No Frills, No Glitz--All Business at U.S. Film Market

Times Staff Writer

The Toxic Avenger paces the hotel room like the caged creature he is. If this were Cannes, he could wander the streets frightening unsuspecting--OK, suspecting--film buffs. He might even be seen in front of cameras on the beach, or leading a morning aerobics class.

But this is not the Cannes Film Festival in the South of France. This is the American Film Market at the Beverly Hilton. And the costumed Toxic Avenger is not permitted to leave the hotel room assigned to his creator, Troma Inc.

“It’s not as much fun,” says Michael Herz, co-founder with fellow Yale graduate Lloyd Kaufman of Troma, which has developed a little niche at the world’s film market with titles like “Surf Nazis Must Die,” “The Toxic Avenger” and, this year’s big seller, “Rabid Grannies.”

Strip away Cannes’ glitz and gimmicks, and the 9-year-old American Film Market looks a lot like its French competitor. Together with a third festival in Milan, these are the world’s biggest movie swap meets--where producers try to sell their films to theaters, cable and satellite services and TV stations around the globe.


According to a survey conducted by the accounting firm of Peat Marwick for the American Film Market, the U.S. market surpassed Cannes and Milan last year in the volume of business conducted. The survey reports that 33% of sales in the international market were negotiated or closed at the American event in 1988. During its first four days this year, the market drew 249 selling companies--up 11% over the same period last year--and 1,838 individual buyers, up 17%, according to the market’s executive director, Tim Kittleson.

The American market is also subject to the same vagaries as its French and Italian counterparts. This year, sellers are notably picky: Most of them want films with big stars and big budgets. “We’re not seeing huge volumes of product being bought, but you’re seeing people paying the price for quality titles,” says Andy Birchall, a buyer for British Satellite Broadcasting’s movie channel.

But the American market isn’t likely to ever become another Cannes--in part by design. The Americans eschew Cannes’ glitz, and its renowned film competition, both of which ensure that Hollywood’s biggest players--including chief executives of the major studios, powerful talent agents and stars--will at least stop by the festival for a few sets of tennis.

The American Film Market remains largely the territory of U.S. independents and a range of foreign companies--most of which want to conduct their business outside the glare of camera lights. No paparazzi here. Just 350 reporters, in contrast to some 2,500 who pour into Cannes each May.


“We don’t have bare-breasted starlets,” says market president Jonas Rosenfield. “The purpose of the (American Film Market) is to have a serious business market.” Until recently the market imposed tight restrictions on parties, concerned that bigger companies would upstage their competitors.

The market’s organizers do have a few frills to offer, including an opening bash Friday night in which 3,700 people cavorted in a closed-off parking structure at the Beverly Center mall. The weeklong market prompted dozens of other parties around town, including a huge Monday morning champagne breakfast hosted by talent agency ICM, at which agency chairman Jeff Berg attacked Ayatollah Khomeini’s death threats against Salman Rushdie, author of the “The Satanic Verses.”

In the past, the rights to major films like “Platoon” and “The Last Emperor” have been offered at the American market alongside hundreds of low-budget films expected to disappear after a few years on the video shelves in countries like Japan or Brazil. This year buyers say they are hard-pressed so far to name titles that are generating much enthusiasm. “I don’t sense any must-haves out there,” says Birchall. That assessment may change, though, as screenings of new films continue this week.

But there’s no doubt that this year’s buyers are fussier. Fresh from a meeting with Japanese buyers--the largest foreign contingent at the market--New Line Cinema International president Rolf Mittweg notes that Japan, now facing overstocked videocassette stores, is in the market for quality films. “It used to be that the Japanese came in here with their checkbooks and didn’t even look at what the pictures were,” Mittweg says. “They bought them up like socks.”

That’s good news for New Line, whose “Nightmare on Elm Street 4" was a hit in U.S. theaters last fall and continues to do brisk business overseas. “Buyers are willing to step up to higher prices for companies with higher profile A pictures,” says New Line chief executive Bob Shaye.

This week Mittweg, who speaks several languages, is meeting with buyers in the company’s hotel suite at the film market. His strategy is to persuade buyers interested in the next “Nightmare” installment to also purchase several lesser-known New Line films as part of a package.

That’s not all New Line has up its sleeve: Mittweg has a boxful of Freddy Krueger paraphernalia--T-shirts, toys, watches--to show buyers how retail stores in their countries can help turn the film’s creepy star into a national phenomenon. Mittweg even provides advice on setting up Freddy fan clubs.

Despite most buyers’ search for proven box-office hits, some small exploitation films are still popular. “There remains that basic market for low-budget genre films,” says market president Rosenfield. Companies like Troma, he said, “are doing very nicely because those pictures have a cult audience.”


One key to survival is to make movies suitable to show on television as well as in theaters. Europe has experienced a proliferation of TV stations as the airwaves move into private hands, and satellites in Britain offer film producers a whole new outlet for their product.

“There’s an insatiable need for product for TV,” says Troma’s Herz. Ever sensitive to the changing winds of the market, Troma produces a TV version of films like “The Toxic Avenger, Part II,” designed to pass the tests of even the toughest censors. “For example,” Herz explains, “we’ll do a cover scene where the arm is not ripped off.”