The LA Screenings Returns: Studios Set Slates As Buyers Seek Certainty And International Co-Production Chatter Threatens To Overshadow Sales Showcases

·9 min read

For the past two Mays, Hollywood’s studio lots have remained quiet during the week they should be buzzing with the world’s top international acquisitions execs, excitedly chomping down on In-N-Out burgers and squeezing into grand theater halls at the annual LA Screenings.

Normal service will be resumed next week, as in-person screenings return for the first time since 2019 following the (seeming) end of the worst of the Covid pandemic. Execs are closing down their Zoom apps and instead eyeing up lunches in the sun and the programs that have most caught their eye during pilot season. As one UK buyer says: “It’s not quite as fun chatting over a cheese sandwich at home than fine dining in Los Angeles.”

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But it’s hardly a secret that the LA Screenings aren’t exactly what they once were to the international TV community, with many shows taken off the table and warehoused for the studios’ global streaming services. Meanwhile, the available network series are, according to one major European buyer, “out of fashion overseas,” as international co-productions become bigger, bolder and broadly better than ever.

“The structure of the Screenings this year is a bit unclear,” says one sales chief from an LA-headquartered production and sales house speaking to Deadline two weeks before the events, which begin on Saturday (May 21). A European buyer adds: “I expect the studios will have a better idea of what they want the Screenings to be in future next year.”

That uncertainty has pervaded throughout the planning stages. With Amazon buying MGM, Warner Bros. and Discovery becoming one and market tastes changing post-pandemic, many flying into town don’t really know what to expect, they tell us. Ahead of the next week’s events, Deadline has spoken to studio sales execs, several international buyers and a pair of independent producer-distributors to get a sense of what they might actually find.

The best place to start is with what we know. At time of writing, Deadline estimates there could be as few as nine network dramas and two network comedies available from the major studios this year at the Screenings, which sprawl across the Californian city. Some will be offering certain rights for shows commissioned for streamers and, broadly, the slates are notably international in flavor — around 11 shows from as far apart as Brazil and Australia will be on offer as of today. (Each studio may add to their slate as the Upfronts conclude this week.)

Disney has decided against a screening this year, meaning its scene-setting Sunday night bash on the lot won’t be taking place, while Fox Corp hasn’t yet confirmed how it plans to sell its scripted or animated shows. The others are returning, however.

So Help Me Todd - Credit: Photo: Michael Courtney/CBS
So Help Me Todd - Credit: Photo: Michael Courtney/CBS

Photo: Michael Courtney/CBS

Paramount Global Content Distribution will be selling CBS dramas Fire Country and So Help Me Todd and The CW’s Walker: Independence, along with international co-pros such as Foxtel’s Australian comedy Colin From Accounts and a surreal David Hasselhoff comedy-thriller for RTL+ in Germany called Ze Network that is from CBS Studios and, aptly, Syrreal Entertainment. 

Over in Burbank, Warner Bros. Discovery International Television Distribution will be offering CBS’s cop drama East New York and CW pair Gotham Knights and The Winchesters, along with NBC comedy Night Court. Its reps tell us “select” HBO and HBO Max shows — likely to include Dead Boy Detectives — will be showcased.

NBCUniversal Global Distribution will be screening the Quantum Leap reboot and comedy Lopez vs Lopez from NBC; Peacock series including Vampire Academy, Channel 4 co-commission The Undeclared War, The Best Man: The Final Chapters and Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin; and a six-strong international slate including Sky’s The Midwich Cuckoos and Funny Woman and Stan’s Bad Behaviour.

Getting to this degree of clarity has been hard work, as our European sales source notes: “Just a couple of weeks ago, some of my colleagues at the studios didn’t know what was available and what rights they could offer. Sony is the only one that’s been crystal clear.”

As the only non-network-affiliated studio and a non-competitor in the global streaming race, Sony Pictures Television has been able to provide buyers with more clarity. Its slate includes Fox one-hour dramas Accused and Monarch, buzzy ITVX-Spectrum co-commission A Spy Among Friends, two series from The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures — Amazon’s Three Pines and ITV’s Without Sin — and Brazilian crime drama Rio Connection for Globo.

According to Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman of Networks and Distribution Keith Le Goy, the Culver City studio’s independence has been a boon in its return to physical screenings. “The Screenings will feel different in some way, as it’s been a long time since the last one,” he says. “But Covid aside, a lot has changed in our business. A lot of studios aren’t selling their best shows to anyone. We are. It’s really simple for us: we’re screening everything because we’re selling everything to everyone.”

Sony’s inclusion of Rio Connection, about three organized crime figures on the run with new identities, says Le Goy, “goes to show one of the many changes in the market. The range of buyers interested in a Brazilian show has increased exponentially so we’ve got a much greater ability to use the LA Screenings to present it. Five years ago, it would have been focused on certain Latin American buyers.”

The Buyer Perspective

This change was super-charged during Covid. As production ground to a halt, buyers came into the spotlight, often forced to acquire unfamiliar content for unfamiliar slots from unfamiliar places. For many, it was a change for the better. “We had to look elsewhere to places like Canada and Australia and we found some could rate every bit as well as anything coming out of the U.S.,” says Dermot Horan, Director of Acquisitions and Co-productions at Irish public channel RTE.

Others, such as the UK’s Channel 4 doubled down on nostalgic acquisitions, though Head of Acquisitions Nick Lee says “this wave is coming to an end and people are looking for something new”. He struck a deal with every studio last year, mainly for youth-skewing channel E4, which plays the likes of The Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and streaming service All4. “US sitcoms still play a vital part of our daytime schedule, but we’re less excited by the procedurals,” he says.

Like Horan, Lee is also buying more international content — recently acquiring Paramount+ Australia comedy Spreadsheet from ITV Studios and investing in content from South Africa and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, across Europe the big trend is for ambitious scripted co-productions that are tracked from the very earliest stages and later pre-bought — what Lee calls the ‘acquimmission’ model. Outgoing ZDF Studios President and CEO Fred Burcksen, whose broadcaster is a driving force behind major projects such as Frank Doelger’s environmental thriller The Swarm and Studiocanal and BRON Studios co-production Shadowplay, says: “I was quite surprised the studios were doing the Screenings this year. With all the market changes, I didn’t think they had the need to do so. Co-production discussions will be just as important next week.”

His colleague, Senior Vice President for International Fiction — Coproduction and Acquisition Simone Emmelius says there are several threads to this development: notably in Germany, broadcasters are stopped from playing non-European (read U.S.) acquisitions on their streaming services, making deals much less attractive. “At the same time, the relevance of our media player [ZDFMediathek] has grown over recent years, especially for younger audiences,” she adds.

Indies Smell Opportunity

What these changes mean in practice is distribution has become a much more level playing field, and companies such as Fremantle, All3Media International, Endeavor Content and Federation are competing with their U.S. studio rivals more effectively.

“Nobody goes for output deals anymore and everything is a lot more bespoke, even when dealing with the American studios. We offer turnkey solutions,” says Jens Richter, CEO of Fremantle International, which is headed to California with a slate of international dramas such as Michael Winterbottom’s Sky series The Sceptred Isle (this week renamed This England), in which Kenneth Branagh plays British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

This Sceptred Isle aka This England - Credit: Fremantle
This Sceptred Isle aka This England - Credit: Fremantle

Fremantle

Also on the slate is Señorita 89, a Starzplay original from Academy Award winners Pablo and Juan de Dios Larrain that in past years may have only been sold to Latin American clients at the Century Plaza. “We now want to take shows out of Latin America to the rest of the world and create a ‘new line of product’,” says Richter.

Fremantle is one of the companies at the forefront of the international co-production trend that will drive much of the sideline business in LA next week. However, Endeavor Content, behind numerous co-pros such as Tokyo Vice, is intriguingly treating the week as a more traditional chance to show new content to clients. It has booked out the theater at Soho House West Hollywood to showcase its slate and will be screening twice a day, while offering bespoke viewings to larger buyers and making single episodes available for smaller ones.

“In classic Endeavor Content style, we want to offer a customized, efficient experience to buyers,” says Executive Vice President of Television Distribution Prentiss Fraser. “Co-productions that we often take to market before we even have a script, is our bread and butter but what’s more interesting is we’re coming to market with finished tape. We’ve been ramping up our acquisitions, which is the opposite to what a lot of companies are doing.”

Key to the slate are Australian courtroom drama The Twelve from Warner Bros. International Television Production Australia and Easy Tiger; six-part Scandinavian thriller Headhunters, based on the Jø Nesbo novel of the same name; and Finnish series The Man Who Died, which is about a mushroom entrepreneur who, after finding out he is dying due to poisoning, decides to track down his killer.

“I love the nostalgic idea that you go to the Screenings and buy finished tape, so I wanted to provide that, as I fear it won’t be available in other places for obvious reasons,” says Fraser, the former Fox and eOne sales chief.

Talking of finished tape, one of the studio distribution bigwigs of the pre-pandemic, pre-streaming era, former Warner Bros. sales President Jeffrey Schlesinger returned to the scene recently, as Deadline revealed this month. His new consultancy playfully pokes fun at his ex-employer, calling itself Former Bros. Media. As someone once making WB literally billions in international sales, a dollar for his thoughts on an LA Screenings where the biggest shows might hail from the Australia, Brazil or the UK and the talk of the town could be international co-productions shooting thousands of miles away.

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