Elizabeth Guider Reports: Disney Unveils New & Returning Slate


PREMIUM: “You’d have to be a moron not to take into account the global market when putting shows together.” That’s the view of Shondaland producing partner Betsy Beers, who spoke briefly with World Screen Newsflash Sunday night between glad-handing with overseas program buyers on the Disney backlot.

Beers was among a dozen or so top producers and/or creators of new series for the ABC network or its young adult-skewing platform Freeform who came out to tub-thumb for their respective fall season contenders.

The outdoor event at the Burbank studio essentially kicks off the marathon week of pilot screenings at the major Hollywood studios. Roughly 1,000 from among 1,600 overseas program buyers in town for the coming week converged on the Disney lot for its 17th annual presentation of new series and movies for distribution overseas. Most importantly, ABC’s soon-to-be Idol-infused prime-time schedule was unveiled, still anchored by the sudsy output from Shondaland and a gaggle of feel-good comedies on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. (For good measure, a reboot of the ’90s blue-collar classic, Roseanne, with most of the original cast intact, is in the offing for midseason, as is a just-announced and so far untitled entry from Shondaland which will do for firefighters what Grey’s Anatomy does for doctors.)

During the next five days, swathes of foreign buyers will traipse on a daily basis from one Hollywood studio to another to assess the new fare soon to be available for their stations or digital platforms back home. The Screenings are generally reckoned the first chance each year for buyers to see what they have to take in their ongoing volume deals with the U.S. major suppliers or what they might want to pick up on the open market. With so much content being created Stateside right now and so much good material also being produced locally in major territories abroad, it is reckoned something of a buyer’s market.

Like most of its rivals, ABC is coming off a roller-coaster season, with no breakout hits and an inevitable learning curve for its latest ABC Entertainment president, Channing Dungey. At the upfront presentation to advertisers in New York last week, Ben Sherwood, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, said, “We have higher standards for our performance” in recognizing the network’s recent ratings struggles. Sunday night, he told the international crowd that for this upcoming season “we have delivered” and that next year the company “will do even better.” For one thing, he went on, Disney plans to “double down on procedurals,” which is a mainstay of foreign broadcast schedules, and to search out “new voices and formats” from abroad.

On the plus side at the Alphabet, freshman series Designated Survivor starring Kiefer Sutherland (which is distributed abroad by indie eOne) did do well enough to merit a renewal, as did sophomore CIA suspenser Quantico. One European buyer, however, suggested that those two shows now seem “pretty tame” as compared to just watching the “mind-boggling” political intrigue coming out of real-world America these days.

Disney itself has had a mixed year as well, firing on multiple cylinders on the movie and theme park sides, but challenged by the loss of subs at its key sports operation, ESPN. The stock has been knocked around and no eventual replacement for the company’s chairman-CEO Robert Iger has yet been upturned.

More to the point for overseas consumption, the Alphabet is launching a number of new dramas this fall and several more during midseason. Bucking the trend toward ever tighter vertical integration at the Hollywood studios, several of the web’s hopefuls hail from outside suppliers, namely from Sony, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate/Skydance.

Also, like several of its competitors ABC is holding back a number of hour-long contenders for midseason launch, a move that makes it that much more difficult for foreign buyers to gauge what they should opt for in their long-term deals with the company, and for other clients who might want to purchase something on the open market.

Among the in-house-created dramas set to debut in the 2017-2018 season and whose trailers were flashed on the giant screen outdoors were The Crossing, For the People, The Gospel of Kevin and Marvel’s Inhumans. Sibling platform Freeform also unveiled several newcomers to its schedule, including an arresting show with an environmental theme called Siren. On the feature film front, several trailers and sneaks were unveiled for the first time, including a snippet from Avengers: Infinity War.

In addition, Deception is a pickup from the most prolific producer of the moment, Warner-based Greg Berlanti; The Good Doctor comes courtesy of Sony-based David Shore, and Ten Days in the Valley, produced by indie Skydance and top lining Kyra Sedgwick, will be licensed by Lionsgate.

Most vocal appreciation from the assembled Sunday for what appeared on the big screen went to the film slate and to a new comedy for ABC called The Mayor, about a rapper who inadvertently becomes the top official in a small town.

Against the complicated—some would say challenged—landscape that is network television these days, Disney honchos came out upbeat and emphatic.

The head of the company’s international TV operations, Ben Pyne, who is soon to step down after 25 years at the company, emceed the hour-long presentation, emphasizing the global appeal of the company’s brands and the teamwork that it takes to create and distribute them.

“Our brands—Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Freeform and ABC Studios—reach a broad spectrum of consumers in all corners of the earth. Regardless of what audience you’re looking to reach, The Walt Disney Company provides it all under one umbrella,” the president of global distribution at Disney Media Networks declared.

Here’s how he further framed the sales pitch to the overseas buyers: “In a constantly evolving world where disruptive forces surround us, these incredibly powerful brands—and the imaginative, creative content that powers them—remain constant in their appeal to your viewers. No one else has the proven ability to create the kind of entertainment that surprises, thrills and moves people like we do. The kind of content that keeps us striving every year to raise the bar in bringing you new, bolder and better opportunities for your audiences to engage with our shows and your platforms. This year will be no different.”

Since this was his valedictory address to the foreign contingent, Pyne thanked all the company’s clients and then took the opportunity to acknowledge a couple of people supportive of his decision to ankle and to move in what he called “a different direction.” First, he pointed to his boss, Sherwood, calling him “a true visionary,” and secondly he acknowledged former Warner Bros. and Legendary executive Bruce Rosenblum, who segued to Disney last fall as president of business operations at the Disney ABC Television Group. “Bruce is,” Pyne said, “a huge supporter of the international marketplace.” (No replacement for Pyne has as yet been announced.)

As usual, Disney/ABC made a point of bringing out most all its big guns for the Upfronts event. As Pyne put it, “Our portfolio is the result of the incredible combined efforts of our film and television divisions—and tonight we have key executives from each division joining us.” Among them were Dave Hollis from Walt Disney Studios, Jeph Loeb of Marvel, Freeform’s president, Tom Ascheim, and ABC Studios’ president, Patrick Moran. Each of them talked up the overseas potential of their existing and new product.

Coming off the success of Beauty and the Beast and the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Hollis, who is executive VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution at Walt Disney Studios, put the accent on the astounding visuals and the variety of big-ticket items in the pipeline from Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Disney for the next 24 months. “Our slate is full. I can’t possibly do it justice,” he stressed, as more than a dozen titles flashed on the screen, including ones for Cars, A Wrinkle in Time and Thor: Ragnarok.

Doing the honors for the ABC network, Moran put the accent on what makes Disney programming distinctive for the global market. In his view, it is “distinctive voices, indelible characters and flawless execution,” which not surprisingly, he said, are in abundant supply in the upcoming fall and midseason slate.

For his part, Loeb, executive VP of Marvel Television, told the buyers that in just four years under the Disney umbrella the division has come up with 14 series for television. The upcoming fifth season of the company’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, he added, “promises to be even bigger.” As for Marvel’s newcomer to the Alphabet schedule, Inhumans, it will debut first on 1,200 Imax screens globally before it surfaces on ABC.

Finally, Freeform’s Ascheim extolled the virtues of platforms for young adults, pointing out that there were 100 million such viewers Stateside and 2 billion worldwide.

Once the executives had finished their remarks, the stars and executive talent of the company’s new series were revealed inside booths arrayed along the periphery of the venue. They included: from Marvel, Runaways, Inhumans, Cloak & Dagger; from Freeform, Siren, Alone Together, College-ish; and from ABC Studios, The Gospel of Kevin, The Mayor, For the People and The Crossing.

Judging from the applause and from informal comments from a variety of attendees, there were plenty of things to be enthused about after the hour-long presentation (in addition to the plentiful food and drink). For one thing, talent made itself available to chat or to submit to quick photo ops, including Jason Ritter (the star of The Gospel of Kevin), Steve Zahn (a star of The Crossing) and Hope Davis (who features in For the People).

“My opinion so far? We’re just getting started with actual screenings of shows so don’t take anything I say to heart. No standouts as yet, but I’d say that The Crossing looks like we’ll have to take a closer look, as does anything out of Shondaland,” said one European-based buyer.

Another was even more adamant about withholding judgment. “Trailers are fine but we need not only to see the pilot but to be given a clear idea of the story arc. To make decisions, we have to have ratings data, even sometimes reviews, before we sign on the dotted line,” another buyer at the Disney presentation told World Screen Newsflash.