Flexible episode orders, the spectre of studios’ own streaming services, the opportunity to party with 50 Cent and an In N Out Burger-fueled riot dominated the chatter among international buyers at this week’s LA Screenings. While buying traditional network series may have become slightly more complicated for the global market, and the weeklong sales pitch is no longer quite as opulent as it used to be, there was plenty of interest in the latest slate of dramas and comedies.
Series such as the CBS Studios International-distributed Evil, Warner Bros’ Prodigal Son and Batwoman and Disney’s Emergence were name-checked by foreign buyers as some of the most interesting titles for international.
It was a transitional year for some, particularly Disney and Fox following the merger. Buyers would previously have spent two separate days viewing shows from these studios, but are now treated to one slate from Walt Disney Global Content Sales & Distribution featuring the likes of ABC Studios-produced Stumptown and Emergence and 20th Century Fox Television-produced 9-1-1: Lone Star.
Gone was the traditional glitzy Disney International Upfronts event, a Sunday night fixture, with more focus from Janice Marinelli’s team on bringing its two sales teams together for screenings in uncertain times.
Forthcoming streaming platform Disney+ was among the global SVOD services that had buyers wondering about the exclusive international rights to the studios’ shows. The same question was asked of NBCUniversal about its forthcoming ad-supported service, and to a lesser extent WarnerMedia’s OTT operation. One buyer told me that some questions about rights had been left unanswered but wasn’t sure whether this was as a result of a lack of clarity or subterfuge.
Stuart Baxter, president of international distribution at eOne, questioned how many of the network shows would be available exclusively to buyers. “If buyers can’t have shows exclusively and may potentially have to share them, they may be less willing [to buy], but for those companies that control full international rights, there is still demand.”
Deputy received particular interest from British, French and Germany buyers, who attended an eOne event on Saturday to hear about the Stephen Dorff-fronted lawman drama.
But Jeffrey Schlesinger, President, Warner Bros. Worldwide Television Distribution, which is particularly hot on Michael Sheen’s Prodigal Son and The CW”s “Devil Wears Prada-meets-Fame” Katy Keene, dismissed such claims. He told Deadline, “One thing that people keep talking about is that they don’t know what is available. It’s very simple at Warner Bros: what you see is what you can buy. Every show is available, there are no limitations.”
He admitted it’s “theoretically possible” that Netflix or Amazon could step in with a multi-territory bid but that buyers shouldn’t worry about the studio’s forthcoming SVOD service. “We’ve been very clear, if you’ve got money, we’ve got programs. Whatever may or may not happen with our streaming service around the world, that’s not for today. The shows are all available in any way, shape or form, as they always have been. We’re open for business.”
Corporate consolidation was a major topic of conversation among buyers. “The issues from the buyers were related to the tremendous amount of change that we have seen in the industry including the Disney/ Fox consolidation, AT&T / Warner Media, Comcast/ Sky and some curiosity about some of the rumblings at CBS as well. There’s also a lot of discussion about the studios’ direct-to-consumer ambitions in different parts of the world or globally versus licensing their content to third-party platforms like we’ve done. There are questions about accessibility of content in the future,” said Armando Nunez, President and CEO of CBS Distribution Group, which received particular interest in Walter Goggins’ comedy The Unicorn, its Dick Wolf FBI spinoff and the return of 90210.
The cast of the latter caused a storm at the CBS Studios International screening on Saturday morning. “There was a huge line of buyers that wanted to take their photos with the cast,” said Nunez. “Beverly Hills, 90210 was a very big show around the world during its first iteration and the cast is obviously still very popular. I think there’s going to be a lot of natural interest in a show like this.”
Sony Pictures Television and Lionsgate, which has the international rights to NBC musical drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, are among the other independent studios. SPT’s president of distribution Keith LeGoy said Sony was in a “fortunate” position given the current environment. “We have a very clear position, we are fiercely independent, we want to partner with our buyers and not compete with them and that gives buyers a lot of certainty. If they buy a show, they know we’re not going to be putting it on a competitor streaming service because we have no plans to launch one. I’m sure if you’re a buyer that level of uncertainty about what you might be buying, makes life more difficult,” he added.
Sony had a particularly good year at the network upfronts with four of its six pilots being picked up – Russell Hornsby-fronted procedural Lincoln, based on the Bone Collector novels; Hank Steinberg and Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson’s legal injustice thriller For Life; and multi-cam comedies Indebted and United We Fall. LeGoy told Deadline that the studio approached the screenings differently this year with an upfronts-style presentation rather than a weeklong set of screenings, apart from for Canadian buyers, who must hustle out of town with a full slate to announce next week.
It’s understood that Lincoln and For Life are likely to be slightly shorter orders than is traditional, a trend that percolated the upfronts, and particularly at NBC. “There is no doubt that the international market still likes longer orders than is becoming more the norm. Sixteen episodes might be right for them rather than 22,” said eOne’s Baxter, adding that what’s often more important for global broadcasters is to be able to air a series in one stretch rather than break for hiatuses or holidays.
Warner Bros’ Schlesinger added that shorter runs may actually be beneficial to international broadcasters. “Twenty-two episodes is not the default mode anymore; a show can be successful with [fewer episodes]. When you look to Europe, the English, the German and the French, none of them make shows that are 22 episodes, so sometimes 22 for them is tough and a shorter run makes it easier to schedule, especially if they don’t have to deal with hiatuses and they can go day-and-date.”
Securing international rights to top networks shows is becoming increasingly competitive, particularly as the studio divisions of network regularly come on board to co-produce shows. Deadline understands the foreign rights to a number of shows were being negotiated right up to the last minute with high-level bargaining.
Sony’s LeGoy said, “International rights for big important dramas are always going to sought after and clearly there are conversations happening with our partners about those rights and we’re very happy that we have the international rights on Lincoln and For Life.”
“Everyone wants to keep the global rights and with the studios all part of bigger groups now, the number of [networks] you can work with and keep international is contracting,” added Baxter.
Some titles are even being co-distributed. ABC’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty, which is produced by Keshet Studios, Universal TV and ABC Studios, is being co-distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution and Keshet International. It’s not clear which company will take what territories, but in the past, Keshet, which originated the project based on its own Israeli series, has taken Asian rights to shows. Belinda Menendez, President & Chief Revenue Officer, Global Distribution and International, NBCUniversal, told Deadline, “Dealmaking on co-productions has been successful for us in the past, with shows like The Brave and Gone, and our clients understand the nuances of this model.”
NBCU was high on NBC’s Jimmy Smits-fronted legal procedural Bluff City Law and Fox’s Not Just Me, which one buyer said could potentially be this year’s This Is Us. “Our buyers love seeing Jimmy Smits back on TV leading big, bold David vs. Goliath legal stories each week,” said Menendez.
Comedy has always had a trickier time at the LA Screenings than drama, largely given that many buyers wait to see whether half-hour shows are renewed before taking the plunge. One of the buzziest comedies of the year is undoubtedly Bob ♥ Abishola, Chuck Lorre’s latest for CBS, which tells the tale of a middle-aged sock businessman from Detroit who unexpectedly falls for his cardiac nurse, a Nigerian immigrant.
Lorre’s brand of multi-camera has always made its way around the world, and Schlesinger doesn’t expect Bob ♥ Abishola to be any different. “Anybody who has success with The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Mike and Molly or Mom is going to be boarding the Chuck Lorre train for Bob ♥ Abishola,” he said. However, he admitted that the emoji-laden title has confused a few buyers. “A couple of people said they didn’t know how to do it on their EPG but they’ll figure it out. We haven’t had that circumstance before, but that is the title of the show.”
The LA Screenings are certainly a less rambunctious affair than previously were when each studio would treat buyers to lavish on-lot parties with celebrities and showrunners (and cocktails and elephants). However, while Disney gave their bash a miss this year, Sony stepped in to provide the entertainment, allowing buyers the chance to have a beer with the likes of 50 Cent (right) and Jessica Alba. It held its event on Tuesday night at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, with a big afterparty following a presentation of its latest titles.
One of the usual highlights of the week for buyers is the appearance of the In N Out Burger stand at CBS Studios International’s screening. This year, however, a burger mishap caused near riots. “We did have one incident one day this week. The grills on the truck broke down and they weren’t able to serve the burgers. We had chaos and near riots as a result. But we were able to make everybody happy,” said Nunez.
Traditionally, the week is focused on network titles, as well as a handful of cable and OTT series (Warner Bros, for instance, screened Swamp Thing, Veronica Mars and DC Comics’ Harley Quinn, while CBS Studios International showed its Russell Crowe-fronted Roger Ailes miniseries The Loudest Voice), but there are an increasing number of international projects on offer.
In April, NBCUniversal began to fold in Sky Vision’s sales unit to its own distribution division following Comcast’s purchase of the pay-TV broadcaster. It is now selling a number of Sky Vision titles off its lot, with a separate Sky Vision screening at the H-Club, including Patrick Dempsey-fronted Devils. The show is the first Italian series to debut at the LA Screenings; it features the Grey’s Anatomy star as a CEO banker alongside Suburra’s Alessandro Borghi and is produced by Lux Vide and Orange Studio for Sky Italia. Lux Vide CEO Luca Bernabei told Deadline that was “extremely proud” to bring a high-end Italian series to L.A. for the first time. “We immediately agreed on the fact that we had in our hands an innovative international product from many points of a view: content, genre, storytelling,” he said, adding that the 10-part series will “reveal the secrets of the world of global finance and its power to control our countries.”