Euro marts: a bad trip?

TV exex head to Cannes

The 17th annual Mipcom, which unspools Oct. 8-12 in Cannes, may go down as the most disjointed in memory.

The fall TV trade show — arguably the most important gathering for the international small-screen biz — was already bracing from a worldwide advertising slump. In addition, a strong dollar means foreign stations can’t afford to make huge outlays for U.S. shows.

If those problems weren’t enough to dampen spirits and tighten purse strings, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington have done the rest.

While some 60 international trade shows of various kinds have been canceled in the wake of the attacks, Mipcom organizers rushed last week to reassure delegates that all possible precautions were being taken to guarantee their safety.

As of Monday, only a handful of small U.S. exhibitors had canceled — Associated TV, Sesame Workshop, Home and Garden TV, World Wrestling Federation and Intermedia — as well as an unspecified number of Asian buyers mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia. Program buyers from the three Aussie commercial stations have also pulled out of the Riviera rendezvous.

Mipcom’s Personality of the Year, MTV Networks chairman Tom Freston, has reconfirmed his attendance at a gala dinner to be held Oct. 10, as has novelist Mary Higgins Clark, who will be on hand for a cocktail party to tout TV movies based on her suspensers.

The jittery 10,500 delegates (down from last year’s 11,700) expected to show up for the five-day bazaar will find heightened security and longer lines.

Said Columbia TriStar Intl. TV prexy Michael Grindon: “There’s no doubt that people are feeling dazed, and clearly a few pieces of business will be postponed or not get done.”

All the Hollywood majors will staff exhibition stands on the floor of the Cannes Palais. Yanks are once again the single largest contingent at Mipcom (25% of the total) — and by far the biggest supplier of movies and series to the worldwide market.

Indeed, more and more of the business is concentrated in the hands of a half-dozen Hollywood congloms. And even for them, program sales abroad have gotten much tougher.

Twentieth Century Fox exec VP Marion Edwards summarized the piquancy of the moment: “What a terrible time for the international market to constrict — when we’re producing so much interesting, original programming from so many sources for so many outlets.”

Edwards pointed to her company’s drama “24,” which stars Kiefer Sutherland and has already clocked several deals in key territories.

But her comment applies to a host of other top-notch shows — everything from hits like Warners’ “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” to such upcoming contenders as Sony’s “Pasadena,” and Warner’s “Smallville.”

To be sure, top-tier shows — Fox’s “The X-Files” and Warners “ER” — have raked in $1 million-plus an episode from overseas, but except for a handful of standouts like these, few U.S. dramas ever reach the $700,000-an-episode plateau. Sitcoms rarely gross more than $300,000 an episode from sales outside the U.S.

“It has been turning more toward a buyer’s market, and it’s getting tougher and trickier to do deals abroad,” said Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi.

Among the reasons he ticked off: “The dollar is too strong, there are too few feature films to drive packages and too many TV shows to offload.

“We’re putting together and maintaining four times as many deals these days with the same amount of staff.”

Indie landscape

And on the indie front, telepic distrib Carlton America faces hurdles not dissimilar to those of the majors.

“Our buyers are being asked to cut back on their acquisition budgets. They only want shows that can stand on their own and are easily promoted,” said company CEO, Stephen Davis.

Davis can rely on output arrangements in most major territories, but making up the rest of the deficits on his 15 telepics doesn’t get any easier.

“We’re trying to be accommodating,” he said, “but there’s been a significant crimp put in the market.”

As mainstream Euro stations rely more on locally produced shows or cheap reality formats, U.S. suppliers must try to put together deals with upstart cablers and niche players. Only problem: The latter pay considerably less than their mainstream broadcasting brethren.

Given all these dislocations, expect the $5 billion a year in total revs that American companies rake in from TV outlets abroad to remain flat in 2001.

Not that some shows won’t sell.

A clutch of fall sked hopefuls got high marks from foreign buyers at the L.A. Screenings in June. And, of course, many foreign buyers are obliged to take all or a selection of series from the majors’ through multiyear output deals.

Expect some additional station deals for series like CBS’ “Agency,” Disney’s “Alias” and Warner’s “Thieves,” among others. Unless, that is, fallout from the terrorist attacks means viewers are turned off by any series that smacks of violence, stylized though theymay be.

Optimism rules

Despite that cautionary note, sellers are, on the record at least, an incorrigibly optimistic lot.

“The universal rule is that quality will get you through. That means exercising cost controls while trying to come up with highly branded programming,” said Fremantle Intl. Distribution prexy Catherine Mackay.

She pointed to her company’s animated series “Mr. Bean” and interactive reality skein “Pop Idols” as indicative of such programming.

Columbia TriStar’s Grindon said he has high hopes for a whimsical reality skein called “Worst Case Scenario,” which could be paired abroad with his company’s other reality series “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

And Vivendi Universal’s new international distribution co-prexy, Belinda Menendez, is banking on the impressive run her studio had recently on the feature film side — everything from “The Mummy” and “Jurassic Park III” to “American Pie 2” and “The Fast and the Furious.” Company plans one of the few parties at Mipcom to hype the latter movie.

Finally, CBS international prexy Armando Nunez contends U.S. suppliers are already dealing with a downturn in the biz — a wrinkle he argued is just part of “a cycle of ups and downs.”

Nunez will be concentrating on sales of the Eye web’s CIA-themed drama “The Agency,” which has Wolfgang Petersen attached as exec producer.

Not closing a deal on the Croisette does not, Nunez cautioned, spell ruin for a show’s foreign prospects.

“What’s the rush?” he asked. “If ‘The Agency’ is really good, a few more weeks of ratings might actually be just what we need to get the best price. I can wait.”

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