In this excerpt, Jones reflects on the the different institutional, cultural, and political contexts she had to navigate when selling format rights to international partners.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
MIP: Can you talk a little bit about working in different territories?
LESLIE JONES: I was very fortunate to have a worldwide mandate, and I think it was because NBC and Universal didn’t totally believe that format sales could be a business. First, I started out with just an assistant and myself, and then I built a little team. It was really great working all around the world because it’s very challenging. Different issues would arise in France versus Russia versus Japan. Many things that you would not expect to be problems became problems.
In France, for example, it was easy to convince the broadcaster to buy the format. Yet, the hardest thing was dealing with the labor unions. And then it was hoping the viewers didn’t become jaded. There were a lot of negative articles in the papers saying, “Oh, this is taking jobs away from French directors and French writers,” even though it wasn’t. We were employing the same amount.
In Russia, the hardest thing was convincing the broadcaster. It was easy to get—well, relatively easy—to get approval from the Kremlin. And yet there were other issues in Russia where we actually did have to go visit on a number of occasions with the Kremlin and their communications office and various cardinals and so forth to convince them that no, we weren’t just Americans coming in there to comment about Russian policing and how corrupt it was. I literally had to sit there and say, “Let’s talk about Law & Order as a Western. You have your good guys and your bad guys, in essence the cowboys and Indians. Ninety‑nine percent of the time, the cowboys are going to win. We don’t really deal with corruption that much. Obviously part of your culture is such that we’re going to have to work corruption in there, but is it going to be a major theme of the show? No.”
So there were those issues that we had to face. It was a different thing in each country; you never knew what to expect or what was going to come out of their mouths.
What are the steps for taking a format into a new territory?
That’s a very good question. First, I read a lot. With China, for example, I’m reading about the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). I read comments representatives from the organization have been making, decisions they have made over certain periods, and so on. I also follow public policy debates. It’s easy to find government documents online since it’s so common to post positions there. Of course, whether those policy positions are going to hold is a whole other story, but at least I can get generally familiar. Then, I work really hard to know the broadcasters and programming schedules in particular territories. You have to know which broadcaster, for instance, is airing more liberal shows. When I was selling Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the last thing I’d wanted to do was go to the Catholic broadcaster in Chile and say, “Hey, I have got this great format for you. It’s called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy!” Talk about ruining business for years and years.
You really have to study their schedules. It’s an often overlooked necessity. Studying schedules has helped secure a deal so many times because it makes the broadcasters feel important. I actually looked at their schedules and knew what was performing and what wasn’t, what their strongest nights were, what their competition was, all of that. It’s especially important when they are dealing with major studios—broadcasters are shocked that a studio employee actually had enough interest to learn about them instead of saying, “Hey, I have got this thing to sell you and I’m going shove it down your throat.” It’s a much more personal approach. I do a lot of traveling too. You can go and sit on your rump at MIPCOM and all of those trade shows and talk to a different person every 30 minutes but there is nothing like having your boots on the ground and having coffee with them and sitting in their office, looking at the environment, seeing what they have to do, and looking at schedules and policies.
Product placement rules are another big thing. Depending on the formats, there are certain regulations around the world. One of the hardest countries to do product placement in is the U.K. You would think they would totally get it. They have loosened up in the last couple of years but when we did the British version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the brilliance of that show was that you could cover a lot of the production costs with product placements. You know, so-and-so gave the couch and such-and-such company gave the paint, and so on. But that was nearly impossible to navigate in the UK.
How much are you involved in the adaptation process? Are there different tiers to how much you participate?
It’s really contract-by-contract, and it’s situational as well. When you get pretty far in a deal you figure out whether the broadcaster and the production company you are dealing with have your complete and total confidence. It becomes apparent pretty early on and you quickly realize, “Okay, this is something I’m going to have to get involved in,” or you say, “Okay, I have 26 deals out there, 26 productions that are getting ready to start. I really can only get involved in six or eight of them extensively. Which ones are they going to be, which ones are those six or eight?” You have to figure that out. Unfortunately, sometimes what happens is the smaller territory falls by the wayside. But then again, the smaller territories tend to have their acts together more than a lot of the larger ones.
So what are the criteria? What determines which deals become priorities?
Obviously territory size is part of it because of the financial returns. Also, another criterion is the prospect of selling the rights to the show in other markets. Future deals with either that broadcaster or production company is another factor. Is this a region that might be a small territory but a very influential one, so if a show does well here, could it spur sales elsewhere? That is something else to consider.
What would be an example of a small territory that was otherwise influential?
The Czech Republic. That’s not a huge territory by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can get in there and you can do a good production from there, then the rest of Central and Eastern Europe have it immediately on their radar. If it does well there, then all of a sudden you are selling to Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and on and on. So you don’t necessarily have to start off with the big mama territory of the region in order to get attention.
Do these smaller territories understand their value?
Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. My philosophy was always that I would rather have open and clear communication so they know they are really valuable. I would rather say, “Hey, you know what? This is a great opportunity for you to get yourself on the radar and get noticed in the region, and it’s an opportunity for me if we do a great production here. I will be able to sell a whole lot more and this can be a real win-win for both of us so let’s work together.” That tended to be far more successful than kind of keeping them in the dark.