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Movie Marketplace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man from Sri Lanka steps double-time down palm-lined Ocean Avenue. He sweats and huffs and puffs as he ducks hurriedly from a bright, salt-air morning into a dark screening room.

It may be only 9 a.m. in Santa Monica and 10 p.m. in his hometown of Colombo, but for Carlo Ponnampalam and the world of independently made movies, this week is High Noon.

From that early morning screening--nearly two hours of bullets and bad dialogue featuring Euro-hunk Dolph Lundgren--Ponnampalam and hundreds of his international brethren have plunged into nine breathless days of movies, meetings and deal-making known as the American Film Market, or AFM.

“I come here and I know what I have to do,” says Ponnampalam, an earnest and endearing man of 52, who owns four theaters on the island nation southeast of India and sells films to dozens more.

“If I wanted to just lounge around the hotel until 10:30 or 11 and have breakfast, there would be no reason to be here,” he says in an accent as crisp as a new-made bed. “Instead, I’ll see 25 films in a few days and I’ll bring five or six home with me. . . . I won’t go home empty-handed.”

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By the end of the market Friday, an international cast of fellow buyers will be able to say the same, paying a tidy fortune (last year a total of $320 million) for the right to show English-language films in their native lands.

For Ponnampalam and many of the others, the AFM has become the essential second stop on a three-city circuit of international film markets that begins in November in Milan and concludes in May with the Cannes Film Festival.

“In Milan, it’s always cloudy and rainy and it’s all about business. In Cannes, it’s parties and contacts and screenings,” says Franco Columbu, a onetime bodybuilding champion who this week is marketing two action films in which he stars. “In Santa Monica, it’s both fun and business. Soon, it will be the dominant one.”

The American Film Marketing Assn., which sponsors the Santa Monica market for filmmakers who are independent of the major studios, claims that the AFM already is the biggest. The proximity to the film capital of the world makes the market a must stop. “This still is Hollywood. It’s more important to be here,” Ginka Andreeva, head of a Bulgarian film distribution company, said over the din of conversation at AFM headquarters on opening day.

For more than a week now, downtown Santa Monica has been awash with about 5,000 marketers, fashionable men and women who are often seen toting screening schedules and canvas bags emblazoned with the AFM logo. Red, white and blue AFM banners hang over the streets. Most of the movie screens in and around the Third Street Promenade have been taken over for daylong screenings. At Ivy by the Shore and Remi, buyers buzz about this year’s crop of films in a cacophony of languages.

And the AFM headquarters, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, is a hothouse of as-yet-unfulfilled movie-land aspirations--where actors, models, and even a movie theater usher can feel for just a moment that they are near the white-hot center of the deal.

The market, in its 16th year and sixth in Santa Monica, will contribute $10 million to local businesses, the American Film Marketing Assn. claims.

At the epicenter of the action is the Loews. The orange, white and green pastel building a block from the beach is a four-star hotel for 50 weeks of the year, until its radical transformation in late February.

Beds are emptied from all but a handful of the 348 rooms and stored in semi-trailer trucks. Office furniture, phones and faxes are loaded in, along with 600 extra telephone lines.

In each room or suite a separate exhibitor makes its home--258 exhibitors from America, Europe, Asia and beyond, who have loaded their work space with enough glossy brochures, posters and videos to pitch their product to the world. Buyers like Ponnampalam often spend the opening days of the market mostly in the dark, watching up to six films in succession. But this week is dominated by hard bargaining.

“Each day of the market, the anxiety cranks up a little,” says Pascal Borno, the Haitian-born American who hopes to sell “Silent Trigger,” the Dolph Lundgren film, to Ponnampalam and others. “The sellers know the buyers are getting ready to go home and if they don’t make a deal, they will have to sit on the film for another market.”

Most of the participants are loath to talk about pricing, but one veteran exhibitor suggests, for example, that a $12-million action film might draw more than $1 million in licensing fees from a buyer in the rich German market and just $8,000 from a smaller, poorer country like Sri Lanka.

Much has been made in the past of the crass, B-movie AFM fare. But AFM’s organizers make much of the fact that a dozen films from the prestigious Sundance Film Festival are up for international sale in Santa Monica.

“There is more quality now,” said Jonas Rosenfield, president of the American Film Marketing Assn. “Less T & A and naked people and guns shooting off all the time.”

Indeed, buyers can bid on a small catalog of Shakespeare, make an early offer on the still-in-production “Evita” with Madonna, or bid on “Restoration,” a costume drama starring Hugh Grant and Robert Downey Jr. that is in domestic release and was made by the highly respected Miramax International.

There are still more than enough bullets and bare bodies to go around, though. A sample of this year’s titles: “Sisters of Sin” (“Sexy, Deadly, Demonic,” a poster promises) and “The Girls of Topless Volleyball.”

Seeking to distinguish himself in this genre is Dr. Ron Schwartz, an Atlanta gynecologist who spent $20,000 this week to fly three cohorts to Los Angeles and rent a room at the Loews to promote “Smooth Operator.” This personally produced sex farce is big on busty nurses, bathroom humor (a patient will be given a “pina colonic”) and broad racial stereotypes.

As he packed to leave Monday (to be ready for surgery Thursday), Schwartz said he had made many contacts, but no sales. Yet.

“To me this is the last frontier of capitalism,” he said in light drawl, insisting he was not discouraged.

In the Loews lobby, a step down the pecking order even from an upstart like Schwartz are actresses in skintight dresses and platform shoes, tanned men with oily hair and dark glasses. Here, a color-coded AFM badge is treasured--allowing access to the upper floors of the hotel, and, perhaps, that big meeting with a producer getting ready to cast his next film.

Two days after seeing the Lundgren shoot-em-up, Ponnampalam emerges from “Up Close & Personal.” The Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer love story has broken the monotony of screen violence. “You would not believe what a relief that is,” he smiles.

Tough bargaining lies ahead in the final days of the market. There is the dread specter of new buyers, “cowboys” who drive up prices and of distributors who insist Ponnampalam buy packages of films instead of single releases.

But one thing he can count on--film-crazy Sri Lankans will pony up 40 rupees (about 90 cents) for a movie, especially an American-made one. “Even a man who is hungry and poor, if he has $1, will sometimes choose to go to a movie, rather than eat,” says Ponnampalam. “I am not proud of that. I am not saying it’s good. But that is the way it is.”

The Sri Lankan and his regular compatriots on the international circuit have been talking. They agree that the films at this AFM are not a stellar lot. He expects to license a handful of movies and get out of town. In a good year he might take home a dozen.

“But that is all right,” he pronounces. “In a month or two, there will be Cannes.”


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