Transformative leaps rare in tough climate

For showbiz, 2011 has been a year of movement in fits and starts, rather than great leaps forward, as the industry grapples with a fast-changing, increasingly global business landscape.

There haven’t been any transformative transactions on the scale of, say, Comcast-NBCUniversal (although that union was formally sealed in January) or Disney-Marvel. Time Warner’s unsolicited $1.4 billion bid for Endemol marks the biggest bucks that any of the biz’s major congloms have put on the table (at least publicly) for an acquisition.

Despite the lack of blockbuster developments, however, there have been areas of notable activity that could set the stage for bigger changes to come:

• Windows, windows, windows. In TV and film, the biz has been acting like a menopausal woman in a stuffy room who can’t decide whether she wants the window opened wide, halfway or just a crack.

The tug of war between studios and exhibitors on the issue is emblematic of the struggle to balance the demands of various stakeholders in the theatrical business — particularly the changing habits of younger moviegoers. Even more than Universal caving on its plan for an early “Tower Heist” premium VOD window, the bigger surprise has been the lackluster showing so far from the $30 PVOD window that Warner Bros., Fox and Universal carved out with DirecTV, amid much drama with exhibs and some high-profile creatives.

No one has released any numbers, but it’s common knowledge that the studios have been disappointed with the results.

Is it a marketing problem? Is it the titles being offered? Only time and more market research will tell.

• The rise of Netflix. The netcaster has been part of virtually every conversation about the biz’s future, but Hollywood still can’t quite decide if Netflix is friend or foe.

Most in the biz seem to be leaning toward the friend side, though there has been unabashed schadenfreude as the company’s high-flying stock has fallen from $300-plus to the $70-$80 range in recent weeks.

CBS and Warner Bros., the two majors that have been most conservative in making their TV skeins available online, embraced Netflix as the savior of the CW in reaching a path-breaking output deal for the net’s programming. Netflix is also seen as filling a big financial hole for serialized and niche-appeal programs that will never fetch big bucks in the traditional cable/TV station syndie market (think “Mad Men”).

But now that so many have hitched their wagons with Netflix, the company’s fumbles with subscriber relations and its $400 million debt/stock offering last week have raised questions about whether it is in danger of becoming overextended.

n Film-financing follies. As Variety’s Rachel Abrams has reported, the climate for film-financing deals has definitely improved during the past year, but the terms and the players are very different than they were before the economic meltdown. The big banks are tiptoeing back in for big studio projects, on a selective basis. And companies like Endgame Entertainment are helping to fill the void in the indie sector with its new P&A fund. A big question for indie players is whether it’s possible to make real money on with a VOD release strategy. There’s an optimistic feeling out there is that all it will take is one or two home runs (by indie standards) to juice this market.

• International channels finally get some attention. They’re massive worldwide operations, yet the majors’ international channel operations have for years been largely invisible in Hollywood. But that’s changing as Fox, Sony and others have become more ambitious with programming for their clusters of studio-branded channels.

• Gently down the stream. The competition among music streaming services stepped up a notch this year as Pandora went public and Europe’s Spotify moved into the U.S. market.

What’s interesting is that all this activity has coincided with a period of consolidation among music publishing companies large and small.

‘Prime’ prospect for Peacock

No showbiz shingle has undergone more of a top-to-bottom transformation this year than the NBC broadcast net. As the sawdust flies on the rebuilding of its primetime lineup, here’s hoping the Peacock can find the resources to hang in there with “Prime Suspect,” its strongest new drama in years. Much praise has been showered on the writing and Maria Bello’s performance, and not to be overlooked is the show’s rock-solid supporting cast, anchored by the great Brian F. O’Byrne.

Grant Tinker has often told the story of how at a time when NBC was in bad shape, he and Brandon Tartikoff made the decision to renew “St. Elsewhere” after its low-rated first season because they knew it was a good show.

Let “Prime Suspect” be the “St. Elsewhere” for this generation.

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