Tango to the Tune of the LA Screenings

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

The L.A. Screenings are not only a vital part of the U.S. studio schedule, but also an important, albeit informal market for Latin American TV companies — one that is on par with NATPE in terms of significance. Last year’s event saw roughly 35 (out of 81 total) Latin distribution companies screen at the weeklong affair, as well as 136 buyers from a total of 18 LatAm countries. And this year’s Screenings — which will take place May 19-29 — promise similar numbers.

Nowadays, the L.A. Screenings are divided into two parts: the indies’ portion, which extends from May 19 to 22, and the studios’ from May 21 to 29. Of these latter days, the studios have reserved May 21-27 for Latin buyers. The studios’ timing is purely a function of the New York upfronts, during which the U.S. networks announce their pilot selections for the new season to clients and ad agencies.

“The Screenings is one of the most important events in the TV industry for the Latin American market,” summed up Esperanza Garay, senior vice president, Sales & Acquisitions, Latin America for Coral Gables, Florida-based Telemundo Internacional (a division of NBC Universal). “Since they take place in California, they are more accessible, allowing almost 90 percent of our clients to participate in the event. Additionally, the format and logistics of the market benefit us,” she said, noting that at NATPE there are only three days set aside for meetings, making it hard to coordinate activities, whereas the 10 days in L.A. offer ample time to meet with everyone on Telemundo’s wish list.

As for whether the greater time gap between MIP-TV and the Screenings will be beneficial to everyone involved, Garay insisted that it would. “The greater the gap between markets, the more time we have to advance with negotiations from prior markets,” she said. Garay was similarly unruffled when asked about the recession’s possible impact on the deals that will be secured at the Screenings. “Out of every crisis, an opportunity arises,” said the executive, who maintained that while her firm’s focus will be on the Latin American market, she has already set up appointments with North American and Asian clients. “This is the attitude we have perceived from the industry. Therefore, we believe the Screenings will be a great opportunity for our company.”

Pedro Leda of Buenos Aires-based Ledafilms was less certain. “We don’t know [how the economic crisis will affect the Screenings],” he said. “Up to this moment, Latin America — despite some specific problems such as lower prices and demand for their exports and devaluation of the currency — has been quite resilient. Our company, a content provider, has not been affected yet because TV viewing is up.” Leda, whose firm has a long history of serving as a sales agent for major U.S. production companies such as DreamWorks SKG, Paramount Pictures and Lucasfilm, attributed this to the fact that “people want to forget, want to be entertained.” The exec also noted “the present situation coincides with a new technology wave — digital TV — which also creates new demand for television product.”

Although many Latins have maintained that NATPE is still the most important market of their business year, Leda disagreed. “For us, the Screenings has always been the main event,” he said, highlighting NATPE’s numerous modifications following the changes in the U.S. syndication market. “Over the years, the Screenings have worked well for all international clients, notably from Asia, Europe and Latin America. That said, it is possible that the Latin contingent has also been larger in number than broadcasters from other regions. It could be because they are closer to the U.S. than the others.” Leda, who mentioned that his company focuses on Latins during the Screenings, also noted that he was pleased that there was more time between MIP-TV and the Screenings than usual. “It will give us a respite and give us more time to prepare for our Screenings presentations and meetings.”

Marcel Vinay Jr. of Mexico’s Comarex concurred with Leda that NATPE is not necessarily the most significant market on Latin companies’ market calendars. But he didn’t say that the Screenings are the most important either. “It really depends on when you have new releases to offer,” said Vinay. “It varies year to year.” This year, TV Azteca launched two telenovelas in advance of NATPE, but the company also has loads of shows to offer up at the Screenings. “The two events are equally important for us,” he said, mentioning that in addition to Latins he intends to do business with folks from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Vinay was also confident that the financial storm won’t have any harsh effects on the L.A. event. “Some smaller production companies probably won’t be there, but most will be,” he said. “They were at NATPE at the peak of the crisis, so they’ll surely be at the Screenings.”

According to Cesar Diaz, vice president, Sales for Florida’s Venevision International, the L.A. Screenings are the best place to do business for a number of reasons, most notably the many opportunities for face-to-face meetings with clients. In addition, Diaz noted that while Venevision specifically targets Latin clientele while in sunny L.A., the firm also makes a point of setting up meetings with Asian clients.

As for the ever-present recession question, Diaz was upbeat. “Just like with NATPE, clients will still attend, although there may be fewer executives traveling from each station,” he said. But the exec, whose firm specializes in that most Latin of programming staples, the Spanish soap, noted: “The telenovela continues to be a dominant genre in times of crisis. This is an opportunity for all to maximize the benefits of broadcasting long-running, successful telenovelas. In these times of global economic crisis, it’s vital to provide quality TV programming since many are staying home, leading to ratings that are going up.” Venevision also plans to bring programming of other types to the Screenings, most notably variety special Guerra de Los Sexos, which is back after a yearlong sabbatical.

Raphael Correa Netto, director of International Sales for Brazil’s Globo TV International, was similarly positive when it came to all things economical. He’s looking forward to the Screenings. “It’s an opportunity to present a variety of products to the international market, as well as form strategic partnerships with new clients,” he said.

And while he’s sure that most of Globo’s business will be done with other Latins at the Screenings, he said that “there are clients from other regions participating who recognize the quality of our productions and who will be well served by our portfolio of varied product.”

Michelle Wasserman of Argentina’s Telefe Internacional was equally enthusiastic about her company’s prospects at L.A. Screenings ’09. “The Screenings are clearly oriented to Latin audiences,” she said, noting that she also makes time for a handful of Asian and European buyers. “For Latin buyers, [the Screenings] are a very different and important market,” she said. “It’s one of the most relaxed markets out there. Even though the focus is set on a reduced group of buyers, we work in such a way that the meetings are carried out without any hurry, making the buyer feel comfortable.” Wasserman, who believes dramedies would be particularly appealing in the current economic climate, was also pleased with the extra time between MIP-TV and the Screenings. “Having more time between one convention and the next is definitely a help,” she said. “Usually, we practically have no time to close one convention before we have to start preparing for the next.”

Guadalupe D’Agostino, vp and general manager of Miami, Florida’s RCTV International, said that she too is pleased with the extra time she’ll have between MIP-TV and the L.A. Screenings. “It may definitely help,” she said, noting that the buyers who attend MIP-TV are markedly different from those who attend the Screenings. “Most of the MIP-TV crowd attending the Screenings is in attendance for the majors’ presentations, as opposed to the Latin buyers who are really taking it all in. The gap between the festivals allows us more time to coordinate quality meetings.” And when asked whether NATPE or the Screenings are more important to the Latin contingent, D’Agostino posited that the two markets are of equal significance. “They’re very different [markets],” she said. “It’s apples and oranges. Most European and Asian buyers who don’t attend NATPE will attend the Screenings and vice versa.”

Jose Escalante, CEO and president of Dori Media’s Latin America operation, concurred, saying that “90 percent of Latin American clients don’t attend MIP-TV, so we’ll be seeing them for the first time at the Screenings.” He also noted that the extra time between the two markets is valuable for his firm. “It gives us more time to finish the business we began with Europeans and Asians at MIP-TV.”

According to Carlos Castro of the Miami office of Mexico-based Televisa, the Screenings are crucial to his firm in that “Televisa is always looking for new business opportunities to expand its presence worldwide.” As such, he noted that he and his colleagues are looking beyond the Latin contingent this year. “Nowadays, Televisa has an extensive offer that includes not only telenovelas but also TV series, formats, feature films and entertainment programming.” And he’s not letting fears regarding the economy get him down. “The economic crisis is forcing many buyers to be a little cautious with their budgets,” he said. “However, TV companies are responding well to the crisis, so the demand and supply for product continues. Our great advantage is the volume, quality and variety of content we have to offer to our clients. Our goal, during this time of uncertainty, is to use that advantage to support our clients with more content.”