TBI Weekly: Has LA Screenings become just another market?

Colin From Accounts

LA Screenings was once seen as an annual pilgrimage to the home of entertainment for international buyers, with execs jetting into LAX to take their pick of the best American shows under the Californian sun. But with US studios taking most shows for themselves plus changing viewing tastes at home, has it now become just another market?

Rewind three years and talk of the exhausting TV events calendar was commonplace at said events. There were too many, some did not define their purpose well enough, and others seemed to be just unnecessary diary complications that had to be attended because everyone else did so.

A Spy Among Friends (c Sony)

Very few people mentioned LA Screenings in those discussions, but fast-forward through the pandemic to 2022 and some are questioning just what the event is for now.

Making sense of the lack of clarity

Going into this year’s iteration, the much discussed ‘lack of clarity’ over rights and availability became the defining narrative for those headed to studios (aside from Disney, which did not take part because almost all of its content goes to its in-house streamers).

Endless commentary has been offered around buyers heading to LA with studios seemingly either unsure or unwilling to divulge exactly what would be available until flights had been booked and bags packed.

It is little surprise: the US studios have had to make a series of about-turns in recent years as streaming has taken off. A year ago, it was all about getting your vertically integrated service out to the world as quickly as possible and stocking it with your best shows, something that none of the major US studios have yet been able to do on a truly global basis because of numerous legacy deals.

Then, earlier this year, Netflix growth stalled and Wall Street became decidedly unsure whether it liked the DTC business a much as it once had – can it actually be that profitable, it asked?

Dan Cohen

US studio bosses, seemingly without much of an answer because the numbers aren’t in yet, have backtracked, preferring to take ‘global streamer’ off the ‘problem solved’ pedestal that had been created to deal with the slow demise of the cable business.

Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that the slew of inquisitive international buyers heading into the US were left wondering just what they might find.

Buzz & bluster

The answer has been a smattering of ‘American’ shows alongside a slew of others coming from outside of the world’s biggest TV market.

One of the buzziest for buyers has been Colin From Accounts, which originated 7,500 miles away from LA in Sydney, Australia. Ordered by Foxtel-owned streamer Binge, it is an eight-part comedy that follows two “complex humans who are brought together by a car accident and an injured dog.” Paramount’s CBS Studios is producing with Easy Tiger Productions.

Lisa Kramer, president of international TV licensing at Paramount Global, tells TBI there are already offers on the table for the show, and TBI understands multiple Canadian buyers are interested, as well as a couple of global streamers.

The show’s seeming success with buyers is of course a result for Paramount, which like most of its US studio counterparts, has had fewer series than normal to flog to buyers this year.

Part of this, Kramer points out, is because linear network CBS had a large slate in 2021 with several big franchises, so there were simply fewer slots to fill. A linear problem in a streaming world, it seems.

Robert Blair at LA Screenings 2022

But the fact that it is an Aussie comedy – not Paramount’s CBS dramas Fire Country or So Help Me Todd, nor The CW’s Walker: Independence – that has peaked the interest of buyers underlines how international fare is arguably now becoming the key currency in LA.

If the price is right

Kramer is also refreshingly honest about Paramount’s modus operandi: sure, she admits, there has been “frustration” among some buyers about what is available but she says the studio has gone to great lengths over the past few weeks to ensure acquisition execs understand how the streaming pillars of Paramount Global work – namely, first window rights to whatever they want.

Except, that’s not quite the case. “There are so many considerations with selling,” Kramer explains when it comes to striking a deal. And when asked if any show is absolutely off limits, the answer is clear: ” Cash is king,” she says.

Clearly it’s part tongue in cheek, but the underlining message Kramer wants to get across is that Paramount is there to come up with new models that work for all, meaning that a deep delve into exactly what rights might be available could bear fruit for buyers.

“We’re certainly open to linear and we’re not closed to ideas or evolving business models,” Kramer says, but there is more complexity with Paramount+ taking the entire first window. However, she points to the deal for Hulu drama The Great – in which Channel 4 in the UK took linear rights and Starzplay took streaming – as one example where unique sales structures can be created.

East New York

Similar discussions were being held at NBCUniversal, where its Global Distribution arm took up a similarly international outlook for its slate this year.

Sure, there is the NBC reboot of Quantum Leap and comedy Lopez vs Lopez, but there’s also The Midwich Cuckoos from Comcast sibling Sky and Bad Behaviour, the latter another Aussie show, this time from Stan.

Meanwhile at Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), president of International Television Distribution Robert Blair welcomed around 1,000 guests to its screenings and executive sessions over three days, with nine shows on the slate. The focus for Blair was on Warner Bros. Television–produced programming for the broadcast networks, namely three new one-hour dramas: CBS’s East New York, plus The CW duo Gotham Knights and The Winchesters.

Select HBO Max titles including Dead Boy Detectives and Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, were also on offer, alongside international series such as Spanish drama García from Zeta Studios. On top of that, there were also off-cycle projects not yet ordered to series in discussion, notably NBC’s Found, from Nkechi Okoro Carroll.

Such an offering underlines the evolving nature of LA Screenings – it has of course always been a place for discussion and secret squirrel deal-making, but this year more than ever it seems the trip to LA is as much a fact-finding mission as an exercise in acquisition.

Arms dealers rejoice

Keith Le Goy, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s chairman of worldwide distribution and networks, says one of the key elements of the week has been to cement old relationships in person.

Keith LeGoy

Sony’s slate, like its rivals, is dotted with an array of US and international shows, ranging from Fox’s Accused to Brazilian drama Rio Connection, for Globo, as well as A Spy Among Friends, which is being prepped for ITVX in the UK and Spectrum in the US.

Despite a week of late nights and early mornings, Le Goy’s enthusiasm for LA Screenings is undiminished when he talks to TBI. “It’s simple with us – you see it, you buy it,” he says, pointing out that “it not as simple as that” with some of the other studios.

For Sony, A Spy Among Friends has attracted surging interest, but Le Goy is keen to point to the fact that Sony is a “global studio” that offers “a very diverse slate.”

“We are global and that reflects in our slate and the fact that we can have a great story from anywhere… it also reflects how buyers are looking to find their next big show, it could be Monarch from Fox or equally a show from another platform in another country.”

The lines, he adds, of what constitutes a UK or US show, for example, are also blurred now. The result is “that it allows us to tell richer stories and cross pollinate storytellers.”

Sony is also in the advantageous position of being a pure, more-or-less unadulterated seller in the marketplace. Without a global streamer of its own, the studio is riding a wave of rising demand caused by its rivals reducing their supply to those same buyers.

Le Goy points to economist Adam Smith when asked about the prices that are being discussed in LA for his shows. He would say that, of course, but there seems little doubt that with an enviable slate, Sony is sitting pretty.

Whether output deals will re-emerge remains to be seen, but Le Goy says there is a “reassessment” of strategies in this evolving landscape, as buyers – ranging from small broadcasters and their on demand country-focused OTT services right up to the global streamers – jockey to secure the best content.

Bring On The Dancing Horses

Like Sony, Endeavor Content is finding itself well-positioned in the bun fight. It has held a series of screenings this week, with Prentiss Fraser, EVP of international TV sales, pointing to Kate Bosworth-starring Western Bring On The Dancing Horses as among the most popular.

Fraser also touts the CJ ENM-owned firm’s “internationally diverse slate”, which also includes Headhunters, The Man Who Died and The Twelve, and says the most asked question is, “Can you send me more episodes?!”. After that, it is all about the availability of rights she says, adding that buyers are “interested in getting to the heart of each show and [finding out] who it will resonate with amongst the viewers they serve.”

A similar point is made by all the execs spoken to by TBI for this piece: getting buyers face to face on the lot and providing them with unprecedented access to on-screen talent and creators is a major differentiating point for LA Screenings.

On the distribution side, execs are adamant that the 2023 iteration will be even bigger and better than this year – although that will likely depend on how the studios’ streamers fare and whether there is a need to sell more or less to global buyers.

Yet there is also a feeling that the event has evolved, with international fare making up such a large proportion of shows on offer – a trend that may well accelerate next year.

LA Screenings has to some extent just become another market where buyers can trade gossip and snag shows – but it comes replete with Californian sunshine, trips to the most famous lots in the world, LA-style wining & dining, and seeing Paramount’s licensing chief Dan Cohen in Top Gun: Maverick mode. As Kramer puts it: “We may see differences in the format, but Screenings is still very robust – and we’ll take full advantage.”

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