Buyers warming to Warner skeins

WB screens new dramas

It was mostly “The Nine,” “Smith” and “Traveler” that variously caught the fancy of some 400 international TV program buyers who attended the Warner Bros. screenings marathon Monday on the studio’s lot.

All three upcoming primetime dramas were screened in the morning, and all three pilots featured explosions and mayhem of one kind or another. Seven other shows were screened during the afternoon session.

The big question is whether those bangs will translate into “bang-up believable storylines,” said several buyers who attended the daylong session. (And for Warners, whether those bangs will eventually translate into big-buck license fees from its foreign station clients.)

Warners rakes in an estimated $1.5 billion each year from its sales of series and movies to TV stations abroad.

An informal survey of program buyers on the lot suggested that they were generally impressed with “the movielike qualities” and “the feel and pacing” of the shows, as well as “the heavyweight talent” behind them.

But most were reluctant to spell out what, if anything, they are likely to buy when they wrap up their viewing marathon on Friday. (The five other major studios are holding similar sessions each day on their lots.)

Canal Plus buyer Sandra Ouaiss, who also sat through the upfronts in New York last week, said that there are “a lot of really good shows on offer this year from all the studios” — but so far, to her mind, “no standout.” Last time she sensed a buzz show was two years ago, when Disney’s “Desperate Housewives” came on the scene.

“All the networks now want their shows to be addictive, and hence they’re trying really hard in the pilots to grab the viewers immediately. Sometimes the effort seems forced,” she told Daily Variety.

Like several other buyers from around Europe and Latin America, Ouaiss did say that the Warner fare looked promising overall.

Veteran buyer Klaus Hallig, whose company ITTC used to buy for Germany’s Kirch Group, said he’d rarely seen such a strong slate from Warners.

“It’s overall one of the better outputs I’ve seen from Warners,” Hallig said. “Studio 60,” the fourth drama screened Monday morning, is “beautifully written and acted,” but it could be that “the metier, the setting of the series, doesn’t travel that well abroad,” he opined. The Aaron Sorkin series is set behind the scenes at a latenight comedy sketch show in Hollywood. (A table of Scandi buyers, however, whose compatriots typically speak fluent English, insisted “Studio 60” was “the best produced” of what they’d seen so far.)

Several other buyers from Western Europe said they enjoyed the noisy action of “Nine” and “Smith” but wanted to see more episodes before committing.

“Nine,” exec produced by Hank Steinberg, starts off with a bank robbery and hostage-taking incident; “Smith,” created by John Wells and starring Ray Liotta, focuses in the first episode on an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like art heist.

Hallig and Ouaiss are part of the 1,500-strong contingent of foreign execs in town for the L.A. Screenings, which is the first occasion each year for overseas buyers to assess the upcoming fall shows and determine which, if any, they may purchase for their stations back home.

As a general rule, Warners has volume deals with more than one player in each major foreign territory because there’s simply too much product for one client to absorb. Thus the name of the game for that Hollywood supplier is to place as many of its shows as possible, often packaged together with the studio’s movies. (It’s usually a couple of comedies that get left behind or fail to sell for very much.)

Warner brass were on the lot Monday to talk up the hefty slate and the writer-producers behind them.

Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger said his division has 11 new primetime series to license abroad, including seven dramas, as well as 16 returning shows.

Moreover, he pointed out, Warners is the only studio to have three shows on each of the Big Four American networks, at least one on every night.

“To be bigger we need to be better,” Schlesinger said, adding that 20 of the 26 shows in question are on nets that Warner does not own, whereas competitors Paramount, NBC Universal and Fox are largely producing for their own networks.

In other remarks, Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer put the emphasis on the need for those dollars from international sales of series to make such “mini-movies” possible.

“It’s your international support that allows us to produce the high-quality shows you’ve come to expect,” Meyer said. He also reminded attendees of the company’s upcoming tentpole pics, “Superman Returns,” “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “The Good German,” among them.

Such movies generally get packaged along with series.

The coming season will represent the fourth consecutive year that Warner Bros. is the leading supplier to the U.S. networks. It has been numero uno for 16 of the last 20 years.

Peter Roth, the president of the studio, ran down the list of talent involved in next season’s pickups — a list that includes not only Steinberg, Wells, Sorkin and partner Thomas Schlamme, he said, but also Jerry Bruckheimer, Barry Sonnenfeld, Jim Mangold, David Nutter and David Crane, among others.

Meanwhile, down the street in Burbank on the Disney lot, Mouse House execs took the wraps off a few deals done on the eve of the Screenings.

While most of the press ink goes to Disney’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” deals, other product also continues to ring the cash register.

Disney sitcom “According to Jim” will be reversioned abroad for the first time — by Turkish producer Medyapim for local broadcaster ATV.

Medyapim has already formatted Disney sitcom “Hope & Faith” for its local market.

Disney also unveiled a renewal of a multiyear agreement with Japan’s Wowow that will provide movies like “The Chronicles of Narnia” and series like “Grey’s Anatomy” to that satcaster.

The Screenings will wrap on Friday, and most program deals with major territories will be concluded over the summer.

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