Inside the L.A. Screenings, TV's Global Upfront

With upfront mania gripping the business this week in New York, a hardy band of studio and network executives on the West Coast is getting set for some very important pitches of their own. Their targets are international acquisitions execs, not Madison Avenue media buyers, but the events are yin and yang. As with the Manhattan hustle, billions hang in the balance and the stakes for major U.S. media companies have never been higher.

Welcome to the L.A. Screenings, Hollywood’s biggest TV market of the year.

The Screenings, held annually since the 1960s, ramp up as the upfronts wind down. This year’s edition, May 19-27, will feature all the new fall shows, full episode looks that follow close on the heels of the teasers and trailers shown to media buyers during the upfronts. In all, about 1,500 international television execs attend. Mixed in with buyers from networks around the world are major sellers such as the studio arms of the major U.S. broadcast and cable networks, plus top indies such as Lionsgate, ITV, Endemol Shine and eOne. They flock to marathon sessions on studio lots, dine in tents, hit high-wattage parties and schmooze with stars. “It’s our most important event,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of the CBS Global Distribution Group. “You only get one chance to make a good impression.”

Buyers are equally fervent. “It teaches you everything you need to know about television,” said Zelda Stewart, head of acquisitions for Italy’s Mediaset. “You see the best of the best and the incredible machine that Hollywood is.”

Some 2016 trends have already surfaced. Among the biggest: the surge of digital buyers, especially local telcos, up the upside; and continued pockets of resistance to Hollywood fare on the down. Programmers’ ability to reach audiences is expanding rapidly with new channels and digital platforms driving growth. Netflix is available in 190 countries, Amazon is in five and looking to grow. They’re vying with new and established local rivals.

“There’s been a digital explosion,” Nunez says. “What is really amazing is the growth of digital platforms locally. Some of them are extensions of traditional platforms and some are new, started by telcos. Over the last two years, we’ve done more business with those local [services] than with Netflix and Amazon combined.”

The tide of universal interest that lifts blockbuster movies to global dominance rarely exists in TV. Netflix, mindful of that, is investing heavily in localized content to support its global push, and Hollywood keeps finding stubborn pockets of resistance.

Ghislain Barrois, managing director of acquisitions for Mediaset Espana, called the Screenings an engrossing “one-week master class in what’s being made.” Yet the Spanish market, he noted, has almost completely dispensed with U.S. dramas in favor of local Spanish-language fare.

“We used to have output deals with every studio but that is done— to our dismay,” he said, since producing original, scripted drama is extremely costly. In part, he blames complex windowing by studios in cross-platform deals that he says makes product available elsewhere before it airs on broadcast. “What is happening is the cohabitation of free and pay TV doesn’t work too well, and streaming makes it even harder,” Barrois said.

Marion Edwards, international television president at 20th Century Fox, thinks the shift in Spain may have started with the writers’ strike in 2007-2008. “We missed a year and that gave a tremendous push to local production,” she said. Such anomalies—along with economic cycles, currency valuation and the Olympics—animate dealmakers’ conversations.

The L.A. Screenings, conceived of in the dawn of the three-network days of the 1960s, have been around in their current form for at least 30 years. Their stature has grown as international sales become an increasingly big chunk of overall television revenue. Laura Martin, entertainment analyst with Needham & Co., estimates that international makes up 15% of total TV licensing for the major studios and is growing twice as fast as in the U.S.

Formats, both scripted and non-scripted, are traveling back and forth across regions. Local coproduction deals are multiplying. Demand for content is surging. Yet buyers, challenged by economic constraints and local audiences who are inundated with options are exceeding careful and not shy about speaking up.

A bit of romance, “which seems to have completely disappeared from TV,” would be nice, said Stewart of Italy’s Mediaset. “And just how many films can we make into series, digging out old stories and franchises?” she asked, citing Lethal Weapon, Frequency and Training Day, all from Warner Bros; Emerald City and Taken from ABC and The Exorcist from Fox.

That said, she called Training Day one of her “personal possible favorites” among pilot hopefuls, along with Eyewitness (ABC), APB (Fox), Zoobiquity (Fox), The Shooter (Paramount), Berlin Station (Paramount). She’s curious to see Drew (CBS), Riverdale (WB) and Dream Team (WB).

Her ideal would be another Grey’s Anatomy or House. “When House was canceled, I think we could have kept buying it for a lot longer,” she said wistfully.

Mediaset acquires over a thousand episodes of series a year from the U.S. for its free TV channels alone. It’s got output deals with Universal and Warner so acquires almost all of their new series automatically— which means Stewart and her colleagues are watching lots of shows they’ve bought but never seen.

Dubbing, favored over subtitles in many markets, prolongs the lead-time between when an international network buys a show and when it airs. That can be excruciating for programmers whose job depends on capturing the zeitgeist. Sometimes, networks prefer to have a full season ready before launching a series. “Dubbing takes a little while so they wait until they have them all dubbed and ready to go. That’s fine, but it’s six months after it started [in the U.S],” noted Ben Pyne, president of global distribution for Disney Media Networks. Social media can sometimes offer spoilers aplenty, as with Downton Abbey, Sherlock and other U.K. series that have aired on their home turf up to several months before U.S. viewers see them.

Canucks Amok

The most aggressive buyers at the Screenings, with the fastest turnaround, are Canadian networks looking to nail down primetime lineups ahead of their own upfronts, which arrive this year on June 8 in Toronto. They need to secure shows to run in the same time slots as they do on U.S. networks, which are retransmitted across Canada. A rule called simultaneous substitution, authorized by the national broadcast authority, allows local or regional over-the-air signals to substitute the signal of the U.S. station when the two stations broadcast identical programming simultaneously.

“Once CBS and CW announce their schedules, we, along with the other Canadian broadcasters, have all of the intelligence to enter into negotiations,” said Mike Cosentino, senior VP, programming, CTV Networks and CraveTV.

He said Canadians are a bit more “left-leaning” than U.S. audiences but have similar tastes. “I think we laugh at the same things, in general.” He’s looking forward to seeing Kevin Can Wait (Sony/CBS), Matt LeBlanc’s new CBS comedy and Toast, the new drama by Shonda Rhimes (ABC).

Cosentino remarked on the rise of superheroes fixation, with Arrow begetting Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and Supergirl and an ongoing trend of rebooting old series like Hawaii Five-0. Time travel is big, he said. Sweeping Game of Thrones-like dramas such as ITV’s Beowulf are on the rise internationally.

U.S. studio execs said procedurals and action series still travel best. Dramas and comedies are hit-or-miss. Producers and show-runners at the Screenings try to walk international buyers through the arc of each series and the thought process behind it.

“We’re dealing with a savvy group. It’s not just about a fancy pilot. It’s about why we are doing the project we’re showing them. About getting to 13 episodes and 22 episodes to a season,” Nunez said.

”A key is to find the right homes, to reach audiences and maximize each show’s potential,” said Peter Iacono, president of international television and digital distribution at Lionsgate, which will be showcasing Feed the Beast (on AMC), Greenleaf (OWN), Graves (EPIX) and Nightcap (Pop) this year.

On the digital front, Southeast Asia is among the most dynamic markets with a number of new services. Singapore-based telecom group Singtel started Hooq, a joint venture with Sony and Warner Bros., and Catcha Group of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Evolution Media founded iFlix. In March, Sky invested $45 million in iFlix.

Last fall, Japan’s five major commercial broadcasters based in Tokyo jointly launched a new streaming service called TVer. In Europe, French conglomerate Vivendi’s recent deal to acquire Mediaset’s pay-TV business as part of a broad partnership includes plan to launch a pan-European digital streaming service.

Customizing Content

The studios’ international business includes local language versions of popular shows. CBS’ The Good Wife Korea will premiere on July 8. Sony is currently producing a local version of Mad About You in Argentina — following an adaptation in China that premiered in January. “It’s on the air in China and doing well,” says Mike Wald, executive VP of international distribution for Sony Pictures Television. He called adaptations “a significant part of our business.”

AMC’s version of Grey’s Anatomy is Fear the Walking Dead, which Harold Gronenthal, executive VP of programming and operations of AMC/Sundance Global, said does well on AMC’s network in every international market. AMC is experimenting with running the show simultaneously in the U.S. and foreign markets. “It will be at 9 a.m. in Singapore and 3 a.m. in Europe. We air it again in primetime… in part to give the fan base immediate access to the show, in part to take a stab at piracy.”

In a conundrum that testifies to the rapid pace of change in the international television landscape, he noted Fox has international rights to The Walking Dead —since AMC Global didn’t exist in 2009 when the show first aired. “They’ve played it on Fox International Channels,” Gronenthal said. “Eventually we can get the rights back. It’s a successful show, so if I put my corporate hat on, it’s good.”

Netflix, which only rolled into southern Europe last October, hasn’t been able to buy back international right to House of Cards there from Sky. Sky’s archrival Mediaset, on the other hand, agreed to share Orange Is the New Black.

Everywhere, edgy fare on streaming services and cable has upped the ante in drama and created an explosion in the genre that’s making it harder for non-scripted series, an international staple, to break through.

“We have seen scripted boom significantly. That’s made it harder for non-scripted, which has had to push to be higher quality and more original,” said Ed Simpson, executive VP of business development and international for ITV America. He said the company, the prolific producer of Pawn Stars, Duck Dynasty and dozens of other reality shows under 10 banners, wants to build out its scripted business. Meanwhile, it is focusing on premium non-scripted fare like Brain Surgery Live and Billy the Kid on National Geographic and KillingFields on Discovery.

Around the world, he said, “new entrants to the market like Netflix and Hulu mean more opportunities for audiences to see content and a shift of ad dollars to digital players. So we are seeing broadcasters and cable networks move from being volume players to premium players…Scripted is one way, but it’s the expensive way. The other way is non-scripted,” he said.

Character-driven unscripted programming, liked MTV’s Jersey Shore, is difficult overseas, he added. Formatted is better.

Portfolio Strategy

Overall, economies in a number of regions have been less than stellar in recent years. But studio execs say their global reach helps buffer them from shifting economics—and viewer tastes—in any single one.

“Certainly we are impacted but luckily we play on a world stage that is large and diversified and represent such a wide variety of catalog and product,” said Sony’s Wald.

And tastes change back, said Disney’s Pyne. “It’s true that one year Spain won’t like dramas, but then they will very much like them. Australia’s going through a phase where they are very into reality shows.” They both said there are shows that do well in just about every territory. Pyne cited his studio’s Criminal Minds, Gray’s Anatomy, Castle and Quantico, while Wald mentioned Sony’s The Blacklist and Outlander.

Trouble is, you only know which ones after the fact.

Fox’s Edwards was shocked, for instance, by the poor reception of Homeland abroad. “I truly thought that would translate into any language, but it didn’t,” she said. “I don’t really know why. It had a lot of fans in the acquisitions community, the executives who were bringing it for their channels.”

She noted that Homeland performs very well in English-speaking territories (Canada, Sweden, the U.K. and Australia) and is a huge show for Fox in SVOD in every international market.

The international studio folks said that given the importance of overseas markets, they’re usually brought in to view all pilots at an early stage. “Ten years ago when I started becoming more involved in international, no one cared,” Pyne said. “But today, in fact, there is a group of international executives who report to me, who viewed every pilot, and we look forward to having them involved in the development process. It’s been one of [Disney/ABC Television Group president] Ben Sherwood’s priorities to get into the process as early as we can. But I won’t lie to you, we have work to do.”

But TV shows still need to succeed stateside first, unlike the film business, where that scarcely seems matter.

“It’s apples to oranges,” says Nunez.