In 2020, one of the first indications that all wasn’t right for a global TV industry just waking up to the threat of COVID was the Chinese delegation of buyers pulling out of the BBC Studios Showcase.
As revealed by Variety on Feb. 5, 2020, around 20 Chinese companies skipped the early February event due to travel bans in place for parts of China following the coronavirus outbreak, whose death toll had just surpassed that of SARS.
Two years later, world events are again affecting London Screenings. Several senior distribution sources have told Variety that most representatives from Russian streamers, broadcasters and distributors, as well as Ukrainian media companies, have canceled their trips to the U.K. for London Screenings this week due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While travel is bordering on the impossible due to bans on Russian flights in the U.K. airspace, there’s also a growing chorus of calls to boycott the Russian film and TV industry. On Sunday (Feb. 27), French drama festival Series Mania took the step of barring Roskino, the government-backed advocacy org for the country’s industry, from next month’s event.
On the content side, there are also fresh sensitivities around the shows that some distributors had planned to highlight. A top scripted proposition for ITV Studios, for example, is the David Tennant drama “Litvinenko,” about former Russian spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated in the U.K. by what many believe was the Russian government.
“I’m not commenting on the timing, but it’s a brilliant drama,” Ruth Berry, managing director of global distribution for ITV Studios, tells Variety. “It’s pre-sold into some markets, and I’m going to go with it on the strength of its drama. It’s a compelling three-part true crime piece that’s just a very gripping piece of TV — as well as maybe being timely.”
Endeavor Content, meanwhile, is funding a Vice Studios documentary that features actor-director Sean Penn on the ground in Kyiv, Ukraine, although Variety has confirmed that the doc won’t be on offer to buyers at its London Screenings event, as it’s still “super early days,” according to Prentiss Fraser, executive VP of international TV sales.
All things considered, the frenetic nature of London Screenings is very much on brand.
In pre-pandemic years, broadcasters and streamers would fly to the U.K. from all over the world to attend the BBC Studios Showcase, a glamorous multi-day event in Liverpool at the tail end of winter.
There, the Beeb offered exclusive previews of its latest shows and formats, served alongside a dinner show featuring such musical guests as Nile Rodgers and Fatboy Slim. Former BBC Studios boss Tim Davie — who is now the director general of the BBC — was even known to throw shapes on the dance floor.
After being wined and dined, these buyers would then travel by train down to London, where they’d have meetings with other international TV distributors, such as Fremantle, ITV Studios and Warner Bros., which over the years began setting up snazzy presentations of their own. The week’s activities became known, unofficially, as U.K. Screenings.
In 2021, distributors struck out on their own and formalized the mini market as London Screenings. This week, hundreds of European, U.S. and Australian buyers are expected to fly into London for the second outing, which kicks off without the Beeb companion event in Liverpool. (For a second year running, the BBC Studios Showcase has gone virtual, and sources indicate that it’s unlikely the event will be returning to Liverpool next year.)
“We’re totally full to capacity,” says Cathy Payne, CEO of “Survivor” distributor Banijay Rights, who says the lack of the BBC Studios Showcase “isn’t affecting people who want to come to our screening.” The occasion marks Banijay Rights’ first live event as an amalgamated distribution outfit following Banijay Group’s acquisition of Endemol Shine.
For distributors like Banijay, with a wide in-house production network all over the world and particularly in Europe, London Screenings takes on a new relevance given the voracious demand for local content.
Global SVODs such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus will be attending, but unlike the early years of London Screenings, when acquisitions executives from Los Angeles would come to town, a growing European staff means more localized teams from the SVODs are traveling to the event — particularly as there are now local content quotas to fill under Europe’s groundbreaking Audiovisual Media Service (AVMS) directive.
“They are absolutely having more localized buyers who can pick up those nuances and buy a targeted show for their audience in that market,” says one senior distribution executive.
Adds Endeavor Content’s Fraser: “With the European quota pressure, [the global streamers’] problems aren’t necessarily solved with the American output that they get.
“They are [building their brands] with the incredible series and films from their domestic businesses, but there’s still a need for the vertically integrated companies to have content that’s going to resonate with a local audience first and foremost.”
Fraser acknowledges that Endeavor Content doesn’t yet have the deep catalogue of a Banijay, Fremantle, All3Media or ITV Studios, but says “the quality is head and shoulders above the rest.” The company’s hot title for the market is “The Twelve” (pictured), a courtroom drama starring Sam Neill that tells the story of 12 ordinary people selected for jury duty in a controversial murder trial.
“We really want to have fewer, bigger, better,” says Fraser. “We want to make sure we’re bringing things that people need to the table. They’re looking for individual purchases [from us], not large volumes.”
Endeavor Content — which will soon embark on a 10-city tour that takes its shows directly to buyers in cities such as Paris, Milan and Tel Aviv — doesn’t yet have any programs on the slate from majority stakeholder CJ ENM. The Korean content powerhouse bought an 80% stake of the company’s scripted business last year, with the deal closing only in January.
Fraser says both companies operate separately but acknowledges that “collaboration is the key to seeing this all work together.”
Elsewhere, with London becoming more of a commercial hub during the crucial spring months, many are wondering where this leaves Cannes, which hosts the biannual TV market MipTV in April. The French market’s profile has waned in recent years due to the popularity of London Screenings, as well as the emergence of Lille-based Series Mania as a key player in the drama world.
Nicky Davies Williams, CEO of 108 Media-owned DCD Rights, says Cannes will always be important to ongoing talks, but distributor-centric events for buyers, such as London Screenings, are now crucial as distributors increasingly become involved earlier in the funding of international co-productions.
Says Davies Williams: “There’s so much production going on that the early sales message emanating out of London before you get to the big bang in Cannes is [equally] important.”
Don’t miss our round-up of the top 20 shows at London Screenings.