This seaside market specializes in fresh new movies

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Joshua Peck is a man with a movie. Better yet, in a place where he is just one of many moviemakers, he has an old college chum whom he believes is in the industry. In hope of locating the buddy, he has come with his yet-to-be-completed film to the American Film Market (AFM) in Santa Monica, Calif. And, still better yet, he has found his schoolmate and made the critical contact.

Joshua Peck: "You think you might be interested in my film, 'Venice Beach?' "

Old friend, Josh Piezas: "Maybe. Need to know more. Come back later."

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On such slim promises, futures are made, and more specifically, in Mr. Peck's case, a million-dollar film.

Modest deals such as the possible Josh-Joshua collaboration are plentiful here at the AFM, as are the multimillion-dollar contracts that will bring some of the industry's top films to markets all over the world. Upwards of 7,000 filmmakers and buyers worldwide (from an unprecedented 71 countries this year), gather annually at this seaside event to pitch and be pitched to at what could best be described as "the green-eyeshade version" of the Cannes Film Festival.

Here, in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, a vast rabbit warren of rooms off a central atrium aren't smoke-filled (think Evian water instead) but do host parades of the industry's biggest and smallest dealmakers. By the end of today, organizers estimate, some $400 million in movie deals will have been made.

The biggest news this year, according to industry observers and participants, is the cautious return of the so-called independent film. While "independent" can mean many things to many people, managing director Jonathan Wolf notes that the AFM definition means simply that at least 50 percent of the financial risk is borne by some group other than one of the big seven Hollywood studios.

The major studios have blurred the definition of independent over the years by adding in-house art divisions such as Fox Searchlight, he says.

"The studios like the cachet of being considered an 'indie,' but really all they are is 'artie,' " he explains.

"What is 'independent' anymore?" says Ehud Bleiberg, chairman of Dream Entertainment Inc., a truly independent production and distribution company. He responds to his own query by saying, "We do it all. We produce, we market, we sell [movies] internationally." The only part of the movie business Dream isn't involved in is domestic distribution.

Mr. Bleiberg has been coming to AFM for years and explains that just between last year and this, he has seen the industry change. "Last year, people were dealmaking, not moviemaking," he observes with a frown. "So we decided to make more of a commitment to quality in the film itself."

He says he upped the budgets of films from his production company from the $1 million to $3 million range to above $10 million.

"Because we are independent, all that money goes into quality on the screen, not big, inflated studio budgets," he says with no small modesty.

Dream's biggest contender this year is "More Dogs Than Bones," a film Bleiberg proudly explains has the same director of photography as a sleeper indie hit of a few years back, "Like Water for Chocolate."

"You have to be willing to buy the best to get the quality people will pay for," he adds.

As for aspiring moviemaker Peck, the company with whom his college contact has landed, TROMA Entertainment, appears to be in the market for his sort of low-budget, tongue-in-cheek beach flick.

"We're the king of the cult film," laughs Mr. Piezas as he introduces his most valuable front man, a costumed performer dubbed "The Toxic Avenger," a character from a previous TROMA movie who is accosting passersby with his mission to clean the planet of toxic waste.

Piezas explains the TROMA motto: Make the films no one else will make. That list of B-film spoofs, which specialize in a sort of jolly gross-out humor, includes "Tromeo and Juliet," "The Toxic Avenger," and "Cannibal, the Musical."

Peck is encouraged, he says, because not only is he shopping the concept of the film, he's done the proper homework. "I'm pre-selling the cast," he laughs nervously. "My budget is too small to have anyone [in the film] buyers aren't going to like."

So far, the cast seems to pass muster. He and Piezas make a date to meet later, and Peck announces with what he hopes is not premature exuberance, "We start shooting on April 30." He allows himself only a brief smile of optimism and offers the business card that he hopes will bring an additional dividend of his college networking - a film career.

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