L.A. Screenings feels pain of upfront cutbacks

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The scaling back of this year's broadcast upfront presentations to advertisers is trickling down to the L.A. Screenings.

The Screenings, an annual event following the upfronts in which program buyers from around the world descend on Hollywood to view the new primetime pilots, will be toned down this year with shorter screening days and fewer bells and whistles. For starters: fewer glitzy studio extravaganzas on the backlots, fewer goodie bags and fewer chances to mingle with the stars.

The big question: Will a lower-profile, pilot-lite event eventually translate into fewer dollars for the Hollywood distributors of series worldwide?

"The downturn couldn't come at a worse time, in that the Hollywood studios now depend mightily on international TV revenues to keep their bottom lines buoyant," one international TV executive said. "And U.S. shows have been doing gangbusters around the world for the last five years. Now, with fewer scripted shows to license, there's likely to be a crimp."

In the biggest sign of how different things will be, the Disney bash that traditionally kicks off the L.A. Screenings marathon in May has been canceled.

Traditionally, some 1,500 international program buyers mingle with the stars of the distributor's new primetime shows (most of which are destined stateside for ABC) after a formal presentation of trailers by top brass at the Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. The event is known as the Disney Upfronts and leads in to the 10-day viewathon at the various studio lots.

This time around Disney's international executives still will be on hand throughout the Screenings to huddle with their customers, but much of the hoopla — not only at Disney but all around town — will be absent. The screenings themselves will likely unfold over one week rather than 10 or 12 days.

"It's about international TV executives being smart," a senior executive at another Hollywood studio said. "With the domestic upfronts so scaled back, why on earth would they go ahead on such a massive scale as previous years in international? It would not make sense."

For one thing, there will almost certainly be fewer new pilots to screen, though no one is yet able to put a number on what will be available for sale to the foreign visitors.

Only the Canadian buyers have to open their wallets during the Screenings as they announce their own Yank-heavy TV skeds several weeks later in the Great White North.

Other foreign buyers come to town to see what they have to take if they have output deals with the majors, or to cherry-pick a few series that might be available on the open market in any given territory.

While there was period during the writers strike when the broadcast upfronts and the Screenings were in limbo, the nets' recent decision to hold upfront presentations — or some sort of an event in the case of NBC — in May, removed any doubt that the Screenings would be held as well.

CBS Paramount is so far the only international TV distributor to go on record stating that it will give screenings for foreign buyers (May 17-22), but it is likely that the other majors will make similar efforts during the third or fourth week of May.

And several leading international TV executives say they are planning to attend as usual.

"I haven't spent two and a half years building a portfolio of U.S. shows and building relationships to stop now," said Jay Kandola, director of acquisitions for Britain's ITV commercial network.

Kandola is going to bring the same size team as previous years, but admits they will probably have less work to do.

"We probably won't need five days, some screenings might be only a half a day rather than a day, there are going to be fewer shows," he said.

"We usually see 35-40 shows and we're expecting to see between 12-18 shows, so it's a lot less."

Some studios are saying that they only need a half a day and they might not have full pilots, since some shows will be presentations.

In the wake of the writers strike, most U.S. broadcast nets have vowed to shake up the development model by doing fewer, shorter, less expensive pilots called presentations, and, in some cases, forgoing the pilot stage altogether and going straight to series. That translates into fewer pilots for international buyers to screen and more long clips or presentations.

"Despite the decreased volume, there is definitely going to be stuff to see — just not on the colossal level that it usually would be," said Richard Wolfe, head buyer for Sky TV in the U.K. "One thing that might happen is that people are less likely to have a bunfight over the pilots."

Buyers won't regret the absence of the parties or the hospitality or the goodie bags, Wolfe said. "We are not there to go to the parties, we are there to view product, even when there's less product around."

The Germans, a major presence at the Screenings, also are expected to show up in force, but with lower expectations.

"For a while there we were worried the L.A. Screenings wouldn't happen but now that they are going ahead, we plan to send the same size team as last year," a spokesman for Germany's ProSiebenSat.1 said.

It's a similar story across the German dial, but some buyers admit that the buzz surrounding the Screenings is much less intense this year. "We haven't heard much to get excited about," said another key Teutonic program buyer.

Among the most avid buyers of U.S. programming are the Canadians. "We will be seeing a mixture of pilots and clips," predicted Susanne Boyce, president of content and channels at CTV.

Whatever disruptions may have preceded this year's Screenings, the Canadians still put great stock in the annual TV bazaar.

"The studios see the value of us programmers seeing the full episode and meeting with the head writer and producer, and getting a real sense of where a show is going," said Don Gaudet, programming head at Toronto-based Sun TV.

Mimi Turner reported from London; Etan Vlessing reported from Toronto. Scott Roxborough in Cologne, Germany, and Steve Brennan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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