At this year’s L.A. Screenings sales bazaar, a relatively business-like affair that wrapped Thursday, the shows on offer were largely upstaged by the high drama playing out across the Hollywood industry. And causing jitters among its partners and customers around the world.
What studio is going to launch a direct-to-consumer streamer abroad—in what territories, with what programming, on what timetable and with what holdbacks to rights?
Those questions have international programmers on edge and overlay much of the talk about this or that show and its prospects. Exacerbating things, there are ongoing rounds of layoffs at Hollywood studios that will impact overseas partners and long-established, long-distance business relationships; there’s the likelihood of more consolidation among Hollywood players, and the changing role of talent agents in the business that’s further roiling the industry.
Per various accounts, there wasn’t a lot of light shed on these big issues by Disney/Fox, WarnerMedia, Comcast, CBS or anyone else, with official claims by just about everyone on the studios’ side that it was, for now, “business as usual” with overseas clients.
“We have not had conversations with our program suppliers about these things, including holdbacks,” ProSiebenSat.1’s chief buyer, Thomas Lasarzik, told World Screen. “It’s possible some things have not yet been decided at the studios,” the executive VP of group content acquisitions and sales at ProSiebenSat.1 Television Deutschland suggested.
Somewhat similarly, Anette Romer, chief buyer for Denmark’s TV2, had this to say: “There does not seem to be a clear or uniform picture of the new strategic priorities—whether the big players will be ‘warehousing’ (and eventually distributing to us) or ‘pipelining’ (feeding their own platforms).”
Still, Romer added, “We do not have specific slots to fill but we are always on the lookout for titles that can make a difference in the schedule.” (Her station dispensed with signing output deals some years ago.)
And from another perspective: “There are some holdbacks of rights already of the first window by the studios in our region,” Lanny Huang, president of Promo Group TV in Hong Kong, explained. “That is partially why some Asian buyers are sourcing and co-producing with European and British companies as well as with smaller American independents.”
It was “a head-scratcher of a week,” is how yet another international executive summed up the confusion and uncertainty.
Emma Gunn, director of acquisitions and content partnerships for the airline program acquirer Spafax, agreed. “Not knowing which U.S. titles will be available to license and how the studios handle holdbacks are definitely concerns for us all.”
With no easy answers as to how exactly windows might be reconfigured going forward and what shows might be designated to jump through them, the estimated 1,250 overseas program buyers in town for the week simply did what they traditionally come to do. They rolled up their sleeves, pulled out their notebooks, popped their melatonin and trekked from studio to studio to scour the new broadcast pilots as well as an array of alternative fare for premium and basic cable, and even for Hulu.
Their assessments were varied but generally even-handed and even-keeled. No one World Screen spoke with was delirious in their praise, nor withering in their criticism.
Sarah Wright, the head of acquisitions at Sky, said, “I thought it was a pretty good year for U.S. programming. There are solid procedurals which I know will do well in Europe as well as in the U.S., some promising comedies and several high-concept shows for which we will eagerly await the second episode. Great to see diverse casts and some kick-ass females: Batwoman, I’m looking at you!”
Sky enjoys output deals with both HBO and Showtime, and Wright had a chance to be part of the former’s send-off gala screening of Game of Thrones for international guests. In addition, she praised Showtime’s latest miniseries, which airs Stateside at the end of June. “For me, the standout at the Screenings was The Loudest Voice. Russell Crowe’s performance should be an awards magnet.”
Given the considerable inroads made by locally-made content in so many territories nowadays—and which thus puts a squeeze on how much U.S. fare can be accommodated—foreign buyers are generally expected to be painstaking and picky in making their choices of what to buy from the U.S.
That’s definitely the case across Scandinavia, for example.
Commented Denmark’s Romer: “There is a vast range represented in the programming here at the Screenings: from somewhat silly comedies that are unfunny and irrelevant to our needs to solid titles like Catch-22. These shows are increasingly targeted for specific groups, and even though the aim is to have them resonate globally, we are not easily finding ones that will engage a large enough audience for our schedules.”
From chit-chat heard during coffee breaks and over lunch, as well as several dozen interviews with key acquisitions execs from a variety of territories, a number of other themes emerged.
THE EVENT ITSELF WAS INTENSE Things started slowly enough right on the heels of the Upfronts in NYC last Friday, with Screenings by independent sellers MGM, Entertainment One, Lionsgate and HBO, but then quickly shifted into high gear at the different major studio lots. “Barely enough time to see everything of importance,” said one buyer who was still racing between studios on Thursday and had no time to talk.
MORE REASSURING THAN RISKY Per a dozen or so key buyers, the U.S. networks and their affiliate studios opted this season to preserve the status quo, with ample renewals and many reboots, spinoffs and formats of others’ IP. “I sensed the studios were more preoccupied with who owns them and who they’re going to be selling to in future than focused on their development slates,” said Dermot Horan, the director of co-productions and acquisitions of Ireland’s RTE. “Overall, my impression was of safe, predictable fare. It was too much ‘working to formula’ at the networks,” he opined.
Several others were less disappointed.
Hong Kong-based Huang said she was happy to see that “character-driven stories are back” and that well-established stars like Timothy Hutton, Don Johnson and Jimmy Smits grace them. (She could, however, live without so many sex scenes; they are sometimes hard for censors to extricate without jarring the plot, she said.)
And, two Latin buyers from different linear broadcasters suggested that shows like Batwoman, whose lead character is a lesbian, “wouldn’t likely fly” on their older-skewing, more traditional networks.
A RUSH TO BE TOPICAL Several series—from Batwoman to Tommy to Bob Hearts Abishola—made efforts to address issues in the news by featuring gay characters, mixed-race relationships, the immigration crisis, our dysfunctional politics and even the prison system. “All that is fine,” one buyer opined, “as long as these things don’t impede the plot or make character interaction seem stilted or inauthentic.”
DRAMAS There was nothing as talked about as This Is Us three years ago or The Good Doctor two years ago, but consensus did coalesce around a handful of prospects for the coveted title of a bonafide hit. Among them: Prodigal Son (handled by Warner Bros.), neXt (Disney), Evil (CBSSI), Bluff City Law (NBCUniversal) and For Life (Sony).
Not everyone’s shopping list is identical, of course, platforms being now so highly targeted to specific demos and national tastes varying.
Lasarzik further told World Screen that he and the team at ProSiebenSat.1 have identified their three top picks: Warner Bros.’s Prodigal Son, CBS Studios International’s FBI: Most Wanted and Disney’s 9-1-1: Lone Star (a FOX midseason replacement).
“We’re struggling a bit in Germany to accommodate the U.S. product we’re obliged to take—since quite a few U.S. shows do not deliver the ratings and market share that we need,” Lasarzik said. (His station group still has volume deals with Warner Bros., Fox—now under Disney Global Content Sales and Distribution—and CBS Studios International, as well as an arrangement for Disney’s 2019 movie slate, which includes Avengers: Endgame.) It’s unclear how many series his company is obliged to take annually from each of these suppliers, and he would not be drawn to say.
NO LAUGHING MATTER The hunt for the next The Big Bang Theory, a hit abroad as well as Stateside, will be ongoing, as there was no consensus around any one new comedy as the likely next great global laffer. (It typically takes longer, and more episodes, for buyers to assess the prospects of sitcoms.) Big Bang’s creator Chuck Lorre came up with a contender, Bob Hearts Abishola, but several other half-hours were well-received as well, including Disney’s Perfect Harmony, CBSSI’s The Unicorn and Sony’s Indebted.
PREMIUM PRODUCT Game of Thrones is a hard act to follow, and HBO did not have enough to show of its upcoming hopeful, His Dark Materials, to generate buzz. (Damon Lindelof’s Watchman did, per several folks who attended a Sunday showcase, receive high marks.) Over at rival paybox Showtime, the seven-parter about the rise and fall of Fox News chieftain Roger Ailes, called The Loudest Voice, went over well, in a sign that however “American” in subject matter, well-acted, fast-paced, media-centric material can likely find an audience everywhere.
OVERLOOKED NO LONGER Almost all buyers said they’d like to see independent suppliers succeed in the business, and did make an effort to visit the few remaining ones which held viewing sessions. (See separate story about Sony’s slate.) Several buyers during the week made a point of mentioning a few of these alternative properties as having “a different voice” or “arresting characters” or “a different way of telling a story.”
Those that stood out were Resident Alien (UCP Universal Content Productions), The Great (Paramount TV), Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (Lionsgate), Four Weddings and a Funeral (MGM/Universal TV) and Swamp Thing (DC Universe).
Yes, Swamp Thing, one buyer opining that it had “great southern gothic atmospherics” and “delightful chemistry between the two leads” (played by Crystal Reed and Andy Bean).
As ever, de gustibus non est disputandum.
Visit WorldScreen.com’s Fall Season Grid for all the details on the new and returning shows on the U.S. broadcast networks, and a listing of pickups by studio.