Rooms with a view of the future

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Annie Morita, the dynamic Sony Pictures Television senior VP who oversees international TV program sales, says Sony kept a catered buffet available all day in the spacious Penthouse of the tony Windsor Court Hotel during this year’s National Association of Television Program Executives conference. An American who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, Morita explained that buyers frequently came from across town and had busy schedules, so they welcomed the chance to grab a bite between appointments. The buffet was also a way to keep staff from disappearing at lunch hour.
Welcome to NATPE in the era of the hotel suite. For the major companies who operated far from the often maddening convention floor, there were numerous benefits to being in a hotel, including catered meals, a more businesslike atmosphere, tighter security and better time management. The vast majority of appointments for the big companies were set up in advance with the most important customers.
On the exhibit floor sellers are often faced with people who eat up time pitching show ideas, or with walk-in buyers with dubious credentials. In the hotels, most clients are pre-qualified. Often groundwork for a deal has been laid in advance.
By far the biggest advantage of being in a hotel was the control it gave the sellers. In past years, Sony and predecessor companies (Columbia, TriStar, Screen Gems), along with other majors, would erect large exhibits at the convention center. Executives would huddle with prospects in small offices with paperboard walls. People rushed from one stand to another. Morita recalls the typical meeting lasting five or 10 minutes.
Sony, Twentieth TV, Studios USA (now Universal), Warner Bros., Buena Vista, MGM and others abandoned the floor during the past couple of years to save money in the face of an economic slowdown, a drop in attendance caused by consolidation and the shakeout from Sept. 11.
What has become clear today is that when the buyer has to trek to a hotel to see a seller all the rules change, sometimes in unexpected ways. This year Morita’s meetings typically lasted 30 minutes to an hour, and a lot more got done in each session.
Greg Meidel, head of Paramount TV, was very pleased with the way the hotel setup worked for his company. The setting and extra time, he said, allowed customers to attend private screenings in adjacent rooms before the sales meeting, which led to more fruitful discussions.
With the return to Las Vegas next year, and what promises to be a more permanent home, there is expectation that companies will once again flock to the exhibit hall. Sony, Fox and others are contemplating such a move, but it would be na ‘ve to think that the biggest players will abandon hotel suites as a sales venue completely. The management of NATPE recognizes that reality and has built provisions into its deal with the Venetian Hotel that will allow them to benefit from the use of hotel rooms as well as the show floor. That was not the case this year in New Orleans, where NATPE reluctantly returned because it was locked into an expensive contract.
Even if some of the companies take a presence on the floor again, it is not likely to be as lavish as in the boom days. What has become clear, and isn’t likely to change, is that NATPE is a convention of the haves and have-nots.
While traffic on the floor was often sparse, with estimates of attendance under the anticipated 10,000, many big companies had a banner year. Ms. Morita, for instance, says she saw a steady stream of clients from Europe, Asia and even South America, most of whom came to buy.
By the end of the week, many floor exhibitors were wringing their hands over sparse traffic while the majors were reporting strong sales. Some of that was attributed to being in the hotels. “We’re in nicer surroundings. It’s quieter. I can keep the client longer. And the bathroom is a lot closer,” said one studio executive.
Increasingly, the exhibition floor isn’t for program sales. It is a place for everyone from Canada to China to pitch location filming, for wannabes to hustle show ideas and for smaller companies searching for any business that comes across the transom. The smaller companies need the exhibition floor.
Symbolic of the trend, most of the celebrities who came to hype their shows, including Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Osbourne, went straight to the hotels for meetings and interviews and never even visited the show floor. This year one of the few on-air talents available to all attendees was former “Baywatch” babe Carmen Electra, who may be beautiful but won’t be mistaken for an A-list star.
While the big companies and major broadcast networks operated in comfort in hotels, and often threw lavish parties or dinners for carefully selected clients or affiliates, the have-nots were relegated to less desirable circumstances, and evening events that were little more than glorified cocktail receptions.
The only really big blowout to which a lot of attendees were invited was put on by King World at Celebration Hall, where Roger King welcomed Dr. Phil and there was a well-received concert by rocker Glenn Frey.
The big companies continue to need an annual gathering, but they are unlikely to ever return to the public profile of the past. NATPE will continue to draw both big players and wannabes, but they may as well be at two different events.