How I shook paws with Lassie

At the American Film Market they'll use anything to sell movies - including introducing you to a certain courageous dog. Geoffrey Macnab reports
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"Crawl! Crawl!" Lassie's Rosa Klebb-like trainer doesn't mince her words. With just a hint of reluctance, the dog pulls herself flat and begins to wriggle across the carpet. It is a Thursday afternoon in the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, midway through the American Film Market (AFM), and Lassie has come to town to meet the buyers. Her new film, directed by Charles Sturridge of Brideshead Revisited fame, and starring Peter O'Toole and Samantha Morton, opens in the UK next month. Certain key territories remain unsold and Lassie is therefore doggedly walking the corridors of the Loews, trying to drum up interest.

There is some question as to the gender of the collie on display. The publicists tell us that the handsomely groomed animal pawing the furniture is a direct descendant of the mutt that appeared alongside Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor in Lassie Come Home way back in 1943.

This may indeed be the case, but certain observers are claiming that she is, in fact, a he. With so much hair covering the dog's nether regions, it's impossible to make any definitive judgement. Whatever its sex, Lassie is a trouper, dutifully performing party tricks (standing on hind legs, barking at the ceiling, shaking paws) and sitting patiently for photographs. The dog even has its own market accreditation badge.

The AFM might best be described as the cash-and-carry of the film world. Thousands of distributors converge on a gaudy Californian beach-front hotel to buy the movies that viewers all over the world will be watching over the next year. Everything is on offer: art-house films, exploitation pics (including several this year about Asian bird flu), star-driven action movies, natural history documentaries, a surprising number of dog-themed films, and plenty of porn. Movies that haven't yet been made are being pre-sold on the basis of a poster. Older pictures are stacked up high in the bargain bins.

This is nothing like the Cannes Festival, where the competition for the Palme d'Or confers at least a little cultural respectability on the haggling behind the scenes. Kamal Nassif, a buyer from the United Arab Emirates, tells me he has five days to acquire 250 films for his pay-per-view channel. No, he won't watch them all. He'll just check the title, genre and star and then add them to his shopping basket. At the AFM, all that matters is business. If having Lassie hold a press conference helps to sway a wavering Asian distributor, the dog will hold court.

On Thursday, it is Lassie. On Friday, it is Pelé. The legendary Brazilian footballer is paraded to buyers in much the same way as the collie dog - although he is not forced to crawl or catch peanuts in his mouth. There is something a little sad and undignified about the way he is stopped by buyers who want to take his photograph with their mobile phones, but he acquiesces with good grace. After all, he too has a film to sell - Anibal Massaini Neto's documentary Pelé Forever.

Once you've been to the AFM a couple of times, you learn not to be surprised by the outlandishness of the projects. On the first day of the market, I have a brief telephone conversation with Harmony Korine (the writer of Kids, and director of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy). Korine explains the plot of his next film, Mister Lonely, in matter-of-fact fashion, as if it is the most conventional costume drama. This will be a tale about a young Michael Jackson lookalike (played by Diego Luna) who ends up in a Scottish commune with Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple for company. Other residents include Marilyn Monroe (to be played by Morton), the Pope, the Queen of England (Sixties icon Anita Pallenberg), Madonna and James Dean. There is also a sub-plot about nuns and lepers in Latin America. "It's an allegory," Korine explains, but offers few hints as to its hidden meanings. Mister Lonely may sound preposterous, but unlike many projects being talked up in the Loews, it should actually be made. Korine's fashion-designer friend Agnès B is helping finance the £5m feature, which is due to shoot shortly in France, Scotland and French Guyana.

Deep in the bowels of the hotel, Egyptian producers The Good News Group are hatching a project just as unlikely as Mister Lonely. Al Qeda is billed as an epic drama about Osama Bin Laden. The plot follows an international journalist as he tracks down the terrorist leader. The director, Adel Adeeb, aims to shoot the film simultaneously in Arabic and English. "We're not with Bin Laden or against the journalist, or against Bin Laden and for the journalist," he says. "We don't put it like Arsenal against Liverpool [sic]. It's two human beings from different places. We want to know how they think."

Adeeb has some novel ideas for casting. Omar Sharif is first choice to play the journalist. As for Bin Laden, "we're rubbing our fingers that it will be one like Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino". The chances are that this project, too, will be made. The Good News Group is one of the Middle East's largest media groups and will be able to finance the film. Whether or not any self-respecting American star will go near the project is, of course, another question.

A few floors up, the French producer Alain Siritzky is introducing buyers to his Beijing-set, Mandarin-language version of Emmanuelle. In 1974, Siritzky financed the first Emmanuelle film, with Sylvia Kristel. Now, he is planning a new series of films based on the blogs by twentysomething Chinese writer and "rock chick" Mu Zimei, describing her sex life in explicit detail.

Siritzky has already begun casting and claims that there are many actresses ready to appear in the film and disrobe in the name of art. In one breath, he pitches the project as "sex in the Forbidden City". In the next, he insists that his Mu Zimei films are inspired by a spirit of crusading feminism and will help Chinese womanhood to throw off the shackles of patriarchy. This, though, isn't a message of much interest to all those middle-aged, male distributors beating a path to his offices.

Maybe Emmanuelle's days are numbered. Who wants to promote sex and violence, or pay huge salaries to stars, when all the evidence suggests that audiences now prefer penguins? March Of The Penguins has already been a huge hit in the US. In the wake of its success, the one film which really excited the buyers at the AFM last week was Call Of The North, a National Geographic-funded documentary about the plight of the polar bear and the walrus.

"I just think that today there is more need from the audience to see some movies which are positive, beautiful, less violent and less like US blockbusters," the film's French sales agent, Vincent Maraval, declares between meetings with distributors desperate to buy the film.

Whenever something is successful at the AFM, everybody tries to copy it. One can safely predict that next year's market will be full of cheap new movies about koala bears, puffins and whatever other animals spring to mind - and it's also a fair bet that most will be absolutely awful.

'Lassie' opens on 16 December