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Forget Peoria, Will It Play in Pakistan? : Ranging From High-Profile Films to Lower-Budget Fare, Movies Fight for the Attention of Foreign Buyers

March 01, 1995|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Cannes Film Festival may attract the likes of Clint Eastwood and Sharon Stone, but the American Film Market in Santa Monica has . . . Tonya Harding.

The Bad Girl of Figure Skating is just one of the on-screen novelties at this year's beachside film bazaar, where foreign buyers are gathering until Friday to acquire territorial rights to a handful of big-name titles like "Seven," starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, and "The Scarlett Letter," with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, but mostly to lower-budget fare like "Attack of the 60-Foot Centerfold" ("The biggest movie of the year") and "Beverly Hills Pizza Girls" ("They deliver").

While other big-name films receiving interest this year range from Carolco's Paul Verhoeven-directed "Showgirls" to Castle Rock's "City Hall," starring Al Pacino and John Cusack, some smaller distributors say that without a star in a movie, it is getting more difficult to interest foreign buyers.

"When you have a star, it is going to generate more cash because it's better for a known star to take off their clothes than someone they don't know," observed Sidney Niekerk, president of Grand Am Motion Pictures, who is offering everything from sexploitation films to a documentary on the late Orson Welles.

Enter Tonya Harding. Obviously, the figure skater is not an accomplished actress, but last year she made worldwide headlines following the metal baton attack on her archrival, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding later was placed on probation and fined for hindering the prosecution.

Now, Harding is on the big screen in a B-movie action-thriller from Century Film Partners called "Breakaway."

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In the film, Harding plays Gina, the girlfriend of a bomb-maker named Carter who, unbeknown to Gina, has another girlfriend on the side named Myra. Myra just happens to have absconded with a mobster's money and is now on the run. Countless gunfights, chases and explosions ensue until Gina, cornered in an empty warehouse, gets riled and lets fly with groin kicks and knuckle sandwiches.

With a monotone delivery, Harding delivers lines of dialogue that surely won't win an Oscar. And some of her lines actually caused a sprinkle of laughter in the sparsely attended screening Saturday morning.

Carter: "You'd never make it in my line of work. You're not tough enough."

Harding: "You'd be surprised how tough I really am."

But such dialogue is the staple of many films sold at AFM.

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The AFM itself is a colorful place, where small filmmakers hope to strike it rich, where struggling actors with bleached hair and perpetual tans prowl the lobby passing out their 8-by-10 glossies, and where conversations at the bar often resemble the United Nations during a heated crisis.

To be sure, some independents represented at AFM are now powerful mini-studios, some connected to major studios.

Pamela Pickering, president of the American Film Marketing Assn. and senior vice president of international distribution for Spelling Films International, points out that until Miramax Films hands over its distribution, production and marketing capabilities to its owner Disney (which is highly unlikely), the company will continue to be considered an independent.

But in suite after suite, there are smaller filmmakers and distributors who have stories to tell.

Take Debra Watkins. The Orange County advertising executive isn't a player in Hollywood but not long ago she had an idea: Get one of the erotic magazine industry's leading photographers, have him shoot some of the top models in glamorous, sexy poses on a carousel, and then make a video of it. Doubters were plentiful. Now, "Carousel Girls' Calendar" has become a hot title and sequels are planned.

Or take Gordon Scott Venters and Robert Venters of Magic Fingers and its distribution arm, No-Bull Distribution, who arrived from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. One film they are hawking is "The Sand Angels," arguably one of the least-expensive movies around. How inexpensive was it? Well, the director shot the film on his own beachfront property in Santa Monica, used a tricycle for a camera dolly and helped the actors by taping dialogue to the faces of people off-camera.

AFM is a place of nonstop promotion.

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Enie Clark of Huntington Beach and Jennifer Braff of Carson stood outside one suite Friday wearing skimpy bikinis and touting "Party in Progress," a TV series focusing on the life and times of bikini contest participants. "Actually, they played this here in the United States at about 1 or 2 in the morning," Braff explained. "It does very well at that time--I wonder why?"

It is also a place of intense deal-making.

Mark Damon, president of MDP Worldwide, recalls how he once sold foreign rights to a film called "Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book' " and then saw Disney acquire the domestic distribution rights. The movie became one of the top-grossing films this past Christmas.

This year, Damon is offering a movie called "Running Wild," based on the experiences of conservationist John Varty, who spent 12 years following the life of a female leopard. In real life, the leopard was killed by a pride of lions and Varty took her last cubs to raise on his own.

In one suite sits producer, director and writer Ilija Svetislav Panajotovic, who invited a visitor to watch a video called "Dervishes," a documentary about a ritual performed by a Muslim sect in the mountains of Bosnia.

In it, men whipped into a trance-like state insert long spikes in one cheek and out the other and plunge swords into their bellies.

"They don't feel pain. They don't bleed," Panajotovic said in a thick accent.

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