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(L-R): The Wonder Years, The Cleaning Lady, Good Sam, Queens ABC/CBS/Fox

LA Screenings: Can Annual Sales Shindig Survive Straight-To-Series Strategies & Post-Pandemic Policies?

The LA Screenings, the annual sales event for international TV buyers, prospered in a linear world where the only zooming was done in a rental car between studio lots in Burbank and top execs were able to enter million dollar parties riding on elephants.

This year, it’s once again virtual with global buyers tuning in on their computers without an In-N-Out Burger or Pink’s hotdog in sight.

The pandemic hasn’t just ruined the trip, where foreign execs are treated rather opulently by the distribution divisions of the major studios, but has impacted what content buyers can see and when they can see it.

The increase in straight-to-series orders, a reduction in traditional pilots and a year-round development process has meant that there is much less to screen in the days and weeks after the Upfronts. For instance, shows like CSI: Vegas and Law & Order: For the Defense are likely to register healthy interest, but there’s nothing to see of them yet.

Post-Covid travel policies may also mean that the number of execs willing or able to fly thousands of miles to see something that they can see just as easily at home is likely to diminish.

This has forced the studios to change the way they do business, forcing some to question whether the LA Screenings will ever return in its traditional form. As one buyer told Deadline, it has become a bit of a “glamorous jolly” in recent years, even if there hasn’t been an elephant seen in years.

Smallwood CBS

The way each of the studios – Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony, ViacomCBS and Warner Bros – is handling sales of broadcast network titles this year is also different and there are also question marks over the international rights to a some of high-profile titles for the 2021/22 season.

Sony Pictures Television, for instance, is not holding an event, virtual or otherwise, this year. The international sales division of the studio, run by the newly promoted Keith LeGoy, has been changing the way that it approached the event in recent years. In 2019, it hosted an upfronts-style presentation at the Wilshire Ebell theater and last year, two months into the pandemic, launched a virtual and on-demand service for its new shows, largely on the cable side. This year, it will focus on year-round screenings to buyers, in person where safe.

It will still, however, want to shift Fantasy Island, the Roselyn Sanchez-fronted reboot that is launching on Fox in August. The studio will also have the international rights to Fox’s U.S. version of anthology crime drama Accused, from Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and David Shore, but that straight-to-series order is for the 2022/23 season.

Warner Bros. launched a virtual presentation at the end of last week to promote its new catalog. The studio has the rights to broadcast series such as Fox comedy Pivoting and drama The Cleaning Lady and The CW series All American: Homecoming and Naomi.

Robert Blair, President of Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, who said he would have preferred to host buyers in person, opened the virtual presentation, saying, “Wow, two years have passed since we last met here in LA and what an extraordinary two years. Those two years have brought unprecedented changes to the world, our industry and I am sure all of our respective businesses. Standing still hasn’t been an option and I most certainly not for us at WarnerMedia.”

He joked that there would be no long lines for coffee or no lobster rolls for lunch outside the Steven J. Ross Theater, but the presentation looked spookily similar to years gone by, albeit with fewer foam fingers.

Buyers are also getting a taste of the entire WarnerMedia library for the first time. Blair ostensibly replaced Jeffrey Schlesinger, formerly President, Warner Bros. Worldwide Television Distribution and the man on top of the aforementioned elephant, who left as part of the company’s layoffs last summer. Blair’s team is now distributing HBO, HBO Max and Turner networks content for the first time under the same umbrella.

“This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to welcome you as WarnerMedia Content Licensing, representing Warner Bros Television, HBO, Turner and now HBO Max. What does this mean for [international buyers]? One point of contact and one voice. This will enable us to serve you better as we help you to find innovative ways to grow your audiences, and your subscribers.”

Blair was joined by Channing Dungey, Chairman, Warner Bros. Television Group and Ann Sarnoff, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group.

Sarnoff said that she hopes that this is the first and last time that the company will have to host the event virtually. She also stressed the importance of international revenues to fund its programming. “It’s only with your continued support and partnership that we can create these high quality, high budget shows for [international] viewers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we cannot do it without you.”

Dungey, who presented the slate of broadcast pilots as well as HBO Max’s Head of the Class and Starz’ Shining Vale, reiterated this. “After the year we’ve all been through, one thing has become abundantly clear, we are all connected. Simply put, we couldn’t do what we do without you, our international partners and when we develop programming, we’re always thinking about shows that can be universal. We want viewers, no matter where they are to see themselves in our characters and in the stories we tell.”

ViacomCBS has a large swathe of procedurals, titles that traditionally still sell well to linear broadcasters around the world, and comedies on its latest slate. The company’s Global Distribution Group hosted a virtual event this morning, Tuesday June 1 where President Dan Cohen, who took over from veteran Armando Nunez last year, addressed buyers.

Cohen, and Lisa Kramer, who recently moved from London to LA to become President of International TV Licensing, gave a 40-minute presentation to buyers from the set of Entertainment Tonight, hosted by Kevin Frazier and Nischelle Turner. The pair promoted the company’s movie slate before talking about its catalog of new pilots.

Ghosts CBS

The company is screening pilots for Sophia Bush medical drama Good Sam and Pete Holmes’ bowling comedy Smallwood and it also secured the international rights to comedy Ghosts (left), which is a co-production between Lionsgate, BBC Studios and CBS Studios.

However, it does not have much to screen for many of its major titles including CSI: Vegas, FBI: International, NCIS: Hawai’i, The CW’s reboot of 4400 or ABC limited series Women of the Movement from Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment. That doesn’t mean these titles won’t sell – procedurals particularly continue to be the bedrock of commercial broadcasters around the world – but may mean deals take a little longer than usual.

Cohen said that production for the CBS franchises would start over the summer and buyers would be able to stream episodes “later this year”.

Buyers logging on to NBC Universal Global Distribution’s screening portals will get to see pilots for comedies American Auto and Grand Crew and drama Ordinary Joe, starring James Wolk. The Belinda Menendez-run division secured the rights to the latter despite being the second studio behind 20th Television. The company also has rights to La Brea, which is filming in Australia, and Law & Order: For The Defense, which teams super producer Dick Wolf with former CSI showrunner Carol Mendelsohn, but given both were handed straight-to-series orders, there are no pilots to screen of these. NBC still has decisions to make on its 2021 crop of pilots including Demi Lovato’s Hungry or drama Getaway, so buyers will need to keep an eye on pick up news for those titles later in the year.

Foreign channels interested in the sound of Fox’s country music drama Monarch, as well as Dan Harmon’s animated series Krapopolis will have to wait to find out how they can buy these shows. The network, which has also been employing a straight-to-series model, is still working out distribution details since it started owning shows for the first time after selling its studio assets to Disney. Deadline understands that it will most likely be several months until an arrangement is nailed down – for reference, Ben Silverman and Howard Owen’s Propagate handles international distribution for unscripted titles from its Fox Alternative Entertainment unit.

Disney, which once prided itself on opening the LA Screenings with a talent-heavy part on the lot on the Sunday night, will also be doing things differently this year.

The Big Leap Fox

The company’s distribution division, which is now run by Justin Connolly, has had a slew of names over the last ten years and is now known as Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution. It is not doing a traditional marketplace wide screening process this year, instead opting for select virtual screenings for certain content in territories. Shows that it is hoping to sell include The Wonder Years reboot and hip hop drama Queens, which are both for the fall, as well as midseason ABC titles Maggie and Abbott Elementary. The latter is somewhat surprising given that Warner Bros. is the lead studio. It is also globally shopping ballet dramedy The Big Leap and Our Kind of People, which are both produced by 20th Television for Fox, although the latter was a straight-to-series order.

The Mouse House is one of a number of the studios, along with NBCU and WarnerMedia, that has seen streaming become an increasingly important part of its strategy. This has obviously led to some questions as to what shows are available internationally.

In addition to Disney+, which is in dozens of territories, the company also has Star, which exists as a standalone service in a number of markets including in Latin America from next month and integrated with Disney+ in Europe, Canada, Australia and some parts of Asia.

ABC series will not exclusively air on Star, but as shows such as Big Sky, the Disney-owned network’s breakout drama of last year, premiered on the streamer in a number of international territories, it’s becoming clear, things are changing.

WarnerMedia’s roll-out of HBO Max in certain countries, most notably in Latin America, Spain and the Nordics, and Paramount+’s global launch has also had buyers ponder whether these streamers will become the de facto home to an increasing number of studio-produced originals

Dungey highlighted a swathe of HBO Max shows such as Gossip Girl, Peacemaker, Green Lantern, Sex Lives of College Girls and DMZ, and Blair told buyers to speak to local reps to discover full availability. This was clear with a note on the studio’s screening site that pointed out that “not all shows are available in all territories”.

ViacomCBS is also selling a slew of streaming titles such as Peacock’s Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, formerly known as Langdon, and The Godfather making of series The Offer, which will premiere on Paramount+. Kramer alluded to the company’s own fledgling streamer, saying, “We have enough great content to supply our own platforms and other content providers the world over.”

Some sources across the studios hit back at the suggestion that international distribution is fundamentally changing due to streaming, given that global sales of broadcast titles are still a significant source of revenue for these conglomerates, but there will undoubtedly be increased windowing conversations as the world becomes smaller and global streaming services run out of Hollywood are likely to eventually become the norm ala Netflix.

Many buyers will inevitably return to LA in May 2022, if they safely can, with many saying that it is a good opportunity to meet producers and talk co-productions, but the traditional boondoggle may never be what it once was.

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