A Dozen Takeaways From the UCLA Entertainment Symposium

Lawyers and analysts! VPs and VCs! It was “Entertainment Madness” on campus over the weekend.
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Did you miss this weekend’s UCLA Entertainment Symposium? Not to worry. The Hollywood Reporter has you covered with the top takeaways from the 41st annual installment of this conference, attended by seemingly every entertainment lawyer in the city, or at least 500 to 600 of them.

As usual, the event, sponsored by UCLA Law School’s Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law, covered a lot of ground. With the theme “Entertainment Madness: Keeping All the Balls in the Air,” there was something for everyone, with or without a bracket.

Chronologically, here’s the best of what you may have missed:

1. Top-seeded Tom Wolzien. He’s kicked off the Symposium every year for a while now, not to mention advising the DGA on their deals, and, well, this year Tom talked smartphones, and made a sparkling point: If Democrats want to reach the red state constituencies, do it via Verizon video! Or AT&T. Either way, LTE is everywhere. And, he added, journalists should be doing their live feeds this way as well. Are you listening, enemies of the people?

2. Give Me an “S”! Give Me a “T”! SVOD — subscription video-on-demand — has worked best in the U.S, said venture capitalist Mark Terbeek of Greycroft Partners, but “TVOD is going to happen much more frequently with niche content, and is happening a lot overseas.” That “T” is for “transactional,” bucko, and means purchases (EST, or electronic sell-through) or rental (e-rental) of individual movies, episodes or TV seasons. Not that SVOD isn’t going niche itself: Exhibit A has to be the Titanic Channel, whose unveiling last week somehow escaped coverage in THR. Iceberg, dead ahead!

3. Back to the future! Nostalgic for The Alcoa Hour, Texaco Star Theater or perhaps the Camel News Caravan, where the stories were always smokin’ hot? We didn’t think so. The only thing stranger would have been seeing retailers sponsor or produce shows. That might have brought us the Macy’s Melodrama or Series by Sears. Or even a series by Amazon! What a peculiar idea. As AwesomenessTV president Brett Bouttier noted, the bookseller cum e-department store has “taken the ad model out to the nth degree.” Who cares how many people watch if you sell enough soap flakes?

4. Then there’s Netflix. They’re “buying for the world,” noted Raze co-founder and CEO Emiliano Calemzuk, and locally as well. (Not bad for a onetime mail-order DVD service.) The executive, who previously was Europe president for Fox International Channels and subsequently ran Fox TV Studios in Los Angeles, contrasted the SVOD service’s approach with that of media conglomerates. “The international cable guys are not aligned with the U.S. guys,” he said, nor with “the production guys. They’re fragmented.” Uh-oh, that’s not so good. (For the record, not all those “guys” are guys. Or at least, they shouldn’t be.)

5. L.A. is a data desert. Traditional media companies “have no connection to consumers,” said Greycroft’s Terbeek, an observation that Fox chairman/CEO Stacey Snider made as well during her keynote the next day. “But they’re trying to get access to data” through M&A and other means, he said, in a point echoed later by WME partner Liesl Copland. “They’re trying to inform their decision-making with data,” Terbeek noted. He sounded sympathetic.

6. There’s gold in them thar’ hills! Or, at least, “there’s a lot of capital sitting on the sidelines and waiting to be deployed,” according to Bank of America senior vp and entertainment industry head Dan Timmons. That’s good news for people who package independent films. People like FilmNation CEO Glen Basner, for instance, who said he structures his international sales activity around the traditional big markets, Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and AFM (L.A.’s American Film Market). (In selling domestic rights, he prefers to “lay groundwork first.”) But buyers may not be such big fans of those frenetic venues. “We prefer to have time to sit with people, [while] the sellers typically like the auction environment of a festival,” said Steve Bersch, president of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions. “We’ll play there if we have to,” he added a bit glumly.

7. Bersch also isn’t a fan of the old bait and switch. “They always end up casting ‘who’ as the second lead [in a film],” he said, presumably not referring to the famed first baseman of the same name. “They tell us the actor’s name and we say ‘Who?’” Perhaps that’s why some of the capital is still sitting on the sidelines. Added Basner, “Distributors are becoming much more sophisticated. People are really reading the script and coming with questions.” Buyers who actually read scripts before they buy? Wonders never cease.

8. A “get out of jail free” card? Attention criminal lawyers! Is your client in “director jail”? Give Sony a call. “A director who’s in jail … we’ve gotten very favorable results with a couple people who the rest of the industry turned their back on,” said Bersch, declining to name the incarcerated ruffians who benefited from his Innocence Project. He probably got them at a nice price, too, but that went unsaid, and anyway, beggars can’t be choosers. Make a flop or two and you’ll find out who your real friends are pretty quickly.

9. The MBAs weigh in. New to this year’s Symposium was a session called “The UCLA Anderson Spotlight on the Business of Entertainment,” in which UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Sanjay Sood tried to get former Disney ABC Television executive vp and CFO Peter Seymour to say something interesting. Perhaps owing to quants’ natural caution — or the overhang of nondisclosure agreements — it was a more uneventful session than one might have anticipated. But Seymour did make the useful observation that pivoting from linear networks to SVOD — and hence engaging in a direct relationship with one’s customer, see #5 above — was not an easy task for a media company. “The business of selling subscription services is very different from distributing  your channel,” he noted, pointing to subscriber acquisition, customer service and churn as key novelties for those who live B2B. Pretty different from schmoozing a few dozen cable MSO executives.

10. Trump pops by for a visit. No, he didn’t actually show up, or even offer a disparaging tweet, but President Trump was there in spirit at a panel about projects based on underlying material such as books, articles or life stories. These days, “we’re actively worrying about whether public figures might sue you,” said Frankfurt Kurnit partner Victoria Cook. “We never have worried before, [but now] the E&O underwriters are not as bullish [about these projects].” Hmm, sounds like fake news — and that’s above my paygrade!

11. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, which way should this project go? UTA book head Howard Sanders noted that you don’t necessarily know these days whether a project will get picked up for TV, as a feature or even VR or gaming, an observation that drew agreement from Cook and Focus Features business affairs exec vp Howard Meyers. “I’m routinely negotiating TV and motion picture [deal terms],” said Sony Television business affairs vp Ken Basin. “But motion picture guys don’t,” he added pointedly. His film colleague Bersch was nowhere in sight at this point.

12. “We’re in the prestige space.” So said Amazon Studios’ worldwide head of motion pictures, Jason Ropell, in describing a filmmaker-friendly approach that involves a theatrical release prior to online availability. For that theatrical release, “we partner with STX, Open Road [and] Roadside Attractions,” he added. "Might that change in the future?" asked uber-lawyer and moderator Ken Ziffren. “Who knows?” responded the Sphinx-like Ropell.

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