L.A. Present Uncertain, Future Unsure

This year, the U.S. TV network upfronts — the New York events that precede the U.S. studios’ Screenings in Los Angeles — began on Monday, May 12 in the midst of a rainstorm. Whether it’s a sign of things to come remains to be seen. The fact is, though, that this year’s upfronts and L.A. Screenings are vastly different from previous years in that they’re leaner and more sober than usual. Most of the networks in New York and all of the studios in Los Angeles eliminated their traditional parties. Amazingly, the number of buyers who made the trek out to L.A. remained about the same, about 1,200 — although some of them cut their trips short. Overall, buyers spent less time in the studios’ screening rooms and more time in shopping malls, with the remaining time spent visiting independent distributors, who, as usual, camped out at the Intercontinental and Century Plaza hotels in the Century City area of Los Angeles.

Because of this past winter’s writers’ strike, this year’s total number of pilots was reduced to 65, from the traditional 110-plus. And some of them, like Fox’s Virtuality, got network commitments even before a pilot was shot. From those few pilots produced by U.S. networks, a total of 44 were picked up. Last year the number of pilots picked up was 66.

Adding some glamour to these Screenings were 81 independent companies (compared to 88 last year), which, with 10 small parties scattered during May 14-17, managed to bring some excitement just before studios reclaimed buyers may 18-23.

Talk around L.A. was that this is the U.S. TV industry’s new paradigm. However, many reported that the show isn’t over until the fat lady sings — meaning that all depends on the results of the upfronts. If, indeed, these turn out to be just as rewarding as previous years, the results will be what we are currently witnessing. If, on the other hand, the lack of excitement and enthusiasm results in a disappointing upfronts, you could bet your bottom dollar that, next year, the industry will return to the excesses that usually generate its traditional windfall.

With so many pilots yet to be produced, the networks will be picking up shows in August and September, which has studios considering asking buyers to make another trip to L.A. after MIPCOM, which some of them, including the Italian contingent, have already committed to doing. Said David Smyth of BskyB U.K. “People are planning all sorts of things, from hosting local screenings to inviting buyers back to L.A. It’s not clear how it’s going to happen et. We always knew that there would be a fair amount of pilots shooting over the summer, so things would be different this year.” Asked if another trip to L.A. would be inconvenient, Smyth answered: “We’re going to take it as it comes. We go there very open-minded. We’re willing to get involved, but we’ll only buy something that we absolutely have to have, If we have to wait a couple of months to see everything that’s being offered, then that’s how long it will take.”

VideoAge’s annual L.A. Screenings breakfast meeting produced neither a general consensus nor a road map for the future. There, VideoAge editor Dom Serafini posed the question: How will the TV industry proceed?

According to America Video Film’s Nicholas Bingham, “the studios’ TV business is driven by the networks and the L.A. Screenings are driven by the studios.”

Mel Giniger, who has celebrated 50 years in the TV business, noted that if the upfronts turn out well, then we will likely see shows introduced throughout the year.

John Cuddihy of Lightworks added: “We’re trying to find out what the studios are doing. But what are they doing? We [the independents] are the tail wagging the dog. We are confused because the networks drive the studios’ business, yet the studios and networks are often the same company.”

“Will buyers come twice, once and May and again in October?” asked Serafini. “That depends on the buyers,” said Cuddihy. “If it will make or break their primetime then they will come in May and October.”

“This all depends on what the networks do,” said David Nuñez of Lightworks. “We’ll have to figure out what we’re great at,” he added.

Another unanswered question raised was: Should there be a fall L.A. Screenings? Will this be a Latin market (as indicated by the cover photo) for the independent distributors, much like the May Screenings is?

Finally, guest speaker Octavio Marin of the U.S. National Association of Latin Independent Producers explained his association and how he goes about getting distributors for his pool of talented Latino filmmakers. His nine-year-old organization was formed to represent Latin producers, writers, and directors, develop training programs for the Latin community, and bring them together with worldwide film and TV distributors.

Contributing to this report were Valerie Milano and Dom Serafini in Los Angeles, and Erin Somers in New York.