To hear numerous distribution executives tell it, the international TV program sales market has successfully adapted to online dealmaking. Despite being unable to meet buyers in person over the past 12 months at markets including this month’s MipTV, most distributors say business has been good.
“We’re still getting the same prices for our shows, and buyers still want quality programs,” says Sarah Tong, director of sales at Hat Trick Intl., whose slate includes feature doc “Janis and Lucy,” about a chimp raised as a human, that has pre-sold to HBO Max for the U.S.
Meanwhile, Nicky Davies Williams, CEO of DCD Rights, which reps dramas “My Life Is Murder” and “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” points in particular to the “enormous increase in demand” from both SVOD and AVOD services.
Both buyers and sellers pivoted quickly to platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams as lockdowns first hit in 2020. Now, there is a high demand for content from broadcasters and streamers serving stuck-at-home audiences amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Reflecting on more than a year of virtual selling, Matt Creasey, the Los Angeles-based exec VP of sales, co-productions & acquisitions — world (excluding EMEA) of Banijay Rights, says nothing can ever replace in-person meetings (“We all long for that day to happen again”), but the ability to still do business is invaluable.
Banijay Rights has not just had to deal with remote selling over the past year, but also merging two major companies, Endemol Shine and Banijay, under one banner, combining their respective teams, websites and catalogs. Banijay used last month’s London Screenings to introduce buyers to its brand-new website, putting on a live stream of its two new dramas, “Viewpoint” and “RFDS: Royal Flying Doctor Service.” “It was a full experience for the clients that would traditionally have been done face to face, and it went pretty well; people embraced it,” Creasey says. In one day, he says 2,000 videos were watched, and there was more than 1,000 hours of browsing time by clients.
Beatriz Campos, SVP of global sales and production financing of TV series at Studiocanal, says there are even some benefits to moving market conversations online for distributors. “It means we can be assured of full meetings with our clients without the need to rush off to other meetings.”
Campos also says sales execs now frequently get to meet up with wider teams from the same company and have better access to decision-makers, giving a more rounded insight into their needs. The challenges that come from a virtual marketplace include the length of time it can take for buyers to respond to a new business.
Former Kew Media Distribution sales chief Jonathan Ford launched distributor Abacus Media Rights on March 15, 2020, as the world was first going into lockdown. The company has been selling virtually for its entire existence, which has “required a lot of hard work,” Ford acknowledges in getting off the ground. But, he adds, “we’ve been successful at it.” Abacus’ slate includes Kay Mellor drama “The Syndicate” and high-profile BBC docs about Britney Spears and the Capitol Hill invasion.
Ford also thinks the sales process has become more extended in the virtual world. Meetings at recent online markets including NATPE and the London Screenings have tended to span two weeks rather than one, delaying the decision-making process for clients. Some buyers will stick to the traditional industry calendar, while others won’t — so meetings are having to be arranged to push titles outside usual market cycles.
“It has favored the flexible and hard-working companies, rather than the big or small,” Ford says.
Campos, meanwhile, laments the missed opportunity for in-person panels and screenings “where we can grab buyers’ undivided attention and showcase our dramas on the big screen.” She says events such as MipTV, Mipcom and EFM continue to be “part of the rhythm of our business and deliver huge traction for our series,” which include such lighthearted dramas as Red Production’s “Finding Alice” and Canal Plus original “UFOs,” short-form series “The Collapse” and “Nine Women,” and the daily drama series, “Two Lives” from Bambu Producciones.
For her part, Tong says although the industry has easily adapted to virtual selling, work has not been as fun. That’s a serious point, she stresses, pointing to the impact that lockdowns and working alone have had on the mental health of many people. Meanwhile, online platforms launched by markets such as MipTV have not been universally embraced. Pre-COVID, distributors always made contact themselves with buyers to arrange meetings at their market stands. Now, many distributors have simply switched to arranging their own virtual meetings instead, without the need of the market platforms as a go-between.
“We will be fully supportive when physical markets are up and running again,” says one distributor. “But, purely from a practical point of view, we can go to clients directly and don’t need to go through these portals.”
Indeed, several say they won’t be officially signing up to the digital version of MipTV this year, or are yet to make up their minds. One points out that, even before coronavirus, the MipTV market was under strain, squeezed by events such as London Screenings and NATPE. Many buyers and sellers also balked at the cost of attending two markets each year in the South of France, preferring Mipcom over its sibling MipTV.
Abacus is one distributor that will be taking part. Ford says the digital MipTV platform is helpful for making contact with new buyers and those in more-distant territories that are not as easy to meet through the usual channels.
Looking ahead, there is a real sense that, when allowed, the international sales industry will embrace the opportunity to travel and meet again in person, and that the first markets to take place will do a roaring trade.
Already, many companies have committed to October’s Mipcom market, although doubts have recently begun to surface about its viability, given Europe’s recent spike in coronavirus cases and its faltering vaccination program. One distributor says it’s unlikely to run at full capacity this year, and that they can’t see many non-European companies attending.
Longer term, the talk is of a “hybrid world” of in-person and virtual meetings, more selective international travel and market attendance, and more work from home allowed by distribution firms. However, for many execs, the big hope is that the future will also include the ability to meet clients and colleagues over a glass of rosé in the South of France.