Reshaping the global biz at MIPTV

Majors and indies pull out hat tricks for deals

U.S. Indie distributor Portfolio Entertainment brings its latest animated feline, “The Cat in the Hat,” to the market.
The grandaddy of TV trade shows is gingerly recuperating from the sharpest economic downturn in decades -- and hoping that Hollywood's continual churn out of globally appealing content can help put the spring back in its step.

Advertising markets abroad may be making only an anemic recovery, but MIPTV is bracing for a healthy contingent of program execs -- about 12,000 to show up for the Riviera rendezvous -- and who do not hesitate in opening their wallets.

For the Hollywood phalanx of key program sellers, business has held up well: Cue the ka-ching of $7 billion all told in program sales by the majors to foreign TV outlets, and another $3 billion-$4 billion in revenue from their worldwide panoply of spinoff entertainment channels. (Fox alone launched 35 foreign channels in just the past year.) Localized production efforts by the majors, centered principally in England, India and Australia, accounts for another $500 million or so in moolah to the Yanks.

In short, despite talk Stateside of business models under threat, stock prices of the congloms in the toilet, kids tuning out television and a surfeit of mediocre reality clones clogging the airwaves, top-tier American fiction series, reality formats, and hit movies are still the main, though not the only draw, on the Croisette.

One thing is indisputable: As good as foreign producers are at making their own high-quality shows, "only Hollywood knows how to do a 'Lost,' " as one pundit put it.

"We've really not felt a lot of the effects of the global downturn," says Warner Bros. International TV president Jeffrey Schlesinger. "We've closed very robust deals over the past year," he adds, pointing to recent agreements with stations in Spain and in Germany. His company fields drama series from such producers as Jerry Bruckheimer, J.J. Abrams and David E. Kelley, and it's still a truism that it is hourlong shows -- think sex, violence, vampires and forensics -- that drive volume deals with the key broadcast clients abroad.

Similarly, CBS Studios International president Armando Nunez says that his company had its "best year ever" in terms of revenue from abroad in 2009 thanks to shows like "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "The Good Wife," not to mention the ongoing juggernaut of "CSI."

So, what do the American suppliers have on tap now?

Warners will begin conversations on a new Bruckheimer show titled "Chase" and a J.J. Abrams series, "Undercover," as well as a handful of dramas commissioned by such cablers as TNT and USA, which are beginning to be indistinguishable in quality from their primetime network competitors.

The other major Hollywood players each have their strong suit to play as well.

Coming off an upbeat fall thanks to "Glee" and "Modern Family" (the latter airs on ABC but is produced and licensed by Fox), Marion Edwards is turning her attention to several dramas soon to come onstream, including "The Gates," "Good Guys" and "Terriers." The president of Twentieth Century Fox International TV rates the temperature of the foreign markets as "fairly good," adding that buyers are still being "selective" but are definitely responding to the fact that U.S. series like "CSI," "Bones" and "Glee" "have bolstered their own primetime schedules."

The new trend that she sees is not the plethora of good American series, as that tends to come in cycles and sellers are still riding the decade-old "CSI" wave of enthusiasm for Yank procedurals, but rather how quickly the transactional landscape is shifting.

"Deals have become complicated constructs in which the key question is, 'What rights are you licensing?' and every answer is equally complex, involving a certain number but not necessarily all digital rights as well as calculations about windows, exclusivities, formats, length and so on," Edwards says.

Fox's "Good Guys"

Nunez, too, puts the emphasis not on a single sale of a show -- "If someone comes to MIP and hasn't already screened 'Life Unexpected' or whatever, they just shouldn't be there," he quips -- but on, as it were, "the meta-deal," which is the continual effort to enhance the value of a piece of content "for our partners as well as for our mother company." In other words, those closed-door sessions in the exhibitor booths or those late-night drinks at the Majestic are not just haggling over price per episode, but about building global franchises and giving clients the marketing and promotional tools to effectively exploit a series.

Still, it starts with the show.

As GK TV's top sales exec Craig Cegielski put it, what folks abroad covet is "well-scripted procedurals that are character-driven or noisy serialized shows that punch through the clutter."

Cegielski is part of the indie contingent of American sellers coming to Cannes with renewed expectations that they can zag while the majors zig.

He can crow about "Camelot," GK Films' first foray into event programming for the smallscreen; MarVista's Fernando Szew will field a cluster of TV movies, including "Deadly Honeymoon" and "Chatterbox"; E1's John Morayniss will hype his company's Stephen King series "Haven" and police series "Copper"; Cristina Jennings of Canada's Shaftesbury is putting the accent on a live-action kids series titled "Baxter" as well as a new season of "Murdoch Mysteries."

While life as an indie is always tricky, these folks are among players adept at working the fringes of the business and/or forging co-production relationships that defray costs, spread the risks and enrich the creative.

Says MarVista CEO Szew: "One way for independents to be profitable is to focus on niches. Such programming has become not just a survival staple for independents but a thriving business as relationships with up-and-coming cable and satellite channels abroad have evolved."

And speaking of co-production, Jennings contends that "every single broadcaster is talking about partnering because no one can do it alone anymore. We're teaming up with various companies, not just U.K. broadcasters but also key ones on the continent."

That, she says, is now one of the main focuses of events like MIP.