Why Foreign Buyers Are Loving Reboots: 'Empire' Was a "Waste of Money"

ABC PHOTO ARCHIVES/ABC VIA GETTY IMAGES; RON P. JAFFE/CBS; FOX NETWORK/PHOTOFEST. RAY MICKSHAW/FOX; WARNER BROS./ PHOTOFEST; RICHARD FOREMAN/FOX

American diversity plays haven't fared well overseas as shoppers from around the globe hope there's an 'NCIS' or 'CSI' buried somewhere among the U.S. studios' new offerings.

When nearly half the 42 new broadcast series trotted before Madison Avenue buyers in May were based on existing intellectual property, Hollywood's eyes collectively rolled. But just a week later, as nearly 1,700 foreign TV distributors descended on Los Angeles for the weeklong confab formally known as L.A. Screenings, the broad bet on familiarity began to make more sense.

As buyers from around the globe shuffled from lot to lot, deluged with pitches, pilots and the occasional In-N-Out burger, such titles as Lethal Weapon, 24: Legacy, Taken and MacGyver had them buzzing. At a time when foreign licensing deals can cover anywhere from 20 percent to more than half of a series' production costs (and billion-dollar franchises, a la NCIS and CSI, are increasingly hard to come by), that kind of interest simply can't be ignored.

The appeal perhaps is even greater overseas than it is stateside: Known titles can cut through the clutter and reduce marketing and promotional costs out of the gate. It helps, too, that many of the dramas getting rebooted are broader action plays, which tend to travel better from territory to territory. Few seem deterred by the recent dismal track record: Of the six network reboots ordered to series last season, including ABC's The Muppets, Fox's Minority Report and CBS' Rush Hour (one of the hottest titles at last year's screenings), Fox's The X-Files is the only one not to be canceled.

"It's an obvious entry point for a buyer," explains Sony Pictures TV's international distribution president Keith LeGoy, whose studio is counting on its Blacklist spinoff to piggyback on the global success of its predecessor. "You don't have to set up the premise because the movie [or other TV series] already did that." Warner Bros. Worldwide TV Distribution president Jeffrey Schlesinger, whose Lethal Weapon reboot emerged as a hot title at both the upfront and L.A. Screenings, adds, "You either spend a ton of money to get awareness or you start with something that makes people go, 'Oh, I remember that.' "

Which is not to say originality holds no appeal around the globe. Among the fresh ideas that have the studios optimistic: 20th TV's ensemble drama This Is Us (airing domestically on NBC), along with time-traveling entries Time After Time (ABC) and Timeless (NBC). Though comedy historically has proved trickier to sell abroad (humor often is more culturally specific), 20th TV Distribution's international president Marion Edwards has high hopes for The Mick. "A big part of it is physical comedy. You don't have to speak the language to get it; a pratfall is just funny," she says, noting that the Kaitlin Olson starrer drew postscreening applause from global buyers. Says one, in town from Switzerland, "It was very raunchy, very mean and surprisingly good."

For his part, CBS' international distribution chief Armando Nunez is banking on big stars and multicamera half-hours to play on both sides of the pond. "There are a number of markets around the world that like and want the more stereotypical, old-fashioned, laugh-out-loud comedies," he says, citing Sony's Kevin James vehicle Kevin Can Wait and his own studio's Matt LeBlanc-led Man With a Plan. The harder sell likely will be the rash of high-concept half-hours, including Jenna Elfman's Imaginary Mary and talking-canine sitcom Downward Dog, which had U.S. ad buyers chuckling in May. Says Ruediger Boess, head of acquisitions at German free TV network ProSiebenSat1, "There's no money [for us] in the high-concept shows."

The growing stateside diversity push is not being as warmly embraced overseas, either, with recent U.S. hits Empire and Fresh Off the Boat, both from 20th TV, stumbling. Edwards acknowledges she isn't overly optimistic about the prospects for Fox's Shots Fired, a racially charged event series that's generating domestic buzz. She's skeptical about Pitch, too, though she insists it isn't the show's nonwhite lead Kylie Bunbury but rather because it's set in the U.S.-specific world of Major League Baseball. "People have really liked both, but I don't know if anyone will be able to broadcast them," she says. "They're just perceived as more American and colloquial."

The same concerns surround Lee Daniels' Star, about a girl band's rise to fame, which received a big push at the Fox upfront. The series' trio of diverse female stars performed a live musical number on the Beacon stage, just as Empire's talent has for the past two years. No such spectacle was scheduled for the international screenings, however. "If you have black, Asian or Latino [actors], it's more difficult here," notes a European buyer, who calls his decision to purchase Empire a "waste of money." His argument? "Ethno-themed" shows, as he describes them, make more sense for America's multicultural population. "It's not because [foreign viewers] have prejudices or they're stupid," he adds. "It's just what they can relate to more." 

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Each Network’s Biggest Foreign Bet

CBS MacGyver
Pilot reshoots didn't dampen international anticipation for the action series.

Fox 24: Legacy
The original's strength, plus an appearance by newbie Corey Hawkins, generated buzz.

Sony Blacklist: Redemption
The spinoff is betting on the star power of Famke Janssen.

ABC Still Star-Crossed
The Romeo & Juliet sequel is using Shonda Rhimes' name as its main selling point.

Universal Taken
The prequel replaces Liam Neeson with Clive Standen.

Warner Bros. Lethal Weapon
The film adaptation starring Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford drew cheers after every screening.

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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