MIP bubbling under

More sober Mipcom sees increase in trading

CANNES — More espresso, less champagne.

That’s the international TV market’s beverage of choice these days, and last week’s annual Mipcom market in Cannes was no exception. In fact, the new fiscal sobriety may have yielded an upturn in trading at this fall’s Riviera program emporium.

“No one’s popping champagne corks, but the fundamentals are turning positive,” said Midem chief exec Paul Zilk, who managed to keep this year’s attendance just ahead of 2002 levels.

That’s saying a lot for a slice of the film and TV biz pummeled by three years of ad recession, consolidation and more than a few bankruptcies.

Buyers and sellers, noting that at least this market didn’t coincide with a war, were certainly more upbeat — or at least less beaten down.

Even the Hollywood majors, still the biggest draws in Cannes with their fresh crop of fall series and boatloads of box office buzz, can’t simply hold court for a string of eager buyers.

Resigned to a market of stingier buyers seeking smaller packages for fewer slots, distribs are hungry for every crumb they can get.

“Today, you can’t neglect cable channels, or say Croatia isn’t worth bothering over,” said Frank Soloveicik, head of distribution for France’s Lagardare Active, now one of Europe’s largest TV distributors.

Most are accepting the new reality of a mature business, and are adapting their business models to suit diminished demand.

“The growth rates are not through the roof like they once were,” Sony Pictures Int. TV prexy Michael Grindon told Variety, “but international is still a major component of the film business.”

Warner Bros., tacitly acknowledging its buyers’ need, cash constraints and “challenging” nature of the market, rolled out its Kids WB package of programming as a new “highly promotable, fully customizable” branded block for international buyers.

Unusually, Warner is accepting a mix of cash and barter for the block and says it’s prepared to let the broadcaster’s in on potential sponsorship revenues linked to the “Kids WB” branded block.

Sellers also spent a lot more time talking up new potential revenue sources like VOD and DVD window rights, licensing and merchandising, barter and sponsorship – proof that there are no easy dollars left in foreign syndication.

“This is a very hysterical industry. It’s never really as bad as many believed,” said an unfazed David Hulbert, Walt Disney TV Intl. prexy, noting that the reduced demand and forced restructuring among buyers and sellers has a silver lining of efficiency. “There are better controls, lower headcounts and more careful marketing.”

“It’s a market of recovery,” agreed Simone Halberstadt Harari, prexy and CEO of France’s Tele Images Intl. “There are lots of people who haven’t bought for 18 months and program stocks are running out. People are starting to buy again although prices have come down.”

Sony’s Grindon also noted that buyers are shrewder and more sophisticated these days.

“They’re more conscious of rights and windows and certainly less reliant on U.S. product,” he said. That suits Sony just fine, since the studio now has foreign production ventures in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia and the U.K., among others.

Sony, while touting some big sales last week to the BBC (for upcoming Steven King series “Kingdom Hospital”) and German paybox Premiere, is putting its faith equally in locally produced series.

Its overseas-produced programs now constitute 35% of its international TV sales, and Grindon said he’s looking into setting up operations in Greece and Turkey along with its first live action series in Japan.

Besides some early enthusiasm for “Nip/Tuck” and “Joan of Arcadia,” however, foreign buyers were not overly impressed by the new batch of U.S. fall series.

“It’s not a good vintage,” sniffed one buyer.

Questions of taste aside, the big distribs were still able to show off a healthy basket of deals.

Disney, which had already trimmed its own operations to contend with slower ad growth, sealed big package deals in the U.K., South Africa, Italy and Australia for its new and returning series and recent film slate.

Disney, poised to launch the Disney Channel in Japan Nov. 18 — its biggest bow outside the U.S. to date — also announced plans to launch a digital entertainment channel on the BBC’s Freeview digital terrestrial platform in the U.K.

And while few studio sales exec will admit being apprehensive, the market for pay TV movie output deals — once a guaranteed source of multi-year dollar dosh — is tight.

Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB in the U.K. and SkyItalia in Italy are playing hardball with the majors to cut annual spending on movies.

But Sony’s Grindon isn’t buying Rupe’s tough talk.

“Everyone likes to rattle the sword until they take a look at their business and must take the hard decision as to whether they can really afford to let a deal pass by them,” he said.

If Sky opts to make the terms unpalatable, the studios could set up their own alternative channel, he said.

Thankfully, there’s one form of TV viewing that’s still growing by leaps and bounds: DVD.

Warren Lieberfarb noted in a confab presentation that consumers will spend some $30 billion buying or renting DVDs worldwide this year. TV series in particular could have tremendous upside overseas.

“Friends,” he noted, has already raked in some $400 million in DVD sales.

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