For nearly 40 years, film distributors and filmmakers from around the world have annually converged in Santa Monica, California, to buy and sell independent films. More than $1 billion in deals will be sealed at the next gathering: November 1-8. The American Film Market (AFM) has often been dismissed as a Horror film market, and although that genre remains a large part of the convergence, practically every movie that doesn’t feature superheroes is packaged or financed or sold at AFM. Increasingly, that includes Westerns. About a dozen hit the market this winter.
Producer Dallas Sonnier, whose Bone Tomahawk was the surprise Western hit of 2016, is a fan of AFM. “I love walking around, seeing all the posters, running into friends. It’s a great way of getting everyone in that part of the business together.”
The market was instrumental in getting Bone Tomahawk financed. “We were able to pre-sell major territories like Germany, France, the U.K. and Australia; we covered nearly half the budget from those sales. Kurt Russell is so well known for his role [as Wyatt Earp] in Tombstone, and there was a lot of interest in seeing his return to the Western genre.”
At last year’s AFM, producer Girard Swan of Cygnet Entertainment Group was trying to finance Preacher, which he describes as a “violent but beautiful Western about a father’s bond with
Swan is optimistic about getting Westerns made. “Under $3 million. Hollywood says you’re going to lose money if you make Westerns. But at this budget level, there’s definitely an audience for them.”
His daughter and business associate Madison Swan has a theory on the resurgence of the Western. “We’re confused about morality; when we see a movie that puts it in black and white, or points out that it’s gray rather than black and white, in a context that’s cinematic and entertaining, it reinvigorates interest in a genre that would otherwise seem outdated.”
Scott Martin, a partner in Archstone Distribution, handles the gritty Texas-lensed Western Kill or Be Killed. “As a filmmaker, it’s been a goal to make Westerns, but until this resurgence, there hasn’t been the appetite for them. But we’re talking about doing them again—and I can’t wait!” he says. “But you have to either make them small, as best you can with the resources you have, or you have to go big; there’s not a lot of middle ground.”
When it comes to casting, Sonnier cautions, “it’s easier to sell a movie with Nicolas Cage or Val Kilmer at AFM, than with whoever’s on Variety’s ‘Actors to Watch’ list. Foreign markets are more interested in old-school actors.”
Some fine actors’ faces were seen repeatedly on posters throughout AFM. Tarantino favorite Michael Madsen, in Fairway Film Alliance’s A Sierra Nevada Gunfight (a.k.a. The Sorrow), has appeared in dozens of feature films since 2015’s The Hateful Eight.
Eric Roberts, who’s amassed more than 450 film and TV credits, appears in Cardinal XD’s The Gunfighter (a.k.a Five Grand), by far one of the best Westerns at AFM, a movie so small that the only special effects the filmmakers could afford were talent and imagination.
What money they spent, they spent wisely: Roberts is only in the first 10 minutes, but in a strong performance that sets up the plot. The filmmakers shot at that most iconic of California filming locations, Vasquez Rocks. The only scene with more than four people was filmed at Calico Ghost Town.
One of the pleasures of AFM is the international scope of Westerns. Thailand-based Benetone Films’ The Runaway is a U.S.-shot contemporary Western. France’s BAC Films’ Western is Let the Corpses Tan, shot principally in Corsica, Italy. From Wanda Media Co. comes the Chinese Comedy Western For a Few Bullets. And Australian distributor Odin’s Eye Entertainment offers The Legend of Ben Hall—True West’s Best Foreign Western of the year.
In the New Zealand-filmed The Stolen, a widow searches for her kidnapped baby. The cowboys ’n’ werewolves saga Blood Moon is set in the American West, but filmed at the Laredo Club’s Western town in Kent, England.
One of the most intriguing foreign Westerns, Russian World Vision’s Fort Ross, is the time-traveling story of three young journalists determined to learn how Russia lost Alaska to the United States.
Nasser Entertainment has made its own versions of Angel and the Bad Man, The Dawn Rider and The Virginian. This year’s Western is Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story, starring Trace Adkins.
Why do filmmakers keep coming back to the genre? “It’s an American classic, right?” Jake Nasser says. “And being citizens of Canada, all the great sets up there, the market dictated for us.”
Jake’s brother Jack adds: “I watched Westerns as a kid with my dad. It’s where the passion comes from. We have two in development, a Calamity Jane project and a Butch Cassidy.”
While the Western shows no immediate sign of taking over AFM entirely, it’s heartening that interest in the form, and the number being made, is on the rise.
Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com