The LA Screenings usually consist of a fairly predictable round of pilot viewing sessions, business meetings and star-studded parties. This year, however, normal service is being interrupted. And even the studio sales executives who host the event aren’t sure what the upshot will be, reports John Hazelton
"It’s just a very different kind of year," says Marion Edwards, president of international television at Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. "People are coming in with reduced expectations of what they’ll be able to see and of the decisions they’ll be able to make while they’re here. It feels very different and we don’t know how it’s going to play out."
The backdrop to the uncertainty, of course, is the labour unrest that has plagued Hollywood for the last eight months and resulted in the 14-week writers’ strike that ended in mid-February and the threat of an actors’ strike that could begin in early July.
The writers strike started a couple of months into the 2007-8 television season, a season in which some highly-touted new network series – among them Pushing Daisies and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – had made promising starts while others – such as The Bionic Woman and Journeyman – had failed to live up to expectations.
During the strike, many series were forced to go into re-runs. And after the strike even some of the most successful shows struggled to reclaim their regular audiences, leaving all the networks but Fox facing significant year-on-year ratings declines.
More importantly for international buyers, the strike disrupted development season, putting networks and studios well behind schedule in the production of pilots for series vying for slots in the 2008-9 season. As a result, the broadcast networks made their picks for next season – unveiled at last week’s scaled-back upfront presentations – from a pool of development projects that was half the usual size. And, in many cases, the picks were made without the help of pilots. NBC, meanwhile, took a still more radical step by announcing a 52-week programming strategy six weeks ahead of the other upfronts.
The studios’ international sales chiefs insist that the writers strike has so far had little if any effect on their side of the business, largely because work in Hollywood had resumed by the time most overseas broadcasters had used up pre-strike series episodes. In fact, says Warner Bros International Television Distribution president Jeffrey Schlesinger, international demand for US programming "is still strong, and it helps that we have a weak dollar so people can buy more when they’re buying in dollars."
Schlesinger adds: "In certain markets pricing for a programme has hit a certain level. There’s always the question how much further can it go. But overall the demand for our content continues to be very strong."
Yet the effect of the strike will certainly be felt by buyers during the screenings. All the studios will have significantly smaller slates than usual and on many projects sellers will have only limited footage to screen. To make up for the shortage, producers and executives will be brought in to give verbal presentations on behalf of projects.
CBS Paramount International president Armando Nunez Jr says: "In future years these presentations are going to be more of the norm and the glossy finished pilot will be more the exception. That’s just the evolution of the business and managing the production costs more efficiently."
Studio executives say they expect all of the regular broadcasters to be represented in Los Angeles, even if some are represented by smaller contingents. But they also concede that broadcasters may delay making buying decisions until later in the summer, when more pilots are completed and the networks make another round of scheduling decisions.
Schlesinger contends that if new series from Warner — which unlike other studios will have pilots for all its projects – "are perceived as the potential hits of next year I don’t think anybody will delay in bidding for and buying them." But, he adds, "if some of them are not perceived that way, buyers may wait to see the full compliment of other pilots."
What the buyers will see – or in some cases hear about – at the Screenings will be a crop of series that at least partially reflects the difficult conditions that prevailed this development season.
Once again, there are a number of high profile projects from big-name producers, several of them with a sci-fi slant. Jerry Bruckheimer is producing Eleventh Hour for Warner Bros. Joss Whedon is behind Dollhouse for 20th Century Fox. And for Warner Bros, J J Abrams is making Fringe, a series that, says Schlesinger, "feels like the first contemporization of an X Files-type show in a long time."
There are also several new projects – including Warner’s drama The Mentalist – that continue the trend towards more character-driven or comedic procedurals.
Thanks to the shorter development season, there are a good number of new series based either on existing American shows or on non-US formats.
Revivals and spin-offs include NBC Universal International Television’s Knight Rider and CBS Paramount International’s 90210, contemporary take on teen drama Beverly Hills 90210. The latter show, says Nunez Jr, will be "true to the original, which is one of the classic TV franchises."
Format-based series include a US version of Australian comedy Kath & Kim, from NBC Universal, an animated version of Australia’s live-action sitcom Sit Down, Shut Up (aka Class Dismissed), from Sony Pictures Television International, and American takes on several British dramas.
Such format-based US shows have real international potential, suggests Tom Toumazis, executive vice president and managing director, Disney-ABC International Television EMEA & Canada (distributor of the US version of Ugly Betty). "There aren’t many markets around the world that can produce 20-25 episodes of feature film quality television with some of the best talent in front of and behind the camera," he says.
Perhaps most significantly, the new crop of US network series also includes several projects produced with or distributed by non-US and non-studio companies. NBC, the most active network in this area, has acquired Merlin from the BBC, ordered Crusoe from the UK’s Power, and will screen Canadian drama The Listener, from Shaftesbury Films.
The Listener is being distributed outside North America by ShineReveille International, the new Anglo-American distributor that will provide this year’s Screenings with a rare independent presence.
Handling a slate that also contains crime procedural I M Valentine Investigation (aka Valentine’s Day) and several other projects from US producer Media Rights Capital, ShineReveille will be able to compete with the studios, according to Los Angeles-based president and Reveille managing partner Chris Grant. He says: "Content is king. That’s what makes the difference to the buyers, not the mechanisms of distribution."
More involvement by foreign and independent players in the production and distribution of US network programming is one of the trends to emerge from a year that, in the words of ShineReveille senior vice president John Pollak, "has allowed entrepreneurial minds to come up with alternative models."
The upheavals of the past year could also lead to a re-evaluation of the networks’ pilot development process and a fresh approach to international distribution, perhaps one calling for additional screenings events.
By pushing the networks into a year-round development cycle, the upheavals might even lead to better network shows, benefiting both US audiences and international buyers.
"If you get to a point where a show gets more than three weeks to find an audience before it gets yanked off the air, that’s really good for the international marketplace," posits Keith LeGoy, executive vice president, distribution, at Sony Pictures Television International. "Because what buyers are looking for isn’t a great pilot, it’s a great show that can become a great franchise."
NBC Universal International Television Distribution
Ian McShane stars in this David-and-Goliath-inspired drama from writer Michael Green (Heroes) and film director Frances Lawrence (I Am Legend) about a young soldier (played by Eragon‘s Christopher Egan) marked for rapid political ascension in a war-strained modern metropolis. Set to join the NBC schedule this winter – in a Sunday night slot after Medium and opposite ABC’s Desperate Housewives – the series will be launched with a two-hour movie being made as part of the network’s marketing and programming partnership with insurance giant Liberty Mutual.
My Own Worst Enemy
An action-comedy-drama hybrid, this one-hour series will star Christian Slater as a man with a humdrum suburban life who shares a body with a multi-lingual operative trained to kill with his teeth. Also featuring will be two cars provided by automotive giant GM, with whom NBC has signed a product integration deal for the show. The series will make its debut in NBC’s autumn schedule, taking what the network is calling its ‘adult-themed’ 10pm slot on Monday night immediately following Heroes.
Kath & Kim
Based on the Australian smash of the same name, this half-hour sitcom from Universal Media Studios and Reveille (the company that successfully imported The Office to the US) will star Saturday Night Live alumnus Molly Shannon as foxy, forty-something divorcee Kath and Selma Blair as her self-absorbed daughter. The show will be part of NBC’s autumn schedule, filling the 9.30pm Tuesday slot after reality hit The Biggest Loser.
20th Century Fox Television Distribution
Life on Mars
This long-in-the-works (the David E Kelley-written pilot was shot last year) US take on the BBC drama series has been given a choice slot in ABC’s autumn schedule – at 10pm on Thursday, straight after Grey’s Anatomy. In the US version, Ireland-born Jason O’Mara (Men In Trees) stars as the modern day police detective transported back to 1973 after a car crash. Originally developed at 20th Century Fox, the series will come to air as a coproduction between that studio and ABC Studios.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel creator Joss Whedon returns to television with this Fox network drama about an illegal underground group whose members have had their personalities wiped so they can be hired to become anyone and do anything. Buffy alumnus Eliza Dushku stars. The show is set to join the Fox schedule in January in the 8pm Monday slot that will be occupied over the first half of the season by Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
The Ex List
Based on Mythological X, the recent hit for Israel’s Channel 2, romantic one-hour drama The Ex List is about a woman (played by Elizabeth Reaser, from Grey’s Anatomy) who, after being informed by a psychic that she has already dated the man she will marry, revisits all her past relationships. The series has been slated by CBS to run at 9pm on Friday night, after Ghost Whisperer and opposite NBC’s re-scheduled Deal Or No Deal and opposite the CW’s America’s Next Top Model.
CBS Paramount International Television
An updated spin-off from global nineties hit Beverly Hills 90210, this drama for the CW network centres on a brother and sister (played by Shenae Grimes from Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Wire‘s Tristan Wilds) who move with their family from Kansas to swanky LA. Jennie Garth, from the original show, guest stars and other original alumni are also expected to make appearances. Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah (Freaks & Geeks) are executive producing and the show has been scheduled at 8pm on Tuesday.
Disney-ABC International Television
A multi-camera comedy starring Jay Mohr (Action and Ghost Whisperer) as a recently-divorced middle-class dad trying to navigate the dating scene while dealing with the demands of ex-wife and kids. Written and executive produced by Ed Yeager (Still Standing), the series will debut in the autumn on CBS, in the 8.30pm Wednesday slot after The New Adventures of Old Christine.
The Goode Family
Part of this year’s wave of new animated shows, this comedy from King of the Hill creator Mike Judge is a satirical look at a family that, in a politically correct world, always tries to do the right thing. Produced by Media Rights Capital and 3 Arts Entertainment, the series has been ordered as a mid-season entry by ABC.
Sony Pictures Television International
Sit Down, Shut Up
This Fox network comedy – set to join the network’s schedule in the winter or next spring – is an animated version of the live-action Australian sitcom of the same name about a group of high school teachers trying to find their way through the modern educational system. Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz is executive producing the US version, with The Simpsons veterans Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein also on board. The voice cast includes Arrested Development regulars Jason Bateman and Will Arnett.
Warner Bros International Television
J J Abrams (Lost) leads the executive producing team for this high profile Fox network sci-fi drama, whose two-hour pilot is said to have cost $10 million. The series centres on an FBI agent – played by Australia’s Anna Torv – and a brilliant but off-beat scientist who join forces to deal with unexplained phenomena. The show is already getting a big promotional push from the Fox network and has been set for a prime 9pm Tuesday slot. In the autumn that will put it immediately after ratings-winner House; from January the lead-in will be the even more powerful American Idol. But the slot also puts Fringe in head-to-head competition with three other new shows, including The Mentalist, also from Warner.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s new series is a mystery – based on the UK mini-series of the same name – starring British actor Rufus Sewell (Dark City) as a brilliant biophysicist employed by the government to investigate scientific crimes and crises. The show has been given a prime 10pm Thursday slot on the CBS schedule, giving it Bruckheimer’s long-running hit CSI as a lead-in but putting it in head-to-head competition with another new crime series based on a UK format, ABC’s Life on Mars.
Australian actor Simon Baker stars in this crime drama that combines procedural and character elements. Baker plays a TV psychic who, after being exposed as a fraud, uses his very real abilities as a mentalist to help the California Bureau of Investigation solve crimes. The series is executive produced by David Nutter and has been scheduled by CBS at 9pm on Tuesday, between NCIS and Nutter’s Without A Trace.