Indie syndie takes on titans

Vets set to storm NATPE

Two years ago their operation didn’t even exist, but a pair of veteran syndicators named Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein are on a roll that would make some of the major-studio TV divisions envious.

Armed with the syndication rights to reruns of “South Park” and “Farscape,” and to theatrical-movie inventories from Revolution Studios and Lions Gate Films, Marcus and Bernstein could end up making more programming deals with TV stations at next week’s NATPE convention than any other indie distributor. And some of the majors won’t even have that much product.

It’s all happened so fast that the two men still haven’t figured out a name for their new company yet. Marcus runs his own banner, Debmar Studios (which is the name attached to their syndicated shows, for now), and Bernstein calls his company Mercury Entertainment, but the pair say they’ll eventually fold them into one enterprise.

However, the two will continue to work on opposite sides of the country: Bernstein and his wife are raising their two kids in suburban New York, while Marcus’ family is wedded to Los Angeles.

But laid-back L.A. hasn’t mellowed out Marcus, the worrier of the two. Early last year, Marcus was involved in delicate negotiations with TV stations nervous about buying the raunchy “South Park,” even in a carefully edited version. When Janet Jackson bared her left breast during the halftime of last year’s Super Bowl, bringing down the wrath of the FCC, Marcus had an acid-reflux attack that left him almost totally dejected.

But not resigned: Marcus forged ahead, and, when the dust settles from the whirlwind of syndie sales, “South Park” could end up grossing a humongous $150 million from a combination of TV-station license fees and advertiser dollars.

Even though the FCC’s crackdown on broadcast-TV content made it harder for Debmar to sell “South Park,” Bernstein never got depressed for a minute. Younger and more energetic than Marcus, he’ll bark with laughter at the slightest provocation.

“It’s great to have Mort and Ira coming up with alternative programming,” says Dan Stein, head of programming for Clear Channel Television, which owns 33 TV stations.

Stein bemoans the fact that mergers and buyouts have consolidated the TV-distribution biz into the hands of six giants, which have driven most of the indie companies out of business.

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of TV stations, says Marcus and Bernstein came along with “South Park” at the right time because the marketplace is hurting for new sitcoms with any prospect of capturing a mass audience.

“The two men built trust among station buyers of ‘South Park,’ ” Carroll says, “by acknowledging upfront that the language would have to be altered on most of the episodes, and that some episodes would never be able to get on the air. And even skeptical stations couldn’t ignore the show’s high ratings on Comedy Central.”

The sales climate also looks good for the 88 hours of “Farscape.” Carroll says the production quality is high, bearing the stamp of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, which filmed the show in Australia.

And competition for weekend time periods won’t be so ferocious, particularly since Tribune Entertainment has stopped production on “Andromeda” and “Mutant X,” two of the most visible sci-fi action shows in recent years.

Bernstein is also a sales consultant to Lions Gate, so don’t be surprised if Debmar gets the rights to sell the company’s theatrical movies such as “The Punisher,” “Open Water,” “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” “Confidence” and “Godsend.”

And Lions Gate produces “The Dead Zone,” a hit series on USA based on the Stephen King novel, whose reruns could make a nice companion piece to “Farscape.”

Bottom line: Marcus and Bernstein are thriving despite being surrounded by testy 800-pound syndication gorillas like Paramount, Buena Vista, Warner Bros. and NBC Universal.

“There’s no question about it,” says Carroll. “Mort and Ira are going to keep acquiring product and expanding their business. They’re fearless.”