The last time a writers strike impacted the LA Screenings in 2008, the world was in recession and studios pared back their spend on glitzy marketing and all-singing, all-dancing parties and soirees. We are not quite at that stage, but, in 2023, these conditions have an air of familiarity.
Studios execs are under way with planning for their annual international TV buyer showcases following this week’s Upfront presentations, but there is a sense of uncertainty from all sides heading into the week, as pickets spring up and shows shut down. With U.S. studio shows currently on the back burner, learning exactly what will be ready when has become a key question for execs arriving in town.
The stresses are different this time around, notes Dermot Horan, Director of Co-Productions and Acquisitions at Irish public broadcaster RTÉ. “The last time there was a strike, more of us were reliant on network programming, which is written very close to transmission,” he says. “Studios in the modern day have been buying up international drama companies, so we’re not as reliant on that network programing anymore.”
He points to Australian romantic comedy series Colin From Accounts, commissioned for Foxtel streamer Binge and sold globally by Paramount, which was the talk of last year, adding: “Back in the day that would be sold by a company like ABC Commercial [the sales arm of Australian pubcaster the ABC].”
Deadline has spoken to a handful of buyers, who are comforted by the pivot the studios have made to international content, meaning that even if U.S. fare is light on the ground, shows from countries such as Australia, Canada and Europe won’t be. The likes of Fifth Season, eOne, Fremantle, Banijay Rights and the debuting Amazon MGM Studios Distribution will help provide choice.
“In the last couple of years our focus has been more and more on local content,” says Thomas Lasarzik, Executive VP of Group Content Acquisitions and Sales at Germany’s Seven.One Entertainment Group, the parent of ProSieben. “Nevertheless we still have U.S. shows in our schedule, and they are still important. We hope that the strike will not be going on for too long, the longer the worse of course, but during Covid we had a similar situation, so we stay prepared and can rely on a back up plan if the strike hits too many of our shows.”
However, one senior European buyer tells us they’ve never felt less clear on what exactly they’ll see this close to a Screenings, though they’re blaming circumstances not sellers. “If the studios could have changed timelines and pushed the Screenings back, they would have done,” they consider.
The studio offers
Scanning through the slates, there is an obvious lack of network comedies and dramas. This should be no surprise considering the strikes forced the broadcasters to make quick decisions on numerous projects and had already cut back on spending in the face of a tough economic market, ad slowdowns and streaming profitability issues. Added layers of cable, streaming and international content help offset the black spots. As such, Seven.One’s Lasarzik says a new crime procedural or sitcom “would be very welcome” for his free-TV channels, but equally important are “exciting new series with binge potential” for streaming service Joyn — another example of how buying has changed.
“I think it’s safe to say that a strike negatively impacts the entire industry, especially at a time when we are just starting to recover from the pandemic,” says Belinda Menendez, President and Chief Revenue Officer at NBCUniversal Global Distribution. “In spite of this, I feel that we’re in a very good position by being part of such a strong company like NBCU.”
Some studios are known to be concerned about whether buyers will be unsettled by the picketing but many execs flying into town we’ve spoken to are actually quite excited by the prospect of witnessing this page of Hollywood history.
NBCU will be screening at Universal CityWalk Saturday through Tuesday with a mix of U.S. and UK shows from Comcast-owned Sky. Content screenings will take place at the AMC Theatres and client lunches are being held at the Globe Garden. A cocktail reception and Fast X screening are also planned at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Menendez’s NBCU is expecting a “fantastic” turnout of around 1,000 buyers, which would be on par with previous – pre-pandemic – years.
Key titles comprise the NBC pilots for Jesse L. Martin-starrer The Irrational, comedy Extended Family, and episodes one and two of Ted, the Seth MacFarlane prequel to his comedy films. Also on show is Peacock pilot Based on a True Story, starring Kaley Cuoco, alongside trailers for The Americas and Apples Never Fall, theatrical titles and docs, and screenings of Sky shows that are being sold outside the UK in the afternoon.
Over at Warner Bros Worldwide Television Distribution, screenings are being held on Monday and Tuesday at the Steven J. Ross Theatre on the Warner Bros. studio lot, offering buyers just one network show: Greg Berlanti’s NBC drama Found. Also on the slate are five Max shows — The Girls on the Bus, another Berlanti production, with Amy Chock and Julie Plec attached as creators; Chuck Lorre half-hour single cam comedy How to Be a Bookie; Steven Soderbergh-directed limited series Full Circle; buzzy Romanian drama Spy/Master; and, from Warner Bros. Animation, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. Elsewhere, Peacock’s Mrs. Davis, from Tara Hernandez (The Big Theory) and Damon Lindelof (Watchmen, The Leftovers, Lost), is billed as “an exploration of faith versus technology — an epic battle of biblical and binary proportions.” Warner Bros. did not respond to requests for further comment on their slate.
Disney is hosting buyers Monday through Wednesday but has been low key on its screening plans, with one European buyer saying, “We didn’t know they were screening until a few weeks ago,” and another adding: “There’s been no information. It will be fascinating to see what they screen.” One series we know is on the slate is High Potential, an ABC Signature procedural about a single mom with an exceptional mind who teams with a buttoned-up cop to solve crimes. We hear the Mouse House won’t hold the Sunday night talent fest on the Burbank lot that was a staple of the Screenings pre-pandemic.
With regards Disney, whose global rights management and content distribution strategy falls under Justin Connolly, more will become clear next week. In Bob Iger’s second era, the powerhouse has moved towards a mixed streaming-licensing ecology. “They do seem to have done a volte face,” says the European buyer, who notes rights for second windows and bespoke packages for some new Disney+ and Star+ content appears to be available (though not for Star Wars content). “I’m very interested in what they’re offering in terms of rights,” adds a UK buyer. Disney declined to comment further.
Sony Pictures Television kicks off with an event on the Culver City lot before beginning its Screenings. Sony is selling three UK-produced dramas — London-set thriller series The Killing Kind from the production team behind the Alex Rider adaptations; Ten Pound Poms, a BBC co-production with Stan in Australia from Sex Education maker Eleven Films about a group of Brits who emigrate down under in 1956; and ITVX and MGM+ Arthurian drama The Winter King, co-produced by His Dark Materials and Doctor Who maker Bad Wolf and One Big Picture. From the U.S. comes Peacock comedy half-hour Twisted Metal, based on the classic, high-octane PlayStation games.
Buyers roundly praise Sony’s oft-taken strategy of releasing its slate early. “We have a very straightforward, clear, consistent strategy, which is we’re a producer and distributor,” says Entertainment Chairman of Worldwide Networks and Distribution Keith LeGoy. “We don’t compete with any of our customers and we partner with all of them. Everything is for sale, and everything we’re screening has been made and can be delivered. That makes it easy for people to come to Sony.”
Sony started its Screenings period earlier this week by announcing a major output deal renewal with Sky in the UK and Ireland, one of several volume agreements it has struck of late. “The Sky deal is a fantastic validation of our approach,” says LeGoy. “A lot of people have been investing heavily in streaming, but we’ve been investing in content and partnerships.”
LeGoy acknowledges the strikes are creating “a moment of uncertainty” and wishes for a resolution “that’s fair for everybody,” but adds: “What we do with certainty is our programs: you can buy them and we can deliver them. The really important thing is they are tremendously impactful hits for somebody. Our job over the next few days and weeks is pairing the right show with the right partner.”
Fox Entertainment Global, the nascent sales arm of Fox, is holding its inaugural screening event on the Fox lot on Sunday May 21. The division came into being in October last year, as the Murdoch-owned media group moved back into international distribution after several years out. “We are absolutely thrilled to be welcoming our clients back to the Fox lot in Century City — their first visit to our historic studio since the conclusion of the Disney deal and post-Covid,” says Tony Vassiliadis, Executive Vice President of Fox Entertainment Global and COO of MarVista Entertainment.
For the second year in a row, the Fox network pushed its fall grid announcement, something that might not help buyers strategically, but Vassiliadis promises a slate of everything from “seasonal programming events to edgy young adult programs and everything in between.” Bento Box Entertainment animated comedy pair Krapopolis and Ginsberg are the key titles screening. Both have been greenlit for multiple seasons, giving acquirers a guarantee of longevity. Joel McHale single-cam comedy Animal Control is also a priority, having become Fox’s most streamed debut.
Like Sony, Fox is touting its independence from streaming as an advantage. “We are one of only a few independent media companies, which gives us great flexibility with our rights,” says Vassiliadis. “We consider ourselves platform-agnostic and look to exploit the rights to our product whether for broadcast/linear, pay, or streaming.”
Fox is hoping for a “fair resolution” to the writers strike soon, Vassialiadis adds, but he points to its “enormous catalog of new programming” bolstered by the MarVista library. This allows the studio to “work with buyers to curate content they need day in and day out, which is even more of a priority right now so buyers can fill any holes they might experience as a result of the strike.”
Paramount Global is taking a low key PR approach but will be screening CBS series Elsbeth, Matlock and Poppa’s House; The Turkish Detective, a Miramax cop series set in modern-day Istanbul based on Barbara Nadel’s novels, Amazon Freevee’s Friday Night Dinner comedy series remake Dinner with the Parents; and Gold Diggers, a CBS Studios International co-production period comedy out of Australia. Paramount, of course, veered away from holding its own Upfront earlier this week and has instead been holding “intimate gatherings” to showcase its wares to advertisers, as we reported in December. Paramount declined to comment on this story.
For the independents, events kick off this week at the Fairmont Century Plaza hotel. Most notable among the names confirmed is Amazon MGM Studios Distribution, the new sales division sitting within Amazon Studios. Chris Ottinger, who is leading the division, tells Deadline his team has “been through loads of work to get the slate ready for the Screenings, building the pipeline.”
Amazon MGM Studios Distribution will be selling Amazon Originals for the first time — and we know several buyers are tracking The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It will also be shopping Prime Video tentpole movies such as The Tomorrow War and international darlings such as Argentina, 1985. “It’s the first time we’ve brought this to market, so we’re trying to get a sense of where the demand is,” says Ottinger. “We’re only going to know how the product works when it goes on air, so we have to be flexible.”
Ottinger is hosting buyers at the Amazon offices. We understand this will be more of a presentation than a full-on screening but interest is ramping up. “We’re really interested in what the Amazon originals distribution will look like,” says Sasha Breslau, Head of Content Acquisitions at ITV and ITVX.
Of course, the writers strike is impacting everything in LA right now — screenings included. Buyers we’ve spoken to have questioned everything from when new shows go into production to how it will feel screenings on the lots when writers are picketing outside. Addressing whether acquisitions execs are concerned about production timeframes, NBCU’s Menendez says: “It’s really too early to answer, but we continue to work very closely with our customers on the potential impact. However, any concerns from our buyers can be put to rest by the fact that we have a number of new series that are banked and unaffected by the current situation.”
A lack of new product will inevitably drive up the prices of what’s available. “This is not the first time I’ve been in distribution during a strike,” says one major distribution boss. “It tends to make library content more valuable but I don’t want to say it’s a good thing.”
For ITV’s Breslau, the key is keeping a constant dialogue with buyers about what’s been shut down and how production is shaping up. “Any concrete proposal would be dependent on clarity on production timelines,” she adds.
Indeed, there is added risk for buyers. Breslau recalls how ABC’s Pushing Daisies was cancelled largely due to the writers strike of 07-08, despite its multiple Emmy nominations — leaving ITV with a hole in its schedule.
Breslau is confident, however, that the LA Screenings remain an important date on the annual schedule. “Last year was really fruitful, as we acquired both The Twelve and Love & Death, which are terrific shows and are good examples of what we want this year: premium drama of 6-12 episodes with high-profile talent that will premiere on ITVX and then go on the ITV network,” she says.
Buyers may be straining to hear over the noise of picketing at the front gates but, ultimately, it is quality content, a healthy range of shows and rights availability that will drive conversation on the lots next week.
The post LA Screenings: How The Writers Strike Is Impacting This Year’s Event appeared first on Deadline.