mom to buy up the ultimate collection, but she won’t budge. What follows is a series of one-upsmanship between the two that eventually leads to murder. Dark comedy be thy name. The film focuses on DJ Qualls character, clearly the supposed to be the “moral center” of the movie. The film featured some fun performances, especially from Cary Elwes and Natasha Lyonne, but it’s heavy-handed morality got in the way of what could have been a very fun movie. Robinson is clearly a talented writer, but it’s tough to say anything about his directorial skills, as he seemed hamstrung by the film’s low budget production value.
Fade Out: Day Four
So what’s the moral of this story? Frailty was one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Granted, I paid to see it a month after the AFM, but it was still great. Check it out on video. PAY to see it. Which leads me to the second moral of this story: spend money wisely. The only real vote left in this country is how you spend your almighty dollar. I love crappy movies, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen Days of Thunder eight times four in the theater. But more and more when I watch movies, especially big commercial/corporate films, or plain old exploitation films, I find myself uttering that question from the opening through gritted teeth: How the fuck did this movie get made? The spectacle is gone from the big movies and most of the subversive elements from the exploitation movies are also gone. The AFM showed me that better movies only get made when better movies make money. More and more, arthouse type movies are creeping into the market. Or if not arthouse movies, movies that are made by people who appreciate the genre their working in be it a skin flick or a horror flick and appreciate the audience they’re working for (for example, Sam Raimi recently started a company that’s going to make nothing but low budget horror movies).
So, how is it that these other movies got made? They got made because I paid to see the original. Or a movie like it. Or a movie with the same star. Or the same type of nudity. It’s not my fault, but if every vote counts then every dollar counts too. As a result, I’m going to start carefully spending those dollars. I’m going to try to support good films. I’m not going to pay to see XXX opening day. I’m going to pay for Signs and then sneak into Vin Diesel’s movie. I’m not going to rent the new Kira Reed movie. I’m going to tape it off Showtime. I’m not even going to buy Eminem’s new record. I’m going to download it from the Internet.
The fact of the matter is that we all like crap. We all like movies with silicone. And hair pulling. And Eric Roberts. But the truth is, they don’t make crappy movies like they used to. And every time we support these types of movies with our vote, with our money, we spawn more of them. The more of these movies that are out there, the more often you’ll find yourself uttering those eight words. So, don’t waste your vote. And don’t waste your money.
Unless Bill Paxton’s in the movie.
Back to Issue 13