New excitement found in foreign deals

CANNES — For the major U.S. studios, the Mip TV mart used to be a relatively sedate affair. They’d take a back seat as international buyers scoured to buy foreign formats, post-”Survivor” and “Big Brother,” that would be the Next Big Thing.

No more.

At this year’s event, which ran April 7-11, U.S. studios dominated the action, announcing globe-trotting deals with the excitement of a child discovering an atlas for the first time.

Just as in film, the importance of foreign has grown many-fold for major American players.

The studios’ primary TV business is still in licensing its programming to broadcasters worldwide. But multiple sea-changes — economic, industrial, social, even regulatory — are galvanizing international markets, bringing a new air of excitement to big foreign deals announced by companies at Mip.

Multiterritory and multiplatform seems the order of the day as Disney, Warners, Comcast, AETN and Discovery unveiled a plethora of pacts underlining their commitment to boosting their international presence.

The Mouse House was perhaps the most expansive of the U.S. companies, inking deals everywhere from Russia and Hungary to Israel and across Latin America. A major licensing deal with a Middle Eastern broadcaster is also in the pipelines.

Warner Bros., along with sister company HBO, joined hands to help France Telecom’s Orange launch its premium feevee service, the six-channel, movie-TV bouquet Orange Cinema Service, thanks to a longterm pay TV deal.

German pubcaster ZDF signed on to syndicate AETN docus across multiple platforms, as part of a reupped program and co-production alliance.

Discovery clinched a co-production-distribution pact with Brit broadcaster Five.

Comcast, once ultra-domestically focused, announced it had sold more than 900 hours of TV entertainment and lifestyle programming to the Asia Pacific region over the past six months.

Those are just some of the many deals that went down or were trumpeted in Cannes.

One reason for the intense international action is the dizzying progress in high-tech matters.

Internet and content-seeking telcos’ have split distribution wide open. Warner Bros. is in discussions for at least a dozen branded subscription VOD services around the world, Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger told Variety at Mip TV. 

In a typical Mip deal, ringing multiple platform changes, Comcast Intl. announced E! carriage deals with U.K. cable-broadband operator Virgin Media, Portuguese telco PT Telecom, SBB, Serbia’s biggest cabler and top Croatian IPTV player T-Com.

“This is the equivalent of the channel initiatives a lot of studios did 10 years ago. This is our new, improved and digital channel initiative for this era,” Schlesinger says.

Looking to drive triple-play sales of telephony, TV and Internet, telcos have spiked competition. France Telecom’s budget for Orange to buy movies, series and nonsoccer sports is claimed to be $156 million a year.

If new technologies are emerging, so are new markets.

According to ZenithOptimedia, Russia will be the world’s third-largest TV ad market in 2010, at $8.83 billion, just ahead of China at $8.71 billion, says Tom Toumazis, exec VP and managing director of Disney-ABC Intl. Television, Europe.

“We’re putting an enormous amount of focus into where the next China, Russia, India, Brazil is,” he adds, announcing new offices this year in Dubai, Istanbul and Johannesburg.

The increased sophistication of overseas production is forcing Hollywood to step up its game, and not take international for granted.

“When companies such as the majors are seeing what independents like FME are bringing to the table, they’re realizing they need to change their performance,” FremantleMedia Enterprises chief exec David Ellender says.

WBIT is now looking to expand format production — scripted and nonscripted — originating and developing local-language production in a number of markets, Schlesinger says.

According to John McMahon, prexy of Sony Pictures Television Intl., Europe, Sony has “a big initiative” to step up its light entertainment format business in local markets.

The plunging dollar adds further U.S. export incentives.

“It’s great for us if we can get our deals denominated in euros, or denominated in dollars, taking into account how much the euro has gone up,” says MGM prexy worldwide distribution, Gary Marenzi.

“When you look at the strength of the U.S. economy and the strength of the euro and the pound, there’s an increasing impetus to bring in revenue from outside the U.S,” says Kevin MacLellan, prexy of Comcast Intl. Media Group.

International is no slam dunk, however. TV advertising is flat in some key overseas markets. Broadcasters, still the U.S. studios’ principal clients, are losing market share fast.

“What we worry about is if the double-digit uplifts in developing markets will more than compensate the single-digit decreases in major markets,” Schlesinger says.

And international companies are going international too. Mip TV saw a string of overseas companies — often highly capitalized leaders in their own fast-maturing home markets — announce international co-production pacts, or their intention of buying up foreign companies.

Mip TV’s most ambitious shingles included Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine, which has already acquired Reveille; Germany’s Beta, eyeing U.S. program acquisitions; Mexico’s Televisa, which inked a co-production alliance with France’s JLA; plus DeAgostini-Marathon and France’s Lagardere, both of which plan pan-European TV companies.

“International” was the Mip TV buzz-word.

But it’s also now a two-way street: There’s a new sense of balance between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

When Tom Toumazis, referred to Germany’s ProSiebenSat1, explaining a Mip-announced output deal renewal, he didn’t call the broadcast group a client. He used the word “partner.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more