A quintet of strong dramas virtually all struck chords with a packed house of overseas program buyers at Warner Bros.’s first full day of screenings on its back lot Monday; as one major European buyer put it: “Nothing too dark, nothing too loud, but characters with a lot of heart and great visuals.”
So, whether buyers were chatting about Scandal heartthrob Scott Foley playing a more romantic and less cynical Bond-like agent in Whiskey Cavalier—which, per an informal round-up of off-the-cuff buyer reactions over lunch, seemed to have the broadest array of thumbs-up—or the mysterious powers that the “Lost” airline passengers seem to be endowed with in Manifest, or the quietly affecting storyline of the athlete from Compton who ends up at Beverly Hills High in All American, it was difficult to find anyone to say that the studio had stumbled in delivering top-notch content this go-round.
“Last year was OK—Young Sheldon was a home run, but on the hour side we were a little disappointed. Not this time,” another buyer added.
Oh yes, there was also that reboot of the classic ’90s comedy Murphy Brown, with almost the entire cast intact, including, of course, Candice Bergen. As another buyer, from another part of Europe, quipped: “Her show could do for liberal America what [ABC’s] Roseanne is apparently doing for your conservative heartland.”
“Overall, the shows this morning had something to say. We’re all pretty happy,” said Rüdiger Böss, executive VP of group content acquisitions and sales at ProSiebenSat.1, describing his and his team’s reactions to the four pilots and the clips for two others viewed on Monday morning. Several of his colleagues pointed in particular to All American and to Whiskey Cavalier as being “definite winners.”
“I think [the Warner Bros. management] really came through on the drama side,” the head of the acquisitions team at the German station group went on to tell World Screen Newsflash during the lunch break on the backlot. (Last year, Böss and company gave high marks to Chuck Lorre’s Young Sheldon, which, as it has on CBS Stateside, has ended up a ratings winner on Germany’s ProSieben. Warner Bros. dramas from last season have fared less well, with even Greg Berlanti’s Deception recently getting the ax Stateside.)
Admittedly, Böss’s company enjoys an ongoing volume deal with Warner Bros. and thus contractually must take an unspecified number of series each year from that major (as well as from other similar tie-ups with Disney, CBS, Paramount and Fox). But Böss is not shy about expressing his displeasure when things don’t measure up to his standards. (He is among those not “charmed” by the Charmed revamp.)
Like other broadcast players in Germany and across Europe, ProSiebenSat.1 increasingly slots its own home-grown fare as well as occasional imports from Britain or Scandinavia in prime time and thus is less reliant than before on American shows for its evening schedules. This trend has taken hold at the same time that the number of fiction series in the U.S. has topped 500 a year. By anyone’s standard, it’s a buyer’s market and what those buyers increasingly hold out for is a show that will set them apart from their competitors, anchor an entire night and light up social media.
While dealmaking for U.S. shows takes place year-round now, there did appear to be serious huddles outside the screening theater between Warner Bros.’s territorial reps and disparate buyers on Monday. Mostly, though, it’s left to stations to publicize their acquisitions once they get back home, if then.
Aside from the aforementioned series that got decided thumbs-up from the attendees, Warner Bros. unspooled pilots for God Friended Me, which, per several buyers, manages “mercifully” to avoid sappiness. “We haven’t in our territory liked any religious-themed (U.S.) show since Touched By an Angel,” one female client from Latin America pointed out, but this one, she added, is “modern and believable. So far, so good. We always like to see more before we decide.”
In addition to the clip that teased the Murphy Brown series (which begins shooting in August), Warner Bros. screened footage from J.J. Abrams’ limited series based on Stephen King’s oeuvre called Castle Rock and in the afternoon another pilot from Berlanti and Ava DuVernay about a timely, if very American, subject: controversial cop killings of black men, this one set in racially tense Chicago. It’s called The Red Line.
“I didn’t think I’d be involved in this subject matter, but it appears to be presenting many sides of the issue,” yet another buyer opined during an afternoon break. “I like how it’s shot, with the subway line punctuating the different scenes, and the young girl [actress Aliyah Royale] is quite good.”
In his opening remarks to the assembled, Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. Worldwide Television Distribution, diverted from his usual rundown of records for the studio’s shows on all the networks, in all dayparts. In fact, he made fun of his own Mr. Number One moniker in the studio’s opening sizzle reel. Instead, Schlesinger addressed the elephant in the room—the change that has swept over the entire global programming business.
“Our business is dramatically shifting,” he said, ticking off the various mergers and tie-ups in process on both sides of the Atlantic, including his own company’s with AT&T. “In my 20 years or so here we’ve never seen change more rapid and extensive.” However, Schlesinger did not stop there: rather, he pinpointed what those changes now mean for key overseas broadcasters in their dealings with Hollywood suppliers of content.
“Success,” he suggested to the 400-odd attendees, “is about finding that one great show that makes a difference to your schedule and complements what you produce locally. We at Warner Bros. have the volume and the economies of scale to allow clients quite a variety to choose from. Whatever station or outlet or platform you operate, we have something for you. Some 100 series on 25 networks. And by the way, we’re still number one!”
“It’s definitely a new reality in the international program-sales business,” Schlesinger later elaborated to World Screen, “in that in order to get that one special show in each case, clients of ours still have to sign up for volume.” (Only in a few territories, principally the U.K., is outright cherry-picking the name of the game.) “Not everything a linear client picks up will play in their prime time on their flagship station, but they now typically have other platforms and outlets for [the additional fare].”
For his part, Peter Roth, the long-time president and chief content officer for the Warner Bros. Television Group, put the accent on “the exemplary roster of talent”—(without the advantage of vertical integration)—that this year’s crop of new shows exemplifies. “The creative strength on display is exceptional. In short, I believe we have one of our strongest slates in many years.”
In his remarks, Roth made a point of extolling the specific virtues of each new entry, indicating, for example, the wry tone that Bill Lawrence (whose bona fides are mostly in comedy) brought to make the dialogue in Whiskey Cavalier so “infectious,” not to mention that the entire season is shot in Prague, a city that can conveniently sub for Paris, Moscow and whatever other exotic locales; or the fact that God Friended Me, the highest testing pilot this season, has landed the plumb 8 p.m. Sunday slot on CBS; or that Robert Zemeckis and company have brought their A-game to Manifest, a high-concept bet, which, Roth insisted, combines “wonder, shock and mystery.” (One European buyer described it as Lost meets Les Revenants.)
Over lunch as he mingled with key buyers, Roth went on to praise some of the other talent, new and old, which will be on display this fall, pointing, for example, to Noah Wyle (of ER fame) in such “a moving role” in The Red Line, Daniel Ezra as the young football player whose life is upended in All American, and the veteran indie producer Diane English back in the fold overseeing the updated version of her Murphy Brown classic. As for the astoundingly prolific Berlanti, Roth stressed that the über-producer has “a great team around him” but that all the 14 shows he will have on the air this fall reflect “his voice.”
Leading off the afternoon viewing session, Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, and Courtenay Valenti, president of production and development at Warner Bros. Pictures, made an appearance to describe the “large and diverse slate of pictures” coming down the pike, including Clint Eastwood starrer The Mule, the latest remake of A Star is Born with Lady Gaga, and the next iteration of Fantastic Beasts. The execs also introduced some eye-popping footage from the James Wan-directed Aquaman, which is due out this December.
For more on the U.S. network and studio lineups, visit World Screen’s Fall Season Grid here.