May 2011
Volume 31 No. 3

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Indies’ Content Copes With Studios’ Power

Ask any small distributor headquartered at the Century Plaza Hotel for the L.A. Screenings how hopeless they feel and how frustrated they are by the sheer programming power of the studios.

FME’s Sheila Aguirre
FME’s Sheila Aguirre

Most of these small operators don’t have series, and buyers go to Los Angeles to screen series, with their wallets open to those who have them. Many small companies cannot even secure a decent number of scheduled meetings, so they hope for some floor traffic, which at the Screenings is almost non existent, even though, at times, the hotel’s corridors seem to be bustling with people.

But among the over 70 independent distributors actively screening in L.A. there is a group of at least 11 who (besides the telenoveleros) have sufficient programming power to attract a steady flow of Latin buyers: Argentina’s Telefilms and Ledafilms, the U.K.’s Content Television, Zodiak, BBC and FremantleMedia Enterprises, Canada’s eOne, and the U.S.’ Lionsgate, HBO, Discovery and AETN. This is in addition to major independent companies such as Starz, Eyeworks and MGM.

Valerie Casal, from the Los Angeles office of Entertainment One International is one such seller garnering attention from the Latins. Offerings include zombie thriller The Walking Dead, season two of cop show Rookie Blue as well as The Yard. Said Cabrera, “This year we plan to announce our new lineup for 2011, secure our free TV broadcasters for our prime time slate that launches on pay-TV this year and meet with our existing partners to plan the launch campaigns globally for some of our strongest brands around the world.”
Cabrera noted that while much of the buying at the Screenings comes from Latin America, the event is “overall very well attended by all international buyers.” Asked about strategies for combating studio supremacy at the Screenings, Cabrera suggested a three-pronged approach: “nurture relationships, sales trips before the Screenings, target specific broadcasters.”

From Santa Monica, California Diana Zakis, VP of Sales, Latin America and Asia for U.K.-based Content Television also had a few ideas about what the indies can do to get a leg up on the studios. “Broadcasters will always notice well-produced, quality driven programs, regardless of their provenance,” she said, adding, “Buyers from all territories are very focused at the Screenings and their mindset is to preview and acquire new programming no matter where it is from.”

Zakis and her team are on hand promoting a variety of new TV movies, including psychedelic western Separado!, Smooch and Cancel Christmas, among other drama and nonfiction titles. Zakis outlined her goals for the event thus: “To connect with clients from various territories and primarily with Latin American broadcasters, many of whom don’t attend MIP-TV.” She elaborated, “We will be introducing [buyers] to our recently announced new image and rebranding as Content Television as well as showcasing the diverse range of new content we have signed since last year.” As for emerging trends, Zakis pointed to content that works on a variety of platforms “such as digital, social media applications, as well as traditional linear broadcasts.”

From her Miami, Florida office FremantleMedia Enterprises’ Sheila Aguirre reported that she has a packed schedule for the Screenings, making it difficult to cater to drop-ins. “There is floor traffic,” she said, “But we go to L.A. with a heavy schedule which, unfortunately, makes it difficult to accommodate those who do not have an appointment.” Aguirre’s flurry of appointments is just one of many reasons she is expecting a landmark Screenings for Fremantle. She stated, “We have a super-sized catalogue which we launched at MIP-TV recently and which many clients have not yet seen. Moreover, several of our new titles have something particularly close to the Latin world that will make them even more attractive.” Fremantle’s slate this year is nothing if not diverse. They are bringing to the table four big star-studded dramas including The Sinking of the Laconia, Australia’s current number one rated primetime drama Winners & Losers, a slew of reality programming, a line-up of children’s shows and much more.

Aguirre also weighed in on the question of who’s buying what. “The pan-regionals remain our major clients in terms of canned programs — dramas, factuals, realities — while the terrestrials have an ever growing appetite for formats. We have both. With that said, pan-regionals and terrestrials alike remain priorities. We are also beginning to see new media platforms take hold, and we anticipate that they too will be equally significant to our continued growth across the region.”

For Starz’s Gene George, the Studio dominance is not a problem. “We feel like we definitely get attention and see the people we need to see,” he said, “We have a very strong slate and content that is very high profile.” George, like Fremantle’s Aguirre, has a loaded schedule and will not have much time for drop-ins. “Everything is by appointment for us,” he said.

Where content is concerned, Starz is focusing on its high production value series. However, George also pointed to a number of new short projects, such as a series of interstitials (shorts inserted between the end of a program and the beginning of another) that re-imagine how movies should have ended, as well as “lots of programs for the digital sector.”

Meanwhile, Santa Monica-based Lionsgate’s Peter Iacono named two new shows the company will be premiering in Santa Monica: Boss and Nail Files. The former is a political drama starring Kelsey Grammer (of Frasier fame), and the latter Iacono described as “Jersey Shore comes West…but classy.” Plus, Iacono noted that Grammer as well as Boss director Gus van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk) will be on hand at the Screenings, lending their star power to the Lionsgate offices.

New York-based AETN’s Mayra Bracer conceded that the Screenings remains a studio-driven market. “Buyers go to L.A. to see the studios and a large part of their budgets are allocated to studio product,” she explained. “Despite that, we feel the Screenings offer an important opportunity for us to get in front of multiple buyers from territories throughout Latin America, and we believe it’s important to make ourselves readily available. The success in the U.S. of HISTORY, A&E and Lifetime original series, specials and movies has generated tremendous interest from buyers who are seeking us out for meetings.”

When it came to trends, Bracer pointed to “unscripted series from both non-standard and broadcast networks,” and especially series and formats that can work at the local level. In response to this demand, AETN will, as always, be focusing on factual programming. This year, top titles include I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plain Crash, Nostradamus: 2012 and Stan Lee’s Superhumans.

Bracer also laid out the buying patterns she has observed from Latins at the Screenings. “Historically, Mexico, Brazil and Chile have been strong territories for us,” she said, adding, “This year, we are also looking to connect with the buyers from Central America who don't attend NATPE or MIP-TV.”