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Hot series invade Croisette

Buyers are favoring primetime over pix

Move over, movies. American TV series, not feature films, are the hottest commodity in the international market today.

The creme de la creme — hour dramas like “CSI: Miami,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Invasion” — are reckoned to be pulling in upwards of $1 million an episode from foreign deals.

Urban, ethnic or otherwise quintessentially American half-hour sitcoms like “My Name Is Earl” and “Everybody Hates Chris” are getting a look-see from once-snooty foreign program buyers. So, too, are less obvious fare such as “Weeds,” a hit on Showtime that is distribbed by Lionsgate, and the hoary hour “ER,” still one of Warners’ most lucrative shows abroad.

“The trend started in the U.K. and Australia, but is now spreading elsewhere,” said Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. Intl. TV, one of the largest distributors of both movies and series in the world.

“Series really do provide something unique to foreign stations, whereas with movies, there are just so many places and ways to access them that there’s not the same must-have factor as there once was,” Schlesinger noted.

There’s research data from abroad to support the contention that series have more sizzle.

A just-released study from Paris-based research firm Eurodata argues series are the most-watched fiction genre in most countries around the world.

“Among the different fiction genres, note the sharp rise of series, to the expense of all the other genres, to 64% of the top fiction audiences in 2005, compared with 50% in 2004,” the study’s authors pointed out. Among the reasons: The study suggests “creative scripts and cliffhanging endings.”

For the top Hollywood players, with their year-round production slates and the resultant massive quantities of programs they control, the Mip TV trade show has reacquired its raison d’etre as a key stop along the annual sales route. It opens Monday and runs through Friday in Cannes.

And with theatrical box office grosses and sales of DVDs something of a disappointment to the Hollywood studios over the past two years, the international TV biz has re-emerged as a vital link in the ancillary chain for the Hollywood congloms.

CBS Paramount Intl. TV just licensed “NCIS” to Channel 5 in the U.K., until recently a notoriously difficult market in which to sell any but the top two or three series each year.

“We placed all eight of our 2005 season primetime series in the U.K., whereas five years ago it was tough to get deals on just two of them,” said CBS Par Intl. TV prexy Armando Nunez.

The seven major Hollywood congloms belonging to the Motion Picture Assn. of America rake in upwards of $6 billion a year from their free and pay TV deals outside the U.S. With new-media platforms — digital terrestrial, broadband, video-on-demand — set to take off abroad, that figure is bound to climb.

Both Nunez and Schlesinger said they expect to do business on their midseason series during the 43rd annual sales bazaar, as well as testing the waters on upcoming pickups for next fall. Some 12,000 program buyers and sellers are expected to trek to the French Riviera for the five-day rendezvous.

Warners’ Schlesinger said his company once again is developing a substantial number of series for the coming fall, including projects from John Wells, Jerry Bruckheimer, Aaron Sorkin and David Crane — all writer-producers well known to international buyers.

There was a similarly upbeat assessment of the state of the biz from Fox Intl.’s exec VP Marion Edwards and NBC Universal’s international TV prexy, Belinda Menendez.

Former will be shepherding Dennis Haysbert, who will be on the Croisette to tubthump midseason drama “The Unit”; the latter has just authorized the opening of three offices for her division in Russia, Singapore and Dubai — a clear sign the biz is in expansion mode.

Also likely to cut a figure among the palms and pate are MGM’s new chairman, Harry Sloan, and Viacom’s new distribution topper, Hal Richardson.

Sloan told Daily Variety he would use Mip to emphasize to the foreign contingent that the Lion is once again roaring — and that a number of MGM channel spinoffs abroad soon will be revved up.

Richardson, who came aboard the de-merged Viacom-CBS just two months ago, is still tweaking his new team and getting his arms around the company’s rights management system. The former top sales exec at DreamWorks, Richardson also will oversee distribution of all Paramount pics. (Viacom bought DreamWorks two months ago.)

Then there’s red-hot indie distrib Lionsgate. The upstart boasts not only “Weeds” but also a series version of its Oscar-winning pic “Crash,” which will air Stateside on cabler FX, and a new “Dawson’s Creek”-inspired drama from Kevin Williamson for the CW network Stateside, tentatively called “Palm Springs.”

“We made a conscious decision a year or so ago to hold on to our TV rights wherever possible,” said Lionsgate sales VP Craig Cegielski. “We’re offering alternative programming that’s really smart, really high-concept — and the broadcasters are coming to us.”

Meanwhile, various other suppliers — everybody from U.S. cable offshoots to smaller entrepreneurs with rights to nonfiction properties — will vie to fill the nooks and crannies in skeds around the world.

Some come to Cannes already brandishing deals:

  • Kultur Intl., a U.S. distributor of cultural programs on homevideo, has licensed 200 hours of the Cromwell library from U.K.-based Eagle Rock Entertainment. The programs focus on history, art, literature and world culture. Deal will be unveiled Monday in Cannes by Kultur CEO Dennis Hedlund.

  • Jon Helmrich’s IBC has licensed docu “Midnight Movies” to five movie channels: New Zealand’s Rialto, Britain’s ITV4, Spain’s Sogecable, Brazil’s Globosat GNT and Israel’s YES.

  • Toronto-based Distraction Formats will focus on its flagship show, “Love Bugs,” as well as two new scripted comedies, “The Invincibles” and “Radio Sex.” Distraction is developing interactive elements for “Love Bugs” in Russia and elsewhere.

  • Britain’s 12 Yard Prods. has sold quizzer “Eggheads” to UKTV in Australia and New Zealand.

  • London-based Zone Vision has acquired three reality series from distributor RDF for its Reality TV channel: “Extreme Evidence” for Reality TV’s U.K. and Latin American feeds, “Dust to Dust” for the U.K. only and “Looking for Dad” for Europe and Latin America.

Mip TV, which like Daily Variety is a property of Anglo-Dutch conglom Reed Elsevier, is preceded by a two-day nonfiction screening event called MipDoc, which takes place this weekend.