July 2, 2003

Business as Usual During Wartime: MIPDOC and MIP-TV Soldier On Despite World Events

International travel just as war is breaking out is never a good idea. The day before I was to leave for Cannes I found myself at the IDA's reception for the Oscar nominees. I found out the war was about to break out from Michael Moore, who had arrived late because he had been listening to President Bush declare war.

Not that this was any surprise. About 10 days before, almost all the American broadcasters canceled their trips to Cannes for the 2003 MIPDOC (March 22 and 23) and MIP-TV (March 24 -28) markets.  Polite emails were sent out to all the distributors from Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, A&E, National Geographic Channels, Sundance Channel and others, saying that due to the possible war in Iraq, all unnecessary travel had been cancelled. Many Japanese, Australian and Latin American broadcasters also cancelled at the last moment.  However, all the European broadcasters were attending.

It was a good market for many distributors. According to the Reed-MIDEM organizers, while approximately 2,000 registrants canceled, attendance was still recorded at over 9,000 participants representing 2,705 companies from 89 countries.

MIPDOC was established in 1998 as a specialty documentary market for factual programming buyers. In the past, this event has had an uneven attendance, as the sunny shores of Cannes created an environment that many buyers found too tempting, so Reed-MIDEM moved both events up by three weeks this year. As the beaches were too cold to do much sunning, MIPDOC activity inside the hotel Martinez was bustling. All 250 viewing stations were full for both days and there were 1,146 programs entered into screenings this year. The combined total of all programs checked out from the MIPDOC library was 9,020, which meant about nine viewings per program. 

The MIP-TV and MIPCOM (its sister event in the fall) markets are held inside the Palais du Festival, where the Cannes Film Festival is held in mid-May. MIP-TV is not a festival, however, but a sales event. Most distributors rent space inside the Palais for a week and set up shop to meet with the buyers. While a distributor's day-to-day office may not look like much, at the Palais, everyone is aiming for the buyers' attention. This year, there were 1,171 exhibitors on the floor, not including another 20 or so distributors who set up shop out behind the Palais in rented yachts.

Appointments are made four to six weeks in advance, and most schedules for both buyers and sellers are full. Having 50 to 60 meetings is normal, and each meeting is allocated for 30 minutes. After pleasantries, and assuming that the buyer is not running late from his/her previous meeting, you've got about 20 minutes to pitch new programs—not much time if the distributor has 25-60 new releases. But somehow, the sellers are able to present their programming slates efficiently and take note of what the buyers may be looking for in the coming year.

This year, the mood on the floor was upbeat. Although economies are down in both Europe and America, the buyers were buying. All the speculation of the effect of the war, weak stock markets, rising trade deficits, etc. were brushed away when buyers began to ask how long it would take to close the deal. Some channels were redirecting their audiences towards the male 18-35 demographic or completely breaking into the documentary genre altogether; old product was being dusted off and new programs were seeking multiple homes if possible.

Overall, the buyers were looking for the same general qualities of new documentaries—cutting-edge, unique access, strong characters, good stories and 50- minute running times. Library films are out; crisp imagery is in. Stand-up hosts are out;  celebrity narration is good for the English-speaking markets, but have little value in the non-English speaking markets. Wildlife seems to be on its way back in again. One-offs still reign supreme, but series continue to have a distinct place in many schedules. Having programming strictly about American subjects is a hard sell these days, but that has always been the case. Terrorism and anti-terrorism programs do well if they have some unique viewpoint, but every distributor seems to have something related to September 11,2001, and the broadcasters are already overwhelmed with programs on that subject. As the war was breaking out in Iraq, many broadcasters asked if there was anything available-to which many sales people looked a bit surprised. I overheard one seller say, "Yeah, turn on CNN."

There was some worry that American and British distributors at MIP would start to see a backlash from the war and some form of anti-war sentiment. That simply never happened. Even Arab broadcasters were still looking for programming from US and UK distributors. Content is still king, whether produced in Hamburg, Santa Monica, Bristol or Tokyo. And at this year's MIPDOC and MIPTV, like every market, there is always more programming available than ever before, and this market, even with a war raging, was business as usual.

 

Richard Propper is the chief financial officer of IDA, and president of Solid Entertainment, a broadcast distribution company.

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