Indies’ New Challenge: Get More LA Screenings Buyers

During the traditional VideoAge breakfast at the Park Hyatt, the official hotel for the Los Angeles Screenings, the level of efficiency in housing some 84 companies that set up shop at the hotel (even though over 20 maintain offices in Los Angeles) was generally marveled at. In total, 100 distributors participated at the annual event that has no central structure or organization. Some 40 TV executives attended the VideoAge breakfast meeting, representing 25 companies from 10 countries.

The next challenge for these companies is to get some of the buyers' traffic flowing, outside of the traditional Latin American contingent, considering that, for the buyers, the main purpose of the Screenings is to preview new U.S. TV season product.

Some have suggested inviting international stars of indie programs. Another idea is to negotiate for an "independent screening day" with the studios. A third proposal is to extend the bar area of the Park Hyatt Hotel, making it an evening attraction with a band and free drinks. This latter idea would ride on the success of the free coffee at the Café Olé "Perk" Hyatt in the lobby, sponsored by, among others, VideoAge, Ledafilms, Dint Dobiajes, NATPE and CEO Meetings.

These L.A. Screenings attracted about 800 buyers from 300 television outlets of 62 countries, down 20 percent from last year, partly due to the conflicting Cannes Film Festival running May 15-26.

Among the buyers, the largest contingent came from Japan (70), followed by Germany (55), Canada (42), France (40), Spain (38), the U.K. (37) and Italy (31).

The 2002 Screenings differed from past editions in that they lasted seven days instead of the usual 14, forcing many buyers to shuttle from studio to studio all day long the whole week.

The indies tried to get a headstart by jumping the gun on May 18 with a "Prime Time" party at the Park Hyatt Hotel and ending on the 22nd. The studios conducted business May 18-25, with only a few venturing past May 28, after a break for the Memorial Day weekend. First-time attendee Leyla Formoso, director of Latin America/Iberia for Nelvana, did her homework and headed to Los Angeles four days before the studios started their screenings. "Regardless of a shorter market, international buyers I have spoken to were coming early, purely because they love Los Angeles and want a holiday here. I took advantage of this and scheduled lots of meetings that will be more relaxed at this time."

As an independent, "we do have to work around each buyer's studio schedule," noted Jon Helmrich, who heads International Broadcast Communications. "However, I have always found that they welcome taking the time to visit with companies like IBC, almost as an antidote to the big theater, big crowd screenings they attend every day. Our encounters can be more personable and often less stressful."

The persistent Helmrich meets buyers for breakfast, in between studio visits, or before evening events. "Sometimes we actually drive them or pick them up in order to get the important quality time we would like. Relationships are key and if someone enjoys your company and trusts you, they will make the time ... especially if you have something new to tell them about.!"

Sabrina Sanchez, director of program marketing at CableReady, believes the current economy could work in her favor. "Many Latin American buyers do not have the budgets to purchase big studio productions, but do need to go home with a certain number of hours."

It is clear that most territories are experiencing a down market for a mix of political, financial or economic reasons: Spain, Italy, the U.K., Germany, France, Latin America and the Middle East are just a few examples. However, many of the problems, like one sees in the U.S., are caused by the low ratings that networks the world over are delivering, rather than the oft-blamed reduced advertising investments, which are growing, if only at a slower pace than in the boom years.

According to a survey by Adweek, the majority of advertisers would spend the same at the upfronts this year as they did last year, while 22 percent are planning to spend more, and 18 percent will spend less. Overall, these upfronts are expected to generate little increase from last year's $7 billion investment, for up to 80 percent of the broadcast TV network prime-time advertising.

Product placement on U.S. network TV has taken on larger proportions as advertisers try to break through ad clutter (mostly caused by make-goods).

Out of a total of 125 pilots presented, 54 new series were picked up by the seven U.S. English-speaking broadcast networks with a mix of drama (55 percent), comedy (37 percent), one "dramedy" and a few indefinable genres. Of these, 33 were produced in-house, with Disney topping the list with 10 shows produced for its ABC TV network. This development, the consequence of vertical integration (or synergy), could represent a bonanza for international buyers, since deficit financing for those shows is only an internal accounting practice, therefore not as severe as when distributors had to compensate real deficits and thus lean on foreign buyers to shell out more money. It is possible that this development, combined with the fact that many output deals are coming to an end, could ultimately increase the volume of program sales at the 2002 L.A. Screenings.

Dom Serafini, Valerie Milano and Susan Hornik contributed to this story.