Sellers upbeat about business at MIPCOM

Germany, France bustling, but a few other territories still lag

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CANNES -- Storm clouds lifted literally and figuratively here this week as 12,000 Mipcom-goers hunkered down to do business after two years of tentativeness, even at times trepidation.

While no one was ready to say that the financial worth of transactions had returned to pre-2007 levels, most participants at the five-day sales bazaar on the French Riviera reported reasonably upbeat results, including plenty of program sales, new partnerships and, crucially, new funding sources for content.

Hollywood came to town with outsized suitcases, including their pieces de resistance: new fall drama series.

All six majors could point to one or two good ratings stories from back home, with Disney, for example, high on "No Ordinary Family" and NBC Universal betting on "The Event" to boost their fortunes abroad. Each brought along the respective exec producers of those shows, Greg Berlanti and Steve Stark, to reinforce the point.

In key Euro territories -- notably Germany and France -- business is bustling, and ambitious projects are getting off the ground. Munich-based BetaFilm, for example, unveiled one of its most impressive lineups of product at its annual brunch for buyers Tuesday. TeleMunchen made waves with its "Moby Dick" epic. Lagardere is stepping up in Gaul.

In a few other territories -- notably Ireland, Spain, Greece and the Balkans -- there are signs of economic pain to come, and those problems could spill over into the more prosperous but still recovering top territories. Currency and credit issues are a nagging concern, but at least most ad markets abroad have started to percolate.

"It's a very mixed bag," one MIPCOM veteran said. "Clear skies there may be in Cannes, but it's still raining here and there around the world."

As deals were being inked and stars were preening for buyers in Cannes, the International Monetary Fund in Washington was cutting its growth forecasts for 2011 -- a move that might cast a shadow over the industry.

"The rocky outlook means that all investment calls are tough," said Michael Edelstein, president of international production at NBC Universal TV.

Buying up existing production operations or launching one's own requires detailed due diligence.

"We are not in a period of universal growth, and the days when one could just expand opportunely are long gone," Edelstein said. "But we think we have the know-how to capture a piece of the market, and there is still plenty of business to be done."

Unlike the conversations on the Croisette for the past two MIPCOMs, however, the word recession did not pop up every 30 minutes. Instead, the catchphrase of the week was, "Get on with it."

A walk through the aisles and offshoots of the Palais convention hall midweek still involved weaving one's way through throngs of execs; there were few empty exhibition booths. This despite glorious weather to entice folks outside and several late-night parties to tempt them to oversleep.

Even celebrities jetted in to glad-hand. Folks ranging from Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss to Gene Simmons and Sarah Jessica Parker took up the style of the briefcase-carrying execs: no-nonsense, back-to-back meet-and-greets and punctual appearances on panels.

Filmmakers too have caught on that television is a flowering of creativity worldwide, and thus it was not surprising to see Oliver Stone and Robert Redford materialize.

Redford told journalists Wednesday that independent filmmaking is particularly perilous right now but that he was keenly aware of the creativity in the TV biz. He added that and, via the Rainbow Media ownership of his Sundance Channel, inroads finally are being made into Europe and Asia.

And Lionsgate co-chairman/CEO Jon Feltheimer, here to receive the MIPCOM Personality of the Year award, delivered an energizing message to the assembled.

"The demand is there, at record levels," he said. "The consumers are there, in record numbers. The content is available, in record supply. But what has changed is the way people consume content."

The good news, he added, is "they're willing to pay more for it if it's premium, if it's faster, sooner, more mobile or more transportable."

The Hollywood majors also seemed satisfied with the improving climate.

"For us, it was busy, busy, busy," said Fox International TV president Marion Edwards, who said she detected "a new level of confidence" among program buyers. "Not only did they come to buy but also to talk about what's in store from Hollywood for next year."

What piqued buyer interest from that major was "Raising Hope," a sitcom that might pair well for foreign broadcasters with the company's hit sophomore comedy "Modern Family," as well as a midseasoner called "The Killing" that's based on, of all things, a Danish drama format.

That fact is indicative of an unparalleled blurring of trans-Atlantic lines: Formats, funding and talent all are flowing multidirectionally to a degree not seen before.

"Two years ago, people didn't know if the financial system would survive," Sony's international distribution president Keith LeGoy said. "A year later, there was still nervousness. This year, advertisers have started to open their wallets, and that has given broadcasters the confidence to start re-investing."

Among Sony's deals was selling "Drop Dead Diva" to France's M6.

At Comcast, executive vp Duccio Donati was upbeat.

"Panic is gone," he said. "A year ago, people were still stunned. Now, everyone is refocused."

His company is partnering with AB Group in France to launch the Golf Channel, the first such deal for the network in mainland Europe.

Europeans also sensed that the worst storms have subsided and that the market would be purposeful.

"There are fewer 'tourists' here," TF1 acquisitions head Remi Jacquelin said. "Everyone who is here is here to work and to make things happen."

Beyond the sales of shows by the major U.S. suppliers, the real growth going forward is likely to come from U.S. cable players, who are thinking more boldly, unveiling new funding and experimenting with new production models. Leading that charge on the Croisette are NBC Universal's cable operations and News Corp.'s Fox International Channels unit.

The Stephen King project "Haven" was not just financed out of the U.S. but by the entire global bouquet of Syfy spinoffs. Those pay nichers will get the first window abroad on "Haven" and even will try to beam the series -- if not day-and-date at least in close proximity to the American launch and in synchronicity among themselves. ("Haven" recently was renewed for a second season.)

Similarly, Fox International Channels recently boarded the graphic novel-inspired series "The Walking Dead," which premieres stateside on AMC on Halloween, and will orchestrate a day-and-date release of the series the first week of November on all its foreign outlets.

"These are new business models coming into play here," said Roma Khanna, president of global networks and digital initiatives at NBC Uni.

Rebecca Leffler contributed to this report.
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