L.A. Screenings: What Has Changed About the Annual Event

Nathan Bell/ABC
Sony will be screening its new series "Charlie's Angels" this year.

As many as 1,500 foreign TV program buyers are descending on Southern California to check out the new U.S. fare this week.

The announcement this week of the fall schedules by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW ends months of development and decision-making by U.S. broadcast networks -- but it is just a starting point for the rest of the world.

Beginning Wednesday, as many as 1,500 foreign TV program buyers will descend on Southern California for the annual event known as the L.A. Screenings, which has grown over two decades from a casual series of screenings and meetings into an intense 10 days packed with activity and events.

It follows the U.S. networks' announcements because their choices determine the shows that will enter production as series and then be available to be resold worldwide.

"It used to be kind of this stately march where you stared out with the Canadians one week, then the Europeans for a week and then Latinos for a week. Nobody was in a rush," said Marion Edwards, Twentieth Century Fox's president of international television. "Now everybody comes in for a week, and you screen for seven days, which are incredibly busy. What has changed is the sense of urgency that we feel in everyday life has infected the screenings."

Despite that urgency, not everybody is in a rush to buy. In fact, Edwards said, most will go home and discuss what they saw and then make decisions. Or in some cases, especially with networks in the U.K., they will wait for the new shows to air in the U.S. and see who watches and how they rate.

"You've got networks that produce the majority of their schedule themselves," Edwards said, "so they come here looking for things to fill out their schedule."

The one exception, she said, is the Canadians, who air most of their shows day and date with the U.S. "The Canadians have to buy because they have their upfronts at the end of May," she said. "Everybody else can wait if they want to."

While the major companies hold most of their screenings on their studio lots, much of the activity is centered at the Hyatt Century Plaza and to a lesser extent the Intercontinental Hotel (formerly the Park Hyatt), also in Century City. It is in the hotels that more than 50 other sellers camp for the week, including the BBC, Discovery Networks, MTV Networks, the U.K.'s Shine International, Telefilms of Argentina and Mexico's TV Azteca.

"It may have started out as a studio event, but it has morphed into this massive thing where there are also a lot of independents who have set up shop," said Sheila Aguirre, senior vp sales and development, Latin America and Hispanic U.S., for Fremantle Media, which along with American shows offers up a slate from the U.K., Australia and elsewhere.

"It is a market for any quality content that will perform for them," Aguirre added. "Quite frankly, when you dub them, they all look alike."

The independent sellers screen most of their product in the first few days. By this weekend, the major companies will have taken over the buyers' attention, with Lionsgate, Sony and Disney, among others, throwing parties and screening shows.

"This is one of the most important things we do throughout the year," says Armando Nunez, president of CBS Studios International. "It's an opportunity to showcase whatever new content we have for the upcoming year. Let's face it, you only have one chance to make a good first impression."

"The event itself has evolved. Years ago, the studios would put people in a room, put some tapes in a machine and show them what got picked up. Now for CBS, we go through an extensive presentation of the pilots and the programming grids and schedules, and in some cases the research. We trot out the executive producers and the talent and try to put more insight into the selected projects beyond the pilot."

Nunez said buyers have become much more systematic about their approach. "We're dealing with a sophisticated universe of international buyers who over the years have come to Los Angeles," he said, "screened some great pilots that that didn't perform well as series, and vice versa."

Some of those who come already have output deals in place, so they are in L.A. to meet with the sellers and networks about what they are going to get. "We help those broadcasters understand the concepts of these projects," Nunez said. "We present them as much information as possible to help them know what we have to offer."

Selling to the international broadcasters, cable and satellite services has become crucial to the Hollywood studios. In the wake of the global recession that began in 2008 and the decline in DVD sales, it has become a way to cover costs and in many cases turn a profit even before a show goes on the air.

"That has become extremely important," said Jeffrey Benson, co-head of the TV packaging and literary department at the Paradigm agency. "If you look at the (program) development process today, when you pitch a project to a studio or network, one of the first things discussed is, 'Does it have international appeal?'"

"Foreign sales have become a critical part of how people assess the financial viability of a show," said Ted Chervin, head of worldwide television for the ICM agency.

That business imperative even includes such platforms as Netflix and others who stream programming over the Internet.

"The opportunities that technology has created have evolved, so the way people consume media is different than it was a few years back," said Peter Iacono, managing director of international television for Lionsgate. "Those different consumption patterns have created tremendous opportunity around the world. It's like when one door closes, another opens."