Independents day declared

Small distribs see chance to nab major biz

HOLLYWOOD — This could be the market where buyers from Europe, Asia and Latin America actually put (some of) their money where their mouths are.

For one thing, there’s not much buzz on the 35 new network primetime shows that are being fielded at Mipcom by the Hollywood majors.

For another, overseas TV station program buyers have been griping that they are too dependent on the Hollywood majors and that they’ve been lured into taking too much unwanted product in order to secure the few movies and shows they do want.

Now that many of these megabuck output deals with the majors are in disrepute — deals as far-flung as Germany and Australia are being renegotiated or scaled back — there’s an opportunity for fleet-footed indie sellers to get back into the action.

That could mean wresting a larger portion of the $6 billion haul from overseas sales — 90% of which ends up in the pockets of just seven Hollywood majors. Variety guestimates that American indies of all stripes jointly rack up $600 million from foreign sales to free and pay TV stations abroad.

Those U.S. indie distribbers that have resisted consolidation, downsizing and the current round of economic hard times are hoping that the five-day Riviera rendezvous (Oct. 7-11) will start to turn the tide in their direction.

After all, this time around there’s an unprecedented array of programming from Yank indie suppliers available to buyers on the Croisette.

Whether it’s special event docs, telepics, kidvid, reality shows, cable originals, action hours or B movies, U.S. indie suppliers will rep the largest single exhibitor contingent on the Riviera for the 18th edition of Mipcom.

Most Yank suppliers are reasonably optimistic that the economy will soon pick up and that they’ll be able to take advantage of the greater flexibility for placing programs on stations abroad.

Not that that task is easy.

Scott Hanock, a veteran indie supplier whose latest banner is called TVFilmBiz, is forthright about the difficulties.

“I’ve doubled my sales volume over the first nine months of the year, but my gross revenues are down,” he admits.

Despite the pressure on pricing, his recipe is the same: keep overheads and co-production relationships in line and business will be OK. His top Mipcom offering is “Planet’s Funniest Animals,” which was just renewed by Britain’s ITV for a third season.

Another possible hot show at the market could be DreamWorks’ cable series for the Sci Fi Channel called “Taken,” which boasts the Steven Spielberg imprimatur.

The company has positioned itself cleverly as a hybrid: acting like a Hollywood major by closing output deals for its movies in most key territories, yet retaining an indie spirit in its dealings with foreign clients.

“Taken,” says DreamWorks’ distribution supremo Hal Richardson, is “more alien abduction than ‘X-Files,’ and covers an ambitious time frame of four generations in its first season.” Distrib will likely have a couple of episodes to show buyers in Cannes.

Richardson says that foreign buyers are picking up fewer units from the majors than in past years and that it’s getting harder for those majors to renew their deals on such favorable terms.

On the reality front, the transatlantic traffic continues apace, with MTV racking up impressive deals abroad for “The Osbournes” in the U.K. and other English-lingo territories.

IBC, a 1-year-old indie set up by former E! exec Jon Helmrich, for example, is already fielding 30 shows abroad, including a cooking show called “Recipe TV” and a lifestyle series called “Beautiful Homes and Estates.”

Helmrich says buyers really do yearn for “the personal touch” and the ability to acquire “only what they want not what the seller wants them to take.”

Similarly, Fireworks prexy Greg Phillips says it’s crucial for an indie to be in sync with its co-pro broadcast partners abroad so that the end product is what all partnrs want — not just what the North American partner wants to dump.

Fireworks, which specializes in sci-fi actioners like “Andromeda,” “Mutant X” and now “Adventure Inc,” proceeds with projects only if all the elements are in place — the domestic syndication deal, the Canadian incentives, the Euro broadcast partners.

Helmrich and Phillips think Mipcom could be a test to see how serious buyers are about spreading their nets a little wider.

Even “extreme” reality like E!’s vehicle for celeb Anna Nicole Smith may get attention from buyers.

E! Intl. senior VP Kevin MacLellan says he expects the show — he calls it “a reality sitcom” — to sell well not only in English-lingo territories.

He points out that Smith is well known abroad, having done Swedish cosmetic commercials, Japanese clothing store spots and Mexican beer ads.

MacLellan avers that E! has had “a fabulous year abroad” with 12 new shows to sell in the past 12 months, including “Las Vegas Showgirls” and “Royalty A to Z.”

E!’s programming, he points out, is perceived by foreign buyers as “a safe bet,” something they can easily make back many times over in ad revs.

Somewhat differently, Discovery is banking on special event mega-docs like its upcoming James Cameron produced “Bismarck” to ram its way into primetime space once reserved for blockbuster movies.

“We’re beginning to build a network of overseas broadcasters who help us raise the bar in terms of what we spend to make the shows and who help extend our brand at the same time,” says Discovery VP Joe Kennedy.

Kennedy points to success with “Pharoahs” and “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” in primetime Sunday slots as the kind of showcase he’s wants for the company’s biggest projects.

“It’s up to us to convince foreign buyers why special event programming rather than movies might work in some of these high-profile slots,” he says.

Telepic turndown

On the TV movie front, consolidation has left only a handful of indie suppliers on the scene, with Carlton America the most notable distribber of telepics outside the majors themselves.

Company prexy-CEO Stephen Davis says he foresees no immediate uptick in the foreign markets yet, estimating that a recovery is at least six to eight months away. Nonetheless, he says, buyers seem “more open” to picking up made-fors now that their pipelines are no longer clogged with all-inclusive output deals.

His latest telepics are the Alec Baldwin-toplined “Second Nature” and the Dean Cain starrer “Breakaway.” Davis now fields a dozen new telepics a year and hopes to bring that annual total to 15 or 16.

Another telepic distribber, Porchlight, says the formula for success abroad as an indie is to stay “true to one’s niche,” which in its case means offering family entertainment with no gratuitous sex or violence.

Prexy Bruce Johnson says 6-year-old Porchlight is bringing 10 new made-fors to the market plus three animated projects that will be looking for co-finance.

Finally, on the kids front, Andy Heyward points out that the overseas market has opened up dramatically for indies — at least for those that are still in business.

In just the past couple of years, the maker of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” Saban, was sold off, first to Fox, then to Disney, Cinar imploded and even Columbia TriStar’s family unit has gone fallow.

Heyward took his own outfit DIC out from under the Mouse House umbrella two years ago and is now producing kids shows for all U.S. outlets, not just for the Disney Channel.

“It really helps abroad if you have Euro content,” chairman-CEO Heyward says, referring to the advantage many of his shows have in meeting local quotas on European screens.

“Sabrina’s Secret Life,” “Strawberry Shortcake” and “Speed Racer” will be among those in DIC’s bag next week.

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