As Mipcom Pivots Online, 10 Sales Chiefs Tell Us How Coronavirus Has Changed TV Distribution Forever

EXCLUSIVE: As dawn breaks on October 12, TV executives from around the world should be rising to the lapping shore of the French Riviera. Instead, for most, they will be greeted by the four walls of their bedrooms. This is the reality of 2020, a year in which coronavirus has robbed an intensely sociable industry of its ability to come together.

Mipcom is among the grandest of these calendar fixtures. A truly global gathering, Cannes is the setting for a jamboree of TV trading, a place where people converge to inject some heat into the market. But this year, the heat will be the glow of our collective computer screens, as Mipcom goes online for the first time ever.

Deadline has spoken to 10 distribution chiefs in Europe and America for their view on virtual Mipcom, as well as their reflections on how Covid-19 has reshaped television sales. The conclusions are clear: the pandemic has accelerated change on an unprecedented scale.

Related Story

Mipcom Interview: Laurine Garaude Reflects On A "Difficult" Year & How Covid Has Accelerated Change For The Cannes Market

Video call technology has collapsed geographies and granted greater access to buyers. Meetings are being done over weeks, not the four-day Mipcom window. Sales executives are seeing their clients more, not less. Conversations have become more focused but also more personal, as stories are exchanged about the pandemic. Savings are being made on travel and entertaining.

Distributors have invested in technology to spotlight their shows. Sales materials have become increasingly sophisticated in the absence of in-person pitching. Companies like ITV Studios and Sony are going it alone with their own buyer showcases, while wringing value from catalog shows has never been more important as shoots ground to a halt across the world.

The cumulative effect of all this is that the sales chiefs were largely upbeat about their performance in 2020. As Covid-19 has ravaged economies, crippled production, and lit a stick of dynamite under the advertising market, there has still been a huge demand for television. In bald revenue terms, Mipcom is not going to be missed. “I think we’re going to do just fine,” is how Jim Packer, Lionsgate’s president of worldwide TV and digital distribution, breezily puts it.

For many we spoke to, however, it’s the intangible side of Cannes that will be missed the most. The stuff that greases the wheels of business, but does not immediately translate into revenue. Nearly all mentioned clinking glasses of rosé with friends and colleagues. Mipcom is, for many, as much an exercise in team-building and internal strategizing as it is one of hardcore deal-making. Gone too is the serendipity of bumping into clients or old acquaintances and sharing gossip and market intelligence.

All3Media International CEO Louise Pedersen is ruing not being able to create organic buzz around new titles, while Katie Benbow, BBC Studios’ director of sales planning, virtual Mipcom won’t be able to replace the opportunity to “peek over each other’s fences.”

All the executives interviewed hope to be able to return to physical markets next year, albeit with the assistance of a vaccine, or at the very least, highly sophisticated testing. As Banijay’s rest of the world sales chief Matt Creasey points out, Cannes is the ultimate “petri dish” for coronavirus, with people descending on the city from all corners of the world and socializing in the cramped bars of the Croisette.

“People crave to see each other. As soon as it’s safe to do so, I think we will see movement and big face-to-face reunions,” adds Ruth Berry, ITV Studios’ managing director of global distribution. While this is undoubtedly true, it is also the case that coronavirus has changed the way distributors do business forever. Scroll on to find out how 10 of the biggest studios in the world are coping with the crisis.

Banijay Rights 

Mipcom was set to be the market when Banijay Rights announced itself to the world after inhaling Endemol Shine International. The two distribution companies officially became one on October 1 after some frenzied work behind the scenes merging two teams and two giant catalogs of content. An advertising and events blitz was planned, but coronavirus had other ideas.

“The disappointment about Mipcom is we can’t unfurl to the outside world as the new, shiny company,” says Matt Creasey, EVP of sales, co-productions, and acquisitions, rest of the world. “You can relax slightly in thinking it’s not just us, but it’s fair to say Mipcom would have been a perfect platform to launch.”

And it’s not just the external play Banijay Rights has lost without a physical market. Mipcom would have been a staging post for Banijay’s sales and production executives from around the world to come together for the first time. For his part, Creasey has not seen his team in-person for a year, let alone had the chance to meet new colleagues from the Banijay side of the business.

Instead, Banijay has pivoted online by launching a new showroom for buyers, which spotlights 88,000 hours of content and global brands including Big Brother and MasterChef. This would have happened even in a Covid-free world, but Creasey says its taken on increased importance in the absence of industry events. Banijay is also leaning into Mipcom Online+, registering employees for the virtual market and fielding executives for industry panels.

Banijay’s size and scale meant it was particularly exposed to the pandemic derailing shoots. Big-ticket shows like Peaky Blinders have been delayed and Creasey admits coronavirus has “broken the flow” of content he can take to market. Having said that, Creasey prefers to cast forward to 2021, which he says will be “amazing” because “a lot” of shows are expected to deliver when production gets back on track. Until then, finished product is working hard. “With a library like we have, it does sure you up… we have weathered it,” the sales chief adds.

🌶️  Hot ones:

The Bridge: The competition series follows strangers as they come together to build a bridge to an island. Channel 4 and HBO Max are co-producing a UK version of the original Banijay Iberia format.

Two Weeks To Live: Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams headlines this Sky drama, playing a misfit who finds herself on the run from a murderous gangster and the police with a bag of stolen cash. 

Sony Pictures Television 

Sony was one of the first studios out of the blocks with the move online. The company replaced its LA Screenings showcase with a virtual event in March and is doing the same for Mipcom after launching a Virtual October Formats Fest, during which it will present shows including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

“The beauty of having a global organization with a lot of people on the ground is, the timing of how we talk to people, can be driven by a business need rather than some other external calendar event,” says Keith Le Goy, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s president of distribution and networks.

Le Goy says taking ownership of buyer interactions like this is essential as the pandemic evolves from being a short-term event to being something the world lives with for a long time. He sums it like this: “People change the approach from, ‘How do I get through this period of time?’ to, ‘How do I now build a new sustainable way to operate my business.’”

Sony has seen demand for “iconic” content, including c, Dawson’s Creek, and Breaking Bad during lockdown. Le Goy adds that it’s been a time of rediscovery. “There’s been an enormous amount of production over the past few years and people didn’t necessarily have the time to watch all of it. Well, now people have more time and the opportunity to discover some gems,” he explains.

There have been industry murmurs that Sony may pull back from Mip all together, but Le Goy says it is currently “impossible to rule anything in or anything out.” He adds, however, that there remains value in physical markets. “You could look at this [the pandemic] and say we’ve missed that chance to come together as an industry and really take stock,” he says.

🌶️  Hot ones:

District Z: An ambitious zombie-themed adventure-entertainment gameshow created by Sony’s French joint-venture partner Satisfaction Group for TF1.

Time Is Money: Previously produced by TBS in Japan as 26 Hours, the format sees celebrities and contestants performing “life-hacks” that free up time in their days.

All3Media International 

There’s never a good time for a global pandemic, but at All3Media International there was some relief that a major tech upgrade was completed before coronavirus swept the globe.

“We started a project called Knox and it was a way to store all our master materials in the cloud and move them around virtually. It sounds like a simple thing, but a lot of distributors are stuck in that, ‘Send the tape here or file there’ way of doing things,” says All3Media International CEO Louise Pedersen. “It came to fruition just before Christmas and it was totally serendipitous. I’m really proud of it.”

The innovation has helped keep All3Media’s sales conversations ticking over and Pedersen says the productivity of her team and the time spent with buyers has increased during the lockdown. This has had a direct impact on the sales house’s bottom line and Pedersen is not expecting a dip in revenue. “We’ve had a really good year,” she says.

That’s a strong statement, particularly when you consider that All3Media International lost more than 30 hours of high-end scripted content to the production shutdown. In the absence of these hours, shows that wrapped before lockdown have been important, not least ITV serial killer drama Des and Channel 5/PBS’s All Creatures Great And Small.

All3Media International is supporting Mipcom Online+, but Pedersen says it is no substitute for the real thing. One of the things she is missing most about physical markets is the opportunity to create a buzz around a title. “Sometimes shows can really steamroll at a market,” she says.

🌶️  Hot ones:

All Creatures Great And Small: Playground Entertainment’s reimagining of James Herriot’s memoirs of a country vet became ViacomCBS-owned Channel 5’s highest-rated show in five years.

Gogglebox: Filming people watching TV never seemed so appealing as during lockdown. Producer Studio Lambert has tweaked the show to make it Covid-safe.

eOne 

Asked what 2020 will do for eOne’s sales, Stuart Baxter, president of international distribution, offers a fairly clear-eyed assessment. “On pure income terms, we’ll be much the same. There are some positives on the library and second-cycle sales, but we don’t have as much new programming coming through,” he explains.

Baxter says the Hasbro-owned company has opened its doors to “a lot of new buyers” who have been “proactive in scouring new sources” of programming during the production shutdown. This has led to an increase in demand for “uplifting” content and some unexpected sales for shows like Upright, Tim Minchin’s Australian road trip drama, which was originally commissioned by Foxtel and Sky UK.

On the flip side, eOne does not have a number of shows it would have hoped to have taken to Mipcom in a big way this month. Freeform’s Jessica Biel-produced series Cruel Summer has only just gone into production, while the BBC Three/Netflix horror co-production Red Rose has been moved to next year. “Covid is moving goalposts for us every day,” Baxter says.

eOne looked to capitalize on new and existing relationships through its virtual upfronts, eOne Preview: The Studio Edition, earlier this month. Baxter admits that there are drawbacks to pivoting online, but also some major upsides: “The whole idea is to minimize any negative impact of no market… In all honesty, there will be benefits… if you’re in a market, you have very limited branding of your event, it’s very much a Mipcom event. If we’re running our own event, there’s going to be much more branding opportunities.”

Looking ahead to 2020, Baxter is positive the industry will return to Cannes. He is not certain, however, that Mipcom will be as influential as it once was. “It still has a role to play. Quite what that role is, we shall see.”

🌶️  Hot ones:

Cruel Summer: The drama takes place over three summers in the 1990s in a small Texas town when a popular teenager, played by Olivia Holt, is abducted.

London Zoo: An Extraordinary Year: Circle Circle Films and October Films offer a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic wildlife park during lockdown. 

ITV Studios 

ITV Studios was one of the first major distributors to announce plans to drop out of Mipcom and go it alone. The company launched a Fall Festival, showcasing its programming lineup to hundreds of buyers over a three-week period from mid-September.

Ruth Berry, managing director of global distribution, says that planning for a physical market became impossible. Once this was acknowledged internally, her team decided fairly swiftly that “the only way to deliver the showcase and the content to the market was in a virtual way.”

Berry says Mipcom has diminished in its deal-making importance in recent years and is now more of a space for showcasing content, which is exactly what ITV Studios set out to achieve with Fall Festival. It offered buyers a first-look at two dramas that have returned to production in recent weeks: Season 6 of Line Of Duty and another thriller from World Productions, submarine drama Vigil.

ITV Studios was forced to halt 230 shoots at the height of the pandemic but more than 80% are now back on track. This delayed getting sales material to buyers, which could have a knock-on effect on when revenue is booked. But like others, Berry says ITV Studios’ catalog worked hard during the lockdown.

“It’s the triage moment [for our clients]. You’re trying to understand which shows are going on hiatus, which ones are going to come good, when might that [show] come back, where’s the hole in my schedule, what do my audience want to watch. We’ve been on that journey with our buyers,” she says.

Buyers have “really leaned into” Emmy-blitzing comedy Schitt’s Creek in recent weeks, while “softer garden crime” like Agatha Christie’s Marple have been strong sellers in the pandemic-era. Berry is also proud of selling Hulu’s Harlots to the BBC (a show that started life on ITV) and highlights 20 secondary window sales for Bodyguard after Netflix’s holdback expired in spring.

🌶️  Hot ones:

Vigil: World Productions’ BBC One submarine thriller series stars Suranne Jones and Rose Leslie. ITV Studios is hoping it can be the new Bodyguard for international buyers.

Don’t Rock The Boat: ITV entertainment format in which two teams of celebrities row the length of Britain. The show is made by South Shore, whose founders created winter sports competition The Jump.

BBC Studios 

“We’ve got a really long-standing relationship with [Mipcom organizer] Reed Midem and, even though it didn’t feel right to be sending our staff and expecting our customers to meet us physically in Cannes this year, we were really keen to support them,” says Katie Benbow, BBC Studios’ director of sales planning.

The BBC’s commercial arm has signed up for Mipcom Online+ and has committed to streaming an exclusive interview with the cast of Lily James series The Pursuit Of Love on the platform. Alongside this, it has launched a new website, BBC Studios Connect, where buyers can access information and interviews on the company’s slate. New shows spotlighted include BBC/AMC’s Ben Whishaw medical series This Is Going To Hurt, while there are also archive “collections” targeted at specific audience needs.

BBC Studios’ Mipcom lineup has been largely unaffected by the production hiatus, Benbow says, though there have been delays in getting some sales materials to buyers. Next year could be more thorny. “It’s difficult making TV, especially scripted in this environment,” she says, adding that there has been a “perfect storm” of delays and strain on commissioning budgets.

Benbow says BBC Studios sales teams have “worked harder” to stay connected with clients, and it’s a trend that will continue into next year after the company moved its annual Liverpool Showcase online. She adds, however, that BBC Studios is “very committed” to meeting buyers “face-to-face” and is hopeful of returning to Mipcom next year. The studio’s China team is back in the office, while there have also been physical meetings in Paris and Cologne.

🌶️  Hot ones:

Small Axe: Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated anthology drama tells five stories about London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite racism and discrimination.

A Perfect Planet: Sir David Attenborough will fuse science and nature in a new landmark series for the BBC and Discovery exploring the unique systems that allow planet Earth to thrive.

Lionsgate

Jim Packer, Lionsgate’s president of worldwide TV and digital distribution, lists a bunch of reasons why he’s going to miss Mipcom. They range from efficient meetings to team-building exercises, but his list does not include lost revenue. “We’ve done more business in the last 12 months than we’ve done in the previous year or two as far as our catalog and new first-run licensing with movies and TV globally,” he adds.

Packer stressed the need to be opportunistic alongside clients. He points to a deal he did for true-crime anthology series Manhunt: Deadly Games. The Spectrum Originals window expired and Lionsgate initially sold it to ViacomCBS’s cable network Pop. But Packer’s team knew that CBS had holes in its fall schedule and “pitched them quickly and carefully” to get the show on CBS. “Sure enough over the summer, they agreed to put us on Monday nights at 10PM. All of a sudden, I have a CBS network TV show I can sell internationally.”

Lionsgate’s complex licensing deal with Amazon for Mad Men also came to fruition during the pandemic. Packer classes this as “thick IP,” which has he says has years of fandom and cultural resonance. He continues: “That thick IP resonates even more right now. One of the best films we have in our library is Dirty Dancing. It’s selling better than it’s ever sold because people want to have a little escapism.”

🌶️  Hot ones:

Love Life: Anna Kendrick’s HBO Max romantic comedy has sold to 20 territories internationally, including the BBC in the UK. The series has been one of HBO Max’s top performers.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: The NBC musical comedy features Jane Levy as Zoe, who can hear the innermost wants, thoughts, and desires of the people around her through music. NBC renewed in June.

Fremantle

Fremantle’s international CEO Jens Richter says 2020 has been the “craziest of years,” but he thinks it will ultimately be remembered as a paradoxical time when people traveled less, but saw each other more. “It’s probably the year where you had the constant necessity of speaking with your clients to understand where they stand. While we weren’t able to be in touch physically, we’ve probably spoken more than any other year,” he adds.

Richter points out that phone calls have plummetted in their importance for his sales team as video calls have taken over. Fremantle has also flexed its international muscle to maintain physical contact with buyers where possible. The company has sales executives in 10 countries and staff in Germany, Spain and Australia are currently sitting down with clients in-person. But online remains the key communication tool.

Fremantle has launched a virtual screening room for buyers which was built before the pandemic. “It’s cool, it’s slick, it’s efficient,” says Richter, who adds that materials around new shows have to be more sophisticated. “You have to do it in a more bespoke way. You create a bigger deck explaining more. You put more of your sales arguments in your assets, reels, and brochure because you have less opportunity to explain it in person. Your material has to be absolutely top quality,” he explains.

Another interesting observation Richter makes is that executives are turning up to virtual meetings better prepared than they would in person. He continues: “It’s really interesting what the screen does to you. Sometimes in an on-the-stand conversation at Mip, there’s a lot of meet and greet and casual talk. In this environment, you’re pretty structured, everyone’s very prepared and you go straight to the shows, or you talk about the market impact.”

Despite his pragmatism, Richter says he’s still missing business as usual. He hopes the UK Screenings next February can be a time when distributors stage some physical screenings. “Mipcom next year will be the one big one that everyone is looking forward to,” he adds.

🌶️  Hot ones:

Enslaved: The Lost History Of The Transatlantic Slave Trade: Samuel L. Jackson sheds new light on 400 years of human trafficking. Epix has already premiered the show in the U.S.

We Are Who We Are: Luca Guadagnino’s coming of age story about two American teenagers who, along with their military and civilian parents, are living on a military base in Italy.

Red Arrow Studios International

It’s been an unsettled year in more ways than one for Red Arrow Studios, the production arm of German broadcasting giant ProSiebenSat.1. All the way back in March, the pandemic was the official reason ProSieben gave for pulling the plug on the sale of the Love Is Blind production group. Since then a number of executives have walked away, not least CEO James Baker and sales president Bo Stehmeier.

Joel Denton, acting president of Red Arrow Studios International, is a steadying hand at the wheel having co-founded Red Arrow in 2011. He is enjoying being back on the bridge — even in the treacherous waters of coronavirus. Asked if intends to stick around for a while, he says: “Hopefully. I’m loving it… I can’t quite say it’s business as usual because it’s not a usual time… It’s business as unusual.”

RASI launched a formats festival from the end of last month, showcasing the likes of physical game show Block Out and Married At First Sight. The latter has been a big seller during lockdown, with different versions of the show cross-pollinating in different territories, such as Channel 4 picking up the Australian edition for UK audiences.

Over in scripted, Denton says RASI has “done pretty” well despite the production hiatus. Season 7 of Amazon’s  Bosch is in production, as is the second series of Vienna Blood. “There’s quite a variety of shows shooting everywhere from Austria to Canada, and they’re returning seasons, which is great for us because it de-risks it for us sales-wise,” he adds.

Denton sums up the Covid challenge as “tactical hand-to-hand combat,” and says broadcasters are looking for bankable buys rather than placing big strategic bets. “The sort of shows that help them through this time are big brands,” he adds. “There’s been a ton of business in that supersizing of brands, formats space.”

🌶️  Hot ones:

Block Out: A game show in which teams try clinging to a wall of moving blocks. Devised by Thailand’s Nippon TV, local versions have been made in Spain (RTVE) and the Netherlands (AVROTROS).

Beat The Channel: Two popular TV presenters are given the chance to win a 15-minute live broadcast slot. The show has been a hit for Germany’s ProSieben.

AMC Studios

Valerie Cabrera, AMC Studios’ SVP of worldwide content distribution, says attending Mipcom “didn’t even enter our spectrum of thinking” amid the pandemic. Instead, her market started virtually in August with focused meetings around finished tape. “All of our personal and business calendars have been structured around our industry. Now it has become blurred,” she says of a year without major festivals like the twice-annual gatherings in Cannes and the American Film Market.

AMC Studios has seen an uptick in demand for “uplifting” programming. Brockmire, Sherman’s Showcase and Ride With Norman Reedus have been among the company’s hot tickets. Though more frustratingly, Cabrera says her team has had to pull back from pitching some shows that won’t be ready until 2022 as a result of coronavirus production delays.

Like other distributors, AMC Studios has spent time brushing up its screenings portal and doubling down on existing relationships with buyers. For Cabrera, a personal touch has been key — and she says that virtual interactions have actually improved the quality of her conversations. “One of the first markets I did was Mip Asia and it takes away from that speed dating mentality. Nobody was late, it was very direct contact and everyone is concerned about each other’s health, even though we don’t know each other. It has really humanized our industry,” she explains.

🌶️  Hot ones:

Sherman’s Showcase: IFC/AMC variety show featuring sketches, cultural nostalgia, A-list guest stars and songs. The show was renewed for a second season in June.

The Walking Dead: World Beyond: The second stand-alone series in AMC’s The Walking Dead franchise premiered this month. It follows the first generation raised in a post-apocalyptic world.

Source: Read Full Article