L.A. Screenings: Foreign Buyers Say What Worked, What Didn’t

Lethal Weapon
Richard Foreman/FOX

In recent years, international buyers at the L.A. Screenings have complained that Hollywood studios haven’t been producing the type of shows, such as procedurals and light comedies, that work best on free-to-air, generalist channels abroad. At this year’s event, there were signs the studios tried to remedy that, but their offerings still met with a mixed response. “I thought the standard was pretty high,” says one, while another laments that “Hollywood seems to be a little lacking in fresh ideas.” Variety speaks to several European buyers about what worked for them and what didn’t.

Sarah Wright, director of acquisitions at European pay-TV service Sky
“It was a pretty good year,” says Wright, who watched about 60 shows at the L.A. Screenings. The heavy demand for dramas has produced a bumper crop of scripted shows in the U.S., which is “really good news for the international buyers.”

Still, “there wasn’t one standout show that everyone was talking about, as in the year before last when we bought ‘The Blacklist,’” Wright says.

Among indie studios bringing strong shows was Entertainment One, which has two new Mark Gordon dramas, “Designated Survivor,” a conspiracy thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland, and “Conviction,” in which a brilliant lawyer investigates cases of wrongful conviction. Wright also praises HBO’s crime drama “The Night Of” as “excellent.”

As for comedies, none lived up to the standard of “Modern Family,” which airs on Sky in the U.K. and is “very European in feel,” Wright says.

But she sees promise in “Divorce,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker (“great…like ‘Sex and the City’ all grown up”), and Legendary’s “Downward Dog,” a live-action show in which a dog talks (“smart and cynical”).

“The Exorcist,” “Prison Break” and “24: Legacy,” all rebooted versions of past films and shows, were judged “pretty good” by Wright, who also gave good marks to Warner Bros. crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” featuring Ellen Barkin as the matriarch of a bank-robbing brood.

Other shows to look out for include Sony’s “Timeless” and NBCU’s “Falling Water” from the “Mr. Robot” team. Wright compares the latter show to “Inception.”

Guido Pugnetti, buyer and head of marketing at Italy’s Rai Cinema
Pugnetti notes the range of shows at the screenings but laments the lack of mainstream content for a mass audience. “There was a very diversified offer that reflects the diversity in platforms, networks and channels, all of which carry scripted content these days,” he says. “There is a large quantity, but it’s so targeted for this diversity [of outlets] that if you are a generalist network, there really isn’t that much out there that matches our needs.”

Rai has a volume deal with CBS, and Pugnetti says he and his colleagues liked the CBS show “Bull,” starring Michael Weatherly as an employee in a firm of legal consultants. The CBS drama “Doubt” is “a good procedural, but not super-easy to watch. The narrative is a bit more complex and the story development more elaborate compared with the traditional escapism that generalist audiences want,” he says.

Pugnetti complains that Hollywood still does not cater to European tastes. “The fact is that all the European broadcasters at L.A. Screenings had to contend with content tailor-made for American audiences. Europeans don’t have any say in American production choices.” U.S. production companies “don’t think about Europe. They are thinking of themselves.”

Symptomatic of this is the high number of sitcoms, which Pugnetti says don’t travel well, at least not to Italian prime time. With the big exception of “Friends,” he says, sitcoms are “a top product in the U.S.” but “very low-grade content in Europe.”

Zelda Stewart, head of acquisitions at Italy’s Mediaset
Like other buyers, Stewart didn’t see a knockout contender at the screenings, “a show where you watch it and say ‘OK, this is the next “House” or “Grey’s Anatomy” – a procedural with strong characters and really strong storytelling. And unfortunately, it’s been a really long time since we’ve seen that.”

For her, the best show at the screenings was Warner Bros.’ “Lethal Weapon,” based on the hit movie series.

“It’s obviously quite a commercial series, because it’s not too violent; it’s full of humor, very tongue-in-cheek, but very broad. It can even appeal to family audiences. It’s not restricted in any way,” she says.

But the presence of so many spinoffs and reboots of Hollywood film franchises – “Lethal Weapon,” “The Exorcist,” “Training Day” and NBCU’s “Emerald City,” based on “The Wizard of Oz” – is evidence to Stewart that “Hollywood seems to be a little lacking in fresh ideas at the moment.”

Tapping into hit films might actually be Hollywood’s way of trying to appeal to the international market, by leveraging the movies’ global success. “In general, I would say Hollywood definitely looks to international, and they increasingly depend on sales from the international market — and Europe in particular — to fund their series production,” Stewart says.

Another trend she disliked in the screenings was the proliferation of U.S. shows based on some sort of time travel, as in Warner Bros.’ “Time after Time” and “Frequency,” Sony’s “Timeless,” and Fox’s “Making History,” which takes place in both present-day and Colonial-era Massachusetts.

“I don’t think the general public are that bothered with time travel,” Stewart says. “They might be worried about ghosts and supernatural, but time travel seems quite obscure to me.”

Ruediger Boess, acquisitions head at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1
Boess is among those giving a thumbs-up to “Lethal Weapon,” which stars Damon Wayans, Sr., and Clayne Crawford, who exhibits the “shabby chic of Johnny Depp without the shower,” as Boess puts it.

He’s more charitable toward time-travel shows, particularly “Time after Time” and “Timeless,” which feature protagonists skipping ahead or going back in time to hunt down criminals. Boess also liked HBO’s “The Night Of,” a reworking of the BBC crime drama “Criminal Justice.” “It’s very compelling,” he says. “It sucks you in in a minute. You think, oh my God, this is disturbing, this is frightening, and this is very good.”

Boess also is a big fan of Dan Fogelman’s “This Is Us” from Fox, which he describes as “a bit like ‘Love, Actually’ without the Christmas thing.” The three lead characters all share the same birthday. A teaser for the show on Facebook attracted 50 million views in 11 days.

As for CBS’ “Doubt,” starring Katherine Heigl, “send her on a long vacation,” Boess says.

Unlike Pugnetti, Boess found some of the comedies worthy, especially Fox’s “The Mick,” in which Kaitlin Olson (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) plays a brash, two-bit hustler from Rhode Island who has to assume guardianship of her wealthy sister’s three high-maintenance children. He also sees potential in Sony’s “Kevin Can Wait,” since its star, Kevin James, is still a household name in Germany as elsewhere in Europe.

“Powerless” from Warner Bros., which focuses on an insurance agent mopping up the damage wrought by crime-fighting superheroes, is clever but needs to be funnier.

Ghislain Barrois, head of film, sales, rights acquisitions and distribution at Spain’s Mediaset Espana
Barrois notes that not all TV networks in Europe rely on U.S. programming as a big ratings driver. Mediaset España’s Telecinco, Spain’s most-watched channel, garnered 15.4% market share on the strength of Spanish drama, such as underground cop thriller “El Principe,” and big alternative TV shows, such as “Survivors.” Its U.S. shows, “Castle” and “Hawaii Five-0,” air on its second channel, Cuatro.

For Barrois, the L.A. Screenings are a must-attend, but not a must-buy, event. “Nothing really incredible caught my eye. If we find one to two series, that would be it,” he says.

Two factors may be at work. Premium pay TV/SVOD is becoming the natural home in Spain for big U.S. series, such as “Game of Thrones” on Movistar Plus, while free-to-air networks remain the natural outlet for big Spanish dramas.

As more and more Spaniards watch catch-up or VOD TV, free-to-air broadcasters are building brand as event TV networks, where live sport, local fiction or reality talent contests play.

“The studios cram so many windows between the U.S. release and free TV, when people now want to see series immediately. People don’t have the patience anymore,” Barrois says. “I think you’ll have many U.S. series on pay TV and a handful of U.S. series, probably network procedurals, on free TV, and more library or second-cycle series on digital terrestrial television.”

John Hopewell contributed to this report.