Independents: What Accounts for the Action Addiction?

By Raven Snook

Diversity in independent releases: does that sound like a paradox? Traditionally, independent films have favored the action and suspense thriller genres over comedy and family-friendly fare. While reasons for this trend are complex, money is, as always, the determining factor.

“We have a very expansive catalog,” explained Screen Media Venture’s Almira Malyshev, vp of International Sales. “We try to cover every genre. However, action is what really works in most markets.” Of course, demographics account for this tendency. “Most action movies are placed in primetime slots to attract young audiences, particularly males. This seems to work in multiple markets: Asia, Latin America, Europe, U.S. — they all love action.” While action critics might like to see more family oriented films, the fact is they just aren’t as lucrative. “In general, family fare is designed for afternoon and early evening time slots, which are not as profitable as primetime. In addition, a lot of stations are capable of producing this genre themselves. They can shoot locally and attract stars from their region. They would rather spend their acquisition budget on product suitable for primetime,” said Malyshev.

In the end, knowledge is key. “Ultimately, you need to know what each market wants. You need to find out what works for them. For example, horror films do well in Western Europe. The Howling series is a title we have sold internationally. However, we can't sell horror product to Southeast Asian clients. Many of them are Muslim and will not accept anything supernatural, it’s pretty much taboo,” continued Malyshev. Action isn’t the only surefire seller. “Pretty much anything with a name is popular, regardless of the genre. And of course Disney is coveted. You need to know your markets and their needs. That’s how you close deals.”

Promark president Jon Kramer expanded on the preoccupation with action. “Clearly in the foreign marketplace, action without a lot of violence is preferred. In the U.S., we like a lot of violence, although that has changed somewhat since September 11. We’re still waiting to see how that plays out. Stations always come back to action because it is reliable; there is always an audience desire to see it.” But times, they are a-changing. The digital revolution will signal an unprecedented proliferation in channels, which means an increased need for diversified product. “We are going to see the development of a lot of niche channels that will require genre specific programming. Stations will have to identify themselves so people know to find them on the dial. Family channels will favor family fare; kids stations children’s programs, etc.” he said. However, despite the changing marketplace, action will remain a winner. “No matter what, there will always be stations that play action. It’s the old standby. One of its great attractions is that it’s internationally desired and easily crosses culture boundaries. Producers are sure to make back their investment.” And then there are the flavors of the month. “Over time there are genres that become temporarily popular. We've just been through the reality game show format. As that genre vacates itself from primetime slots we need to figure out what replaces it. At Promark, we look into a marketplace and see how we can fill a niche. It may change year to year, and even though we’re known for action, if it's suddenly out we'll be able to supply something else. We have a light entertainment line, a family line, a telenovelas line and we'll probably look to enter into other genres, too.”

The action genre will definitely continue to be the most demanded,” Gene George, president of Regent International concurred. “The thriller and horror genres also do quite well.” George believe horror can be a strong international seller. “We have several successful direct to video horror features. We are currently in production for the third installment of The Brotherhood franchise, which has done very well. You can do horror films with mangeable budgets, which makes them ideal for the video, pay-per-view and pay TV markets. However, non-theatrical horror releases typically don’t have star power which makes them harder to sell to the free-TV market. George agreed that action is practically an international language. “Action films transcend most borders, which makes action overall the most marketable genre. Next is the thriller genre. We also specialize in something I call “disastertainment.” It does really well for a couple of key territories. The free-TV market looks for these kinds of films: natural disasters, tornadoes and earthquakes. At AFM we’ll be selling Terror Peak, about a volcano that threatens a resort town. We have another film called Tornado Watch, a follow up to Storm Chasers.” Are there any family films in Regent‘s future? Family films are mostly cast driven, which inflates the budgets. They are onut of the scope of what independents can produce. Still, they’re not in high demand and they tend to be broadcast in afternoon slots.

World International Network (WIN) Chairman Larry Gershman agreed. “While action films tend to do well, since September 11 there is concern whether they will continue to be strong. What we do is not so much the crashing cars and helicopters; we specialize in suspense thrillers. They’re appealing: they showcase ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Audiences can relate to that. A woman comes out of a supermarket and gets car-jacked with a baby. A woman is held hostage and must find a way to escape. They are often based on true events, fact-based stories that have been fictionalized.” Like action, suspense thrillers know no cultural boundaries.” We find products that work for us internationally. We don't do horror films and we’ve never wanted to because our buyers don’t want them. We avoid comedies for the same reason. To me, quirky comedy is synonymous with not sellable. Comedies are particularly tricky because you can't sell the same comic film to different countries. They just don’t translate. A good drama can work in multiple regions. However, suspense thrillers really work for us. They are not overtly violent. They feature the threat of violence.” WIN must be doing something right: over a six-week period, it had four Monday night movies.

As in any marketplace, the supply and demand system rules, and the current demand is lights, camera, action genre. Adrenaline is in.