やったー For Hollywood

The week immediately preceding Memorial Day was always one of my favorite work week of the year.  It usually meant I’d be exceptionally busy, but I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for a meal, or at times even gas, for at least a few days, and I’d undoubetedly learn something I never knew before about the industry and the world.

This was always the week when the world’s television buyers would descend upon Los Angeles for the LA SCREENINGS, opportunistically scheduled immediately after the upfront presentations of new fall schedules to advertisers in New York.  With the hype and buzz of what’s fresh and new, or at least what can be pitched as such, still in the air, studio lots would be all decked out with welcoming ribbons, banners hyping the priorities and an influx of well-dressed visitors scurrying from meeting to meeting, stopping anyone who happened to be in their path to ask in halting English for directions to a building or screening venue.   Often, that was moi, and that was no accident.  I knew darn well the economics of television, and while a U.S. network would provide the launching pad for a show it was the international sales of it that would provide profits and, parochially, the source of my salary.  At least that was the narrative I was being fed.  Along with some truly outstanding catered meals and, more often than not, dinners at top-notch restaurants and private parties.

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I particularly recall some truly memorable parties held at top executives’ lavish homes, usually in areas like Bel-Air and Encino with spectacular views of the city and sunset cocktail gatherings that would then morph into fascinating and long evenings with our global sales teams and their most coveted clients.  FOX’s international sales head at the time was an absolutely brilliant and worldly veteran born in the UK who could seamlessly transition a line from a sales pitch into four or five different languages in the same sentence.  He was also a talented pianist, and after more than a few tequilas would insist we close the night with sing-alongs where we’d suggest a favorite tune and challenge the various territory leaders to belt it out in their own languages on the spot.  You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a round of NEW YORK STATE OF MIND that began in Japanese and ended in Yiddish.

And after several years of less-than-idyllic settings compromised by pandemic protocols and strikes, this week the international buyers and the parties are back with a vengeance, and not a moment too soon given the chaos and decline that has been prevalent among so many studios and producers.  VARIETY’s Anna Marie de la Fuente offered an update on what this all looks like now in a preview story that dropped last week:

When an estimated 1,000 international TV buyers descend on Los Angeles for the annual TV event known as the LA Screenings, they will see a contracted market still recovering from the twin Hollywood strikes of last year and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the pandemic.  It kicks off with the LA Screenings Independents, held May 15-17 for smaller studios and distributors at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel, which are then followed by screenings at the major studios’ respective lots across May 18-22 where they present their latest shows. They may also host a variety of events for their clients during those days, which may include cocktail receptions and luncheons or dinners with talent and executives.

And as DEADLINE’s Jesse Whitlock observed, there’s a far greater state of optimism among those that still have the responsibility to sell content than has been seen of late:

(S)tudio sales bosses are relishing a return to the norm. “We’re really excited, it feels like we’re really back after the strikes and firing on all cylinders,” says David Decker, President of Content Sales for Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD). “We have an abundance of titles that run the gamut of broadcast and streaming in drama and comedy. We’ll be showing the best of what WBD stands for.”

Lisa Kramer, President, International Content Licensing, Paramount Global Content Distribution, certainly sees more of a straightforward ride than twelve months ago. “Last year we screened against the backdrop of picketers and this year we embrace the industry back at work,” she says. “The excitement shared about the series is palpable and something the clients truly appreciate. The LA Screenings last year was a bit different, but we were still able to present a great slate for the buyers.”

“A bit different” feels a bit of an understatement. For one European network buyer, the past few years have been a tad traumatic. “The post-Covid screenings, with masks, antigen tests and then no talent are memories I’ve tried to suppress,” they say, speaking anonymously.

The good news is the studios believe the past is firmly the past.

“This is the rumble before the storm — we love this time of year,” says Keith Le Goy, Chairman of Worldwide Networks & Distribution for Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE), with a smile. “All of our people come, the buyers come and we get to show off. We’re a Hollywood studio — we love showing off.”

Having attended many presentations and strategy sessions fronted by Le Goy, a perpetually effusive Brit with the build of a rugby player and the sales panache of Tony Robbins, giving him carte blanche to show off is a sight to behold.  He and his minions could literally sell snow to an Inuit.  And judging by the portfolio that Whitlock rattled off, this year’s flakes offer them an even more heightened level of challenge and opportunity than ever:

Sony, the most truly indie of the U.S. studios, once again released its slate early to cheers from buyers. Among the buzziest titles is BBC series Dope Girls. As we revealed in February, Sony’s distribution arm worked with stablemate Bad Wolf in the UK to fast-track a pilot-style episode for the LA Screenings. “In collaboration with Jane Tranter and Bad Wolf team, we targeted the opportunity as the time to unveil it to the world,” says Le Goy.

The show, about a female underworld boss in early 20th Century Soho in London, will be joined by the likes of Amanda Seyfried-starrer Long Bright River; medical drama Doc, starring Molly Parker; Australian drama The Narrow Road to the Deep North, starring Jacob Elordi; and Blueprint’s next instalment in the Scandal franchise, A Very Royal Scandal, starring Michael Sheen and Ruth Wilson. The lineup also includes Stags from Sex Education producer Eleven, Fable Pictures’ series Mr Loverman, which will screen at Tribeca; and animated series Universal Basic Guys. 

With the exception of UNIVERSAL BASIC GUYS. not a single one of those shows was part of last week’s upfronts.  But as de la Fuente noted, the changing global landscape has made that traditional launchpad far less of a necessity to make a shekel:

The consensus is that FAST channels and AVOD are the rising stars in this fast-changing media landscape.

“It’s been fascinating to see the new customer segments emerge in the entertainment market. We’re particularly interested in the advent of FAST channels on connected devices as well as on other platforms,” says Belinda Menendez, president & chief revenue officer of Global TV Distribution, NBCUniversal.

FAST channels in particular are exploding internationally, particularly on localized platforms far nichier than the likes of global competitors such as Prime Video, Netflix and Apple TV+.  U.S. library content has both a place and a price point for those efforts that historically didn’t necessarily exist in a more limited linear world, particularly in territories with caps on how much international content can air.

And buyers who note that the next big thing can come from anywhere (see BABY REINDEER) are far more open to looking for hidden gems in this setting, as Whitlock further noted:

Dermot Horan, the long-serving Director of Acquisitions and Co-productions at Ireland’s RTÉ, agrees, saying the “stand out” shows he’s searching for “don’t need to be from the U.S.,” noting he bought Australian comedy Colin From Accounts from Paramount after an LA Screenings viewing. Other buyers talk about the variety of options from indies selling their wares in Hollywood next week.

For example, Fifth Season will be hosting a cocktail to celebrate its TV team on the rooftop of the company’s new office near the Sawtelle Japantown district to gain face time with clients. “Buyers right now have shorter shopping lists and don’t need to go to as many stores, so you have to make their time meaningful and be respectful of what they’re trying to achieve,” says Prentiss Fraser, President of TV Distribution at the Severance and Tokyo Vice company. Key to the slate will be Australian drama Strife, which is getting a second season, and Clive Owen drama Monsieur Spade. Conversations begun around Fifth Season’s Apple TV shows See, Roar and Servant at the London TV Screenings.

No, I won’t be attending any of these parties this year, much as I’d love to.  But I do live within minutes of a couple of venues and I do know how to navigate the lots and the immediate area.  So if you or someone you know is on the invite list, shoot them my contact info.  I’d be happy to be an alternative to Uber for anyone.  I’m still a curious learner, and I’d love to hear another Billy Joel song translated on the fly.

Until next time…

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