European dealmakers fuel interest in Cannes confab

For organizers of the 25th edition of Mipcom, the focus this year won’t be on who isn’t coming. With more than 12,000 registered participants, 4,000 TV buyers and top talent like Jerry Seinfeld and Matt Groening all traveling to Cannes for the annual audiovisual content tradeshow, confab officials can’t help but take a glass-half-full attitude.

“We’re actually very happy,” says Reed Midem acting director of television Laurine Garaude, literally breathing a sigh of relief as she finishes the sentence. “Attendance is down. But in this economic climate, the numbers are very good.”

How good? Contrast Mipcom’s 9% drop this year with the relatively empty convention hall at NATPE in January. The syndie biz’s annual Vegas confab saw its numbers drop by 14%, the latest in a series of downturns that has prompted event organizers to abandon the exhibition floor altogether next year in favor of hotel suites at Mandalay Bay.

That Mipcom has been able to sustain three annual market gatherings while NATPE tries to reinvent its North American event and gain a foothold with its regional Discop marts worldwide is a reality not lost on buyers and sellers.

“NAPTE tried to become international at a time when the production center of the world moved from the United States toward Europe, particularly the United Kingdom,” says Bertrand Villegas of media analyst the Wit. “The timing was particularly bad.”

But that doesn’t mean NATPE is going away anytime soon. Both buyers and sellers say that any organized gathering that puts them face to face with their counterparts will continue to have value for the foreseeable future.

“All businesses are relationship-driven, and the entertainment business more than most,” says Mara Sternthal, senior vice president of business development at Ascent Media Group. Sternthal, who began attending both Mipcom and NATPE in 1989, popping in VHS tapes as a rep for Cap Cities/ABC, adds, “You can use webcams and Skype all you want, but nothing beats shaking someone’s hand in person.”

Mipcom’s ascendance and NATPE’s recent misfortunes have much to do with a number of factors outside of organizers’ control. When NATPE president-CEO Rick Feldman told attendees at this year’s conference that “NATPE is a mirror of our business,” he was right on point. Advertising revenues for local broadcast stations have shrunk dramatically recently, with Pali Research analyst Rich Greenfield noting the business is “in complete freefall.” Hard times slow sales, wounding events like NATPE in the process.

Mipcom hasn’t been immune to the economic slowdown, but its central location in the South of France makes it attractive and affordable to buyers from the still-burgeoning markets in China, the Middle East, Russia and Africa.

“People come here ready to buy,” says Maryanne Culpepper, executive vice president, editorial development, with National Geographic Television & Film. “There are representatives from a lot of territories, and they’re interested in your new things for their new seasons. They’re focused, and they want to be pitched. You don’t have to stalk them.”

Mipcom also has been careful to position itself as a place for participants to engage in new ways to sell their shows, with the Internet dominating the conversation.

“Traditional business is still the core of the event,” Garaude says, “but there’s also been an acceleration toward multiplatforming and developing new revenue streams. One of the themes of Mipcom this year is ‘Rethinking Your Business.’ ”

NATPE, too, is working hard to reinvent a gathering that now seems of a different era altogether, a time when sellers thought nothing of spending millions of dollars on lavish exhibits. The event retains an appeal to reps from North and South America, and board member Phil Gurin says the focus now should be on positioning NATPE strongly as a “U.S.-centric event.”

Gurin, who goes to both Mipcom and NATPE as an indie producer and distributor of reality programming, says that if “you make money in this arena, you still have to go to both events.” Gurin adds that Cannes isn’t a bad place to go in October, and he uses the market gathering as a starting point for an extended European vacation.

For those lacking the financial wherewithal to travel, Ascent’s Sternthal just launched an alternative: Global Media Exchange, an online marketplace that will provide buyers and sellers a tool to browse content without paying for international airfare. Soft-launching Oct. 1, the site aims to be the virtual equivalent of a market gathering like Mipcom.

Sternthal is quick to point out, though, that Global Media Exchange isn’t designed to replace the real thing.

“One of the goals is to complement the attendance at a market by providing buyers and sellers a year-round opportunity to connect,” Sternthal says. “Complex deals will still be done in person. This will be just another way to build relationships.”

“Nothing will ever replace physical face time,” Gurin concludes.

TIP SHEET

What: Mipcom 2009

When: Oct. 5-9

Where: Cannes

Who: Keynote speakers include FremantleMedia CEO Tony Cohen, Hasbro prexy-CEO Brian Goldner, “The Simpsons” exec producers Matt Groening & Al Jean, Publicis COO Richard Pinder, TiVo prexy-CEO Tom Rogers.

Web: mipcom.com

Filed Under:

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