So who are all these people and what do they want?That was a common refrain around town last week as 1,500 well-dressed, purposeful execs traipsed from one Hollywood studio to another, breaking occasionally into animated Finnish, soothing Portuguese or catchy Cantonese. Folks on the lots could make out phrases like “price per episode,” “it’s in our deal” and “the story arc is not clear to me,” but that was about it. No matter how often they come — and it’s been 25 years, generally right after the upfront presentations to advertisers in New York — few outside of those in the international TV biz get what this event is all about. (All the outsiders really see is better coffee being served every morning as the foreigners converge on screening rooms.) For the most part, those who participate in this ritual are happy to be ignored. The L.A. Screenings are an arcane, ever-shifting, oft-inconclusive rite in which TV program buyers from around the world sift through, and eventually buy, one, some or all of the new shows on offer at the various Hollywood studios. It’s a $6 billion a year game for the six Hollywood studios, though none of them ever likes to reveal their cards. Or even admit when they’ve won a hand. Were the “Star Wars” people in town waving TV rights to the latest Lucas blockbuster in front of buyers? Impossible to say for sure. Was DreamWorks dotting the i’s on a movie deal with pan-Euro station group SBS? “No comments” all around. Warner Bros. production chieftain Peter Roth put it deftly: “Without our foreign partners, we couldn’t afford to make the quality shows we’re turning out now.” An exec at another studio put it bluntly: “The money we bring in keeps the movie people in clover.” As for the foreign program buyers, they posture, they play down their enthusiasm for this or that show and, if prodded, may disseminate disinformation in order to throw competitors off the scent. A few clam up: The French buyers are notorious for never uttering un mot to anyone outside their station circle for fear of industrial espionage. Others wax eloquent: The Germans never lack critical opinions, though they don’t necessarily buy what they like. What’s even odder about this ritual is that the key buyers already know most of what they’re getting before they arrive. That’s because they have ongoing deals with one or more Hollywood major in which they have to take several series in order to get said major’s movies. It’s the “Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” pics that the buyers really covet — though lately they’ve warmed again to Yank series. Those series not tied up in long-term deals in a territory can spark a bidding war among buyers. That’s when the fun begins. Some of the series gathering heat late last week were Warners’ “Reunion,” Fox’s “Prison Break,” Par’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” Disney’s “Commander-in-Chief” and U’s “Fathom.” But given the number and types of buyers out there — including fledgling video-on-demand providers and a guy who said he was scouting Webisode rights for Eastern Europe! — there really ought to be something for everyone at the Screenings. Few buyers fell asleep during the daylong viewing sessions at each of the studios: They wanted to make sure they didn’t let the next “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives” get past them or end up on their competitors’ skeds. As for the studios in question, consolidation has reduced to six the sellers that count — with just two, Warners and Fox, now accounting for two-thirds of the primetime skeds of the Big Six broadcast nets. Execs at both professed to be thrilled to have such a huge number of shows to try to place in as many territories abroad as possible. Those with fewer shows stressed just as strenuously their satisfaction. All were upbeat at their prospects; none would talk about anything as tasteless as prices being paid. The dance goes on.
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