Comedy showcase focuses on digital deals

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NEW YORK - The English-language portion of the 25th annual Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal heats up Wednesday night as industry folks are set to check out the first of the New Faces showcases, which traditionally attract managers, agents and network executives in droves.

But while New Faces has in the past often been about young standups looking to sell their sitcom idea, JFL vp, programing Maureen Taran has promised a different approach to the showcase in her first year in charge, with performers not all being super-young standups who want to sell a sitcom idea. Instead, the show will feature a broader range of ages and styles.

It is just one of various changes as JFL has worked to stay current amid the continuing digital revolution and the decline of the network sitcom.

As a result, the festival will also offer a range of new programming, including its first-ever sketch showcase, a musical comedy show, an expanded lineup of one-person shows and a screening of selected viral Web videos creating buzz.

"Yes, you are used to seeing a lot of standup comedy, and that's terrific," says Taran. "But there are so many other things going on that are funny and maybe not necessarily funny."

In line with these changes, festival goers and organizers predict that more JFL focus will be on a likely slew of new media age type deals rather than the rare big TV deal.

Festival chief operating officer Bruce Hills is proud of JFL's record for dealmaking, pointing out the more than 60 studio and network deals struck in Montreal over the years. Carlos Mencia, Kevin James, Steve Harvey, Chris Titus, Craig Ferguson, Mo'Nique and Dave Attell are among the many names on his JFL deal tipsheet.

But he agrees with other industry insiders that these days the definition of deal goes far beyond the old media model.

"It is not about broadcast network TV deals only now," says Mark Scroggs, agent at David Shapira and Associates. "The day of the 7 minute set, a development deal and possible stardom is over - for the time being at least."

Talent showcases have quietly but noticeably changed along with industry trends.

When his agency had its most recent showcase, it had broadcast development and casting, studio execs, ad-based TV and online content producers, radio, direct to video, cable, on demand and alternative execs and producers there. "The talent showcasing reflected what these buyers are looking for," Scroggs said. "We got a great response from the new buyers. I never thought 20 years ago I would be selling clients for ad-supported webisodes, cable hosting, satellite radio etc. at the same time as I am working on TV, theatre and film projects."

As a result of this changing marketplace and their changing needs, industry folks seem to give a thumbs-up to the broadened programming offers Taran is bringing to the stage. "I like that they are having the sketch showcase this year, which should be interesting," says John Tae Lee, talent manager at Shapiro/West & Associates.

Indeed, one thing that several industry insiders say they are looking forward to in Montreal is seeing a lot of different types of comedy and performers - from traditional standups and one-person shows to sketch troupes, musical comedy, comedic films and videos and alternative acts.

According to conversations with several attendees, hot industry tickets look to include the sketch performers, New Faces, the Masters showcase of more experienced performers looking for their next career step, U.K. prince of crude Jim Jeffries, Scottish observational comedy favorite Danny Bhoy and Monty Python-type group Spymonkey.

"Tune In" - a new offering that Taran designed to showcase such musical comedy acts as the Barenaked Ladies' Kevin Hearn, Kid Koala, Nick Thune ("Knocked Up," "License to Wed") and hip-hop freestyle sextet Freestyle Love Supreme - as well as the Andy Kindler-hosted Alternative Comedy Show also look set to attract industry folks looking for offbeat gems.

Hills says that serving the changing industry needs "is an important focus for us," but he also has high hopes that this year's diverse anniversary festival fare will attract record crowds among regular comedy fans.

"We want to see 2 million-plus people" turn out to the indoor and street entertainment offerings, he says.

With this being the 25th edition of JFL, some industry folks said they felt they just couldn't miss the fun, the programs and the social opportunities in Montreal.

Says John Tae Lee: "I don't have anyone up there this year, but I'm going up to enjoy the shows and do a little socializing."

The room for socializing at JFL is bigger-than-ever this year as the main industry hotel is no longer the Delta, but the Hyatt Regency Montreal, which has a bigger bar and is used to big spectacles such as the Montreal jazz festival, according to festival organizers.

It will be interesting to see if more space for socializing also means more dealmaking.

What industry insiders agree on though is that comedy deals these days take diverse shapes and forms that reflect broader industry changes in the digital age.
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