HBO trolling for overseas buyers

Pay cable net follows lead of Hollywood majors

More L.A. Screenings coverage

A company that determinedly zigs while others zag is following the lead of the six Hollywood majors this week, screening a trio of its new series for foreign TV program buyers.

HBO unveiled three of its upcoming shows -- the dramedies "Hung," "Bored to Death" and "How to Make it in America" -- to potential buyers beginning Sunday at its Santa Monica offices, and it aims to conclude some licensing deals by week's end.

"Our shows tend to be more adventuresome than the broadcast networks' primetime schedules, and they don't all premier at once in the fall, but we decided to take advantage of so many buyers being here anyway," HBO Enterprises president Charles Schreger said. It's the first time the Time Warner-owned pay cabler has screened for buyers during the weeklong viewing marathon.

Some 1,300 foreign buyers are spending the week in Hollywood to assess, and in some cases immediately ink deals for, the new U.S. series for the fall TV schedule.

American movies used to be the big draw for foreign TV buyers, but during the last decade, U.S. TV series have become must-haves on every station lineup around the world.

"I think we have the best business card in the world," Schreger said, referring to the fact that his Enterprise division licenses almost exclusively the company's series and does not package them with feature films.

Schreger said that another selling point for HBO product internationally is that it consistently offers "low volume but high quality," though he admits the cabler's output generally appeals to upscale pay and free outlets rather than mainstream commercial broadcasters. He also said HBO benefits from "a long history of reordering our own shows. We don't typically cancel shows midway through a season." (The axing of network shows Stateside midway through their season is a frustrating problem for buyers abroad who have acquired series that strike out in the ratings.)

Two buyers from different territories who saw HBO's product Sunday said the new shows seemed "potentially funny and offbeat," though not that different from what the broadcast networks are offering. That could be interpreted as a good thing -- or not -- because such difficult, cult material as HBO's "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" or "The Wire" tends to be highly niche, selling abroad for considerably less per episode than shows perceived as more mainstream fare.

"Hung" stars Thomas Jane as a sports coach who finds his physical assets pay better than his day job; "Death" features Jason Schwartzman as a struggling Brooklyn writer turned private eye; and "America" follows the antics of two New York hustlers.

License fees per episode on recent HBO shows, Schreger said, are holding up "fairly well" despite the global recession and buyers' tighter purse strings.

"We did pretty well internationally with 'True Blood' and even with 'The Wire,' " Schreger said, though of course prices for these shows aren't on the "CSI" or "Desperate Housewives" level. (Outsiders reckon that "Sex and the City" was the most commercial, and lucrative, show ever for HBO, though it was distributed abroad at the time by Paramount.)

As for "In Treatment," which stars Gabriel Bryne as a psychoanalyst, the very cerebral and verbal show has managed to rack up sales almost everywhere -- except, surprisingly, in the U.K.

Most earlier HBO product, including "Sopranos" and "Entourage," was licensed abroad for years by sibling company Warner Bros., but HBO took over its own distribution three years ago, convinced it could do more to enhance its own brand.

Schreger and his team have since established output deals in several territories -- with France Telecom in Gaul, Showtime in Australia, Canal Plus in Scandinavia and satcaster Orbit in the Mideast -- but in most major territories, they play the field. He said he expects to complete several key deals by week's end.

Meanwhile, swaths of foreign buyers continued Tuesday to traipse to one or another major studio lot for viewing sessions during the day and private dinners with international TV studio execs during the evening. None of the Hollywood majors is hosting a huge backlot event this year, in keeping with the more sober tone of the proceedings and the world at large. Nor were any of the execs from the studios prepared late Tuesday to talk about any program deals that may have been concluded with foreign buyers.
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