Marriages Made At Mip

Co-productions are no longer a MIP-TV sideshow. They’re the main event.

With the new emphasis in Europe on revving up local production and cost-effective program sharing, the only bulk-buying still being done is by a few start-up commercial channels.

“The new challenge is to get in on the 50% or 60% of their skeds that the Europeans are now producing themselves locally. That you can do only through co-production,” said Colin Davis, president of MCA-TV Intl., at MIP last week.

Network acquisitions departments in Europe and beyond are finding themselves upstaged by their co-prod colleagues, who now dominate primetime, banishing them to off-peak hours.

‘With production budgets for shows soaring, risk-sharing has become an essential part of the tv business on both sides of the Atlantic,” said one financial analyst at the market. “That’s why co-production over the last five years has taken an increasingly large chunk of the time, energy and resources of tv execs coming to the international trade shows.”

That includes even the last holdouts: the U.S. major studios – increasingly trying to get in on the act – the U.S. networks – unshackled by the FCC recently to engage more fully in the international business – and even the locally focused U.S. domestic syndicators.

Adds Al Masini, producer of U.S. firstrun favorites like “Star Search,” “We now conceptualize our programs with foreign potential in mind. This has become much more important to our business as the margins at home are squeezed.”

The scurry to find new revenue sources for projects probably helps explain why the most crowded booth on the main floor of the Palais was that of MICO, the new Japanese investment consortium putting money into indie productions around the world.

Some of the co-production developments include:

* ABC Intl. pacting with ZDF to produce some 12 tv movies for the international market. Germany’s TeleMunchen and Italy’s RCS will also be involved.

* Showtime inking with Britain’s Yorkshire TV Intl. in a five-film development deal.

* Warner Bros. TV courting Japanese investors for a series based on the life of Babe Ruth.

* MCA-TV Intl. developing a romantic comedy series with France’s TF-1 and an action adventure series with Germany’s RTL Plus.

* Maryland Public TV partnering with Berlin’s RIAS on a docu, “Europe: Road To Unity.”

* Samuel Goldwyn trying to interest European partners in tailoring local versions of its firstrun show “American Gladiators.” Westinghouse is turning its old “PM Magazine” show concept into a European strand called “VIP.”

* Ron Lyon, a former Universal exec turned indie producer, signed a 13-episode commitment for French television.

Other signs of increased co-prod activity:

BBC Enterprises, the sales arm of the British pubcaster, is to increase the number of its co-productions, especially longrunning dramas, with Continental producers.

RAI-2 is earmarking $100 million for productions this year. Reg Grundy’s company is cookie-cutting local versions of its Australian hit series “Neighbours” while Pierre Grimblat’s Hamster Prods. racked up hefty sales to Euro markets of its hit French detective series “Navarro.’

While co-prods were stealing the spotlight, sellers reported steady but unspectacular business, not helped by three formerly strong markets – France, Britain and Australia – cutting back heavily this year.

On the other hand, Italy has been reactivated by an emboldened Tele Monte Carlo; Portugal’s staterun broadcaster is filling its pipeline before commercial competition comes onstream; and a new management team at SRI in Sweden is gearing up for a more competitive environment in Scandinavia.

Worldvision Enterprises exec veep and chief operating officer Bert Cohen pointed out that buyers still move quickly when they don’t want to take a chance that something hot will fall into other hands: “On-The-Air,” his Lynch-Frost production that doesn’t yet have a network commitment, has been picked up by the BBC, Tele MonteCarlo, TVE and RTL Plus.

While new MIP participants from Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy and France did suggest the underlying good health of the international market, no one wanted to predict there ever would be another time like the late ’80s for sellers.

“The peak in enthusiasm for ‘international’ came at last year’s MIP. We’re now in a sort of trough, between that boom and whatever lies ahead,” said one source.

Another widespread feeling in Europe is that sitcoms, the main-stay of network programming in the States, are working less well as a whole internationally and that maybe the Europeans can simply produce their own if they feel the need.

Sellers weren’t the only ones to wonder what lay ahead. Buyers found themselves being more cautious in a more uncertain economic climate, and there was precious little new product to entice them, anyway.

U.S. sellers found they could place strong strippable material, from Warners’ “Full House” to King World’s “Candid Camera”; high-profile minis and tv movies, from “To Catch A Killer” to “Separate But Equal”; or classic catalog material, from “Flipper” to “I Love Lucy.” Outside of the high-profile programming, sellers had trouble.

Said one exec from a major U.S. studio: “This was a dull market. We did okay this time, but if this happens again at Mipcom, then we have something to worry about.”

“No megabuck deals or film package sales were trumpeted at this market nor was there a buzz in the corridors about a hot show or program strand,” said one veteran attendee.

“Money is tight,” says Art Kane, indie producer and consultant to companies wishing to set up in the international business. His view was echoed by others on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jeremy Coopman, Brian Lowry and Jennifer Clark in Cannes contributed to this report.

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