L.A. Screenings ’09: Last But Not Least They’re Back

U.S. TV network execs have finally gotten the need to try and do away with the pilot process out of their systems and for the 2009-2010 season, are humbly going back to the future. But not without trying some other forms of change, which, this year, are manifested in a late upfront schedule that will result in a later-than-usual L.A. Screenings. Considering what the international TV sector went through at last year’s L.A. Screenings –– reduced pilot output due to the Writers Guild of America strike, net executives’ desire to do away with the upfronts, the gloom-and-doom mood at the studios and zero parties — working through the Memorial Day holiday, on Monday May 25, could now be considered a privilege. And, if not all U.S. sellers are thrilled with the idea of skipping their family barbecues, buyers have surely mapped out their excursions to the famed Memorial Day sales at Los Angeles’ malls.

L.A. Screenings 2009 will be held May 19-29, with the indie screenings taking place May 19-22 and studio screenings May 21-29.

So what do these later Screenings mean for the industry? VideoAge checked in with a selection of entertainment biz bigwigs to determine this as well as what kinds of pilots are being produced in Hollywood these days.

Dermot Horan
RTE’s Dermot Horan

“We hate that [the L.A. Screenings] will be over the holiday weekend,” said Marion Edwards, president of International Television for Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. “We like to leave on Friday, bid the clients farewell and be done with the formal process. Now, the whole weekend will be consumed with Screenings business.” When asked why she thought the networks had decided to push their upfront presentations later (which, in turn, pushed the Screenings off), Edwards was unsure. “It could be that they expect to order pilots later and they felt that they needed the extra time,” she guessed.

Despite the lateness of the Screenings, Edwards believes that things will be pretty much back to the way they were. “We will have a more normalized schedule with more pilots being picked up,” she said. “Especially after the weirdness of last year.” In fact, at L.A. Screenings 2008, few networks had more than half of their development slates at the ready, and had just a handful of finished pilots to showcase.

Yet, while Edwards is certain that many more pilots will be picked up than during last year’s upfronts, she’s sure that the rather turbulent financial climate will mean more laughs for viewers. “NBC recently picked up four comedy pilots,” she said. “So it does seem that networks are looking for comedies, as well as lighter-hearted one-hour shows.” Edwards noted that her company is offering such a show in Glee, a one-hour musical comedy that follows a high school teacher as he tries to transform a school’s glee club and inspire a group of performers that they can make it all the way to the top. Networks, it seems, aren’t looking for dramas during these tough times. They’re searching for something to get people’s minds off their troubles. “None of the shows I’ve seen seem to be about murder or investigations,” said Edwards. “It’s much more escapist fare. People are looking to get out of the day-to-day goings-on of their daily lives.”

But even if viewers won’t be seeing the economic meltdown on their TV screens, that doesn’t mean it won’t be felt across the board. “I predict that people will be hurting financially due to the downturn in ad revenues,” she said. “The strike cost us a lot of time slots that we don’t have back yet. Buyers will be cautious. But everyone will be looking for shows that they can turn into hits. And for these, they will open up their purse strings and buy.” Edwards added that she doesn’t expect to see shows go for record high prices. “I don’t think we’ll soon return to the days of shooting 25 pilots and only five get picked up,” she said. “Nowadays, they’ll shoot fewer pilots, but those will have a higher opportunity to get picked up.”

Like Edwards, Dermot Horan, director of Broadcast and Acquisitions for Ireland’s RTE, is looking forward to what he called a “proper” L.A. Screenings this May. “Last year, buyers went more on hope and got semi-developed slates in return,” he said. “Sometimes you got full shows, but more often, you got PowerPoint presentations.” Despite this, he managed to pick up a couple of series he has high hopes for: The Mentalist, which has already proven itself to be a hit on U.S. network CBS; and Harper’s Island, which Horan thinks could have a definite buzz about it.

While he’s confident that things are finally returning to normal, Horan is none too pleased with the studios’ decision to hold the Screenings over the Memorial Day holiday. “For practical purposes having later Screenings is a bad thing,” he said. “To go out to the Screenings and not be able to do anything over Memorial Day, it’s a waste of time,” he said. He did, however, express the hope that some of the smaller mini-majors would use the time wisely and screen on the Monday holiday.

As for the effects of the economy on the Screenings, Horan was positive that attendance would be down. “We’ve had a fall in advertising revenue worldwide,” he said. “So from that perspective, companies that want to see what’s out there will send acquisition executives… but fewer than last year. It will probably only be the core acquisition executives who’ll go.” Furthermore, Horan is of the opinion that the type of programming that will be offered both at the upfronts and the Screenings will be escapist fare. “People definitely want to be cheered up. They don’t want to gorge themselves on doom and gloom,” he said. As such, Horan believes that we’ll be seeing a glut of entertainment/reality shows a la American Idol or Dancing with the Stars — shows that Horan termed “inspirational” and “cheery.” He also thinks buyers will be seeing more escapist fare of a Desperate Housewives nature with protagonists who are easy on the eyes. “People do want a bit of eye candy at the moment,” he said.

However, what he doesn’t think will flourish once again — despite the credit crunch and the public’s appetite for happy news — are classic multi-camera sitcoms. “The best escapism can be in dramas,” he said, citing Showtime’s half-hour multiple personality romp The United States of Tara as the type of darkly funny material he’d like to see more of. “People do want to be cheered up these days, but I don’t know that we’ll go back to the classic multi-camera sitcom,” he said. “[The sitcom is] definitely struggling.”

Additionally, since buyers have less money this year, they’ll “either buy fewer shows” or the same number of shows that they usually buy but for less money. “We still need to fill our schedules,” said Horan.

Horan is also certain that the proposed Screen Actors Guild strike will simply never materialize, and will therefore have zero effect on the Screenings. “It’s ill-advised in the current economic climate,” he said. “There will be very little sympathy from the public at large. With the writers’ strike, a full season was disrupted. This definitely isn’t a good time for another strike.”

Keith LeGoy, president, Distribution, Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI), concurred, saying he fervently hoped there wasn’t another strike in the industry’s near future. Additionally, he too believes that comedy is king this time around. “We have certainly seen a big uptick in the number of comedy pilots that we have ordered this year,” he said. “Comedy series have been awaiting a revival for a little while now, and obviously we all need to laugh and to be able to escape a little more from the acute day-to-day concerns that we all face. The other thing we are seeing is more comedic and lighter touches in our dramas. If you look at the pilot episode of The Unusuals, our ensemble police drama for ABC, or Drop Dead Diva for Lifetime, those shows both have great light touches and comedic moments.”

Like everyone else, LeGoy is concerned with the state of the economy, and when asked if that worry would affect his company’s strategy at the Screenings, LeGoy said: “While we are all obviously conscious of being responsible with the investments we make, we do want to ensure that we can tell stories in the best way possible. After all, what drives this business is great writing, directing and acting that really creates a connection with the audience.”

As for his feelings about the more traditional upfronts this year, LeGoy seemed pleased. “For everyone, it’s helpful to have greater certainty about the new shows coming and the certainty around their production and launch,” he said. “That allows broadcasters to plan more effectively, and with greater all-around knowledge of the new television landscape. So the Screenings will definitely be able to return to that prime position as the best showcase for new series.” But, he added, “there will still be new shows being launched all year round.”

LeGoy also noted that he felt that this year’s later-than-usual Screenings would actually be a good thing. “The greater separation between MIP-TV and the Screenings is helpful,” he said, “because it allows for us to focus on different product at MIP. SPTI has such a wide and varied portfolio of content that it’s nice for some of our productions from Europe and Latin America, for example, or some of our documentary films to get the level of attention and exposure we will be able to give them at MIP-TV.”

While it remains to be seen whether the late-May Screenings will be embraced by all industry insiders, one thing’s for sure — it has to be better than last year’s watered-down affair. LHR