Worth the Trip to MIP?

Expensive flights, over-priced hotels, costly dinners and exorbitant bar bills are par for the course in Cannes during the MIP markets. Whether arriving from Europe, North America or Asia, expenses for a single person to attend the market ring in at US$5,000 plus, not including the cost of producing brochures, promo tapes, and other materials that also make the trip. Given the expense, should producers - whose primary goal is to create programming - plan to attend? As buyers and sellers, broadcasters and distribs are obliged to make the trip - a market is a place of trade and MIP is unquestionably the biggest of the markets. But, producers...?
September 1, 2001

Expensive flights, over-priced hotels, costly dinners and exorbitant bar bills are par for the course in Cannes during the MIP markets. Whether arriving from Europe, North America or Asia, expenses for a single person to attend the market ring in at US$5,000 plus, not including the cost of producing brochures, promo tapes, and other materials that also make the trip. Given the expense, should producers – whose primary goal is to create programming – plan to attend? As buyers and sellers, broadcasters and distribs are obliged to make the trip – a market is a place of trade and MIP is unquestionably the biggest of the markets. But, producers…?

Done and done

According to some market veterans, smaller producers thinking of attending MIP to shop around finished films should think again. ‘Nobody can sell a finished program like a distributor,’ says Robert Fiveson, executive in charge of production at Jones Entertainment Group in Washington, D.C. ‘They have the relationships, so they’ll get the appointments.’

Sandra Green, former managing director of Great North International and now executive director of the CanWest Western Independent Producers (CWIP) Fund agrees: ‘It’s my experience that the buyers don’t want to deal with producers. I’m not talking about when you’re pitching a product that’s in development, only if you’ve come with a finished property. If you can go to one place and look at 30 different titles and pick the best five, versus coming up with the time to see one producer with one property, what are you going to do?

‘My opinions on the subject come from watching the small independents who go to these markets without a stand and with one or two properties,’ she continues. ‘Frankly, I think it’s not money well spent. The reason is purely an equation of returns. The cost of attendance and the cost of creating enough of a presence to draw any attention and to be able to get the meetings you need is way more than one product would ever fetch back.’

Additionally, distributors are often better equipped to sell programs. Explains Green, ‘Producing television and selling television are two totally different businesses. It’s hard to know what your client’s streams are, what their theme nights are, and what the changes are from year to year; it’s a huge amount of information when you’re dealing with the international market. Sales people’s sole job is to know these people and their channels, as well as what doesn’t work, what’s periphery and how to spin it. If you give [buyers] too much information, they’ll say no before they look at it. I recall one producer who bothered our buyer so much prior to our sales meeting with him that when we walked into the room and said, ‘I’ve got a new series for you,’ the [buyer] responded, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard about this one.’ The guy had been camping out on their doorstep and hounding them at parties. It was an oversell. There was no way they were going to buy that property.’

What’s one without the other?

Producers peddling programs in production, however, should not necessarily give up on their French lessons, yet. Simon Willock, general manager of Southern Star Wild & Real admits that a few years ago, producers at MIP ‘were a pain in the neck’. But, the funding dynamic of TV has changed in that time, he explains, altering the relationship between distributor and producer. Now, producers need to work with distribs early on to ensure programs are suited to the international market and that the balance of rights enables a profit through distribution. This means distributors, in addition to handling the business end of the deal, need to work with producers in the development stage, taking a role in the actual crafting of the program.

‘I don’t want every producer I have a relationship with to be wasting my time in Cannes,’ says Willock, ‘but the large number of meetings I now have at MIPTV or MIPCOM involve producers on specific projects. Broadcasters, particularly for major projects in the factual area, realize they have to increasingly be part of the pre-production process.’ He adds, ‘The commissioning broadcaster, if it’s a pure copro, will want to talk to the person who is the creative genius behind the product rather than the person who will ultimately manage the business affairs side.’

Producer and distrib alike concede there is no substitute to holding these meetings in the office of a commissioning editor rather than at MIP. Meetings at the markets are often limited to 30 minutes or less, with the competition walking in the door only minutes later. That said, buyers are at MIP to buy, which can work to a producer’s advantage. ‘I am around the corner from National Geographic and just a few minutes drive from Discovery, yet in my experience I’ve gotten more done at these markets than I do here in town,’ says Fiveson. ‘That time is reserved for a social/business context, where the people are receptive and expect to be fielding projects and considering alliances.’ Peter Davey, head of factual and development for Action Time in the U.K., concurs: ‘Ironically, you could meet just as easily in London, but everyone seems more relaxed down there. It’s a bit more informal, so you can get together and talk about ideas and commissions. And, half the people there are from overseas. We have strong contacts with Australia. One of the benefits for me is the Australians tend to be up for those two markets and it’s a good time to get together with them to talk about what they’re looking for.’

‘The reality is that if you are a small producer, the MIPTVs and MIPCOMs are the only alternatives for you,’ contends Willock. ‘You can’t afford ten airfares and you can’t afford the time, because you’re a one man band and what you actually do is produce shows. In a short period, you have an opportunity to do lots of business, so it is more efficient.’

The Personal Touch

The value of meeting people in person rather than via email or telephone is indisputable. To get industry partners behind a project, especially those with large budgets, requires a certain amount of trust between buyer and producer. Markets such as MIP can facilitate this. ‘To get a broadcaster to at least read your idea and consider it, you must know the person and have them understand where you are coming from, that you can in fact deliver a quality film and have the wherewithal to do so,’ says Will Davies, producer and founder of Look Film Productions in Australia and a 12-year veteran of MIP madness. ‘Here is where face-to-face meetings become important. At markets you get to know the buyers, get to know what they are looking for and just who they are. You are also ‘seen’ by them, i.e. you are still in business, still out there and still productive. This too is important.’

Whether sussing out a potential distrib or pitching a prospective broadcaster, producers are advised to establish an agenda before arriving in Cannes. ‘Sometimes people come to the stand and leave things for me or ask to speak to the person in charge of acquisitions – I never have time to see them,’ declares Jean Huang, vp of international sales for Lions Gate Entertainment in the U.S. ‘If you go with an agenda – with a goal in mind – and you know exactly who you want to see, have set up meetings in advance, and are prepared to present something specific that they already know you’re coming with, then [attending MIP] is a good way to spend your time.’

However, only established producers with a proven track record (and even then…) won’t find it difficult to arrange said meetings. Says Fiveson, ‘At events where there are panel discussions, one thing [commissioners] like to throw out is that good ideas will always find a home and talent will always rise to the top. I suppose if we still clap for Tinker Bell we would expect that to be true. For the 23 years I was freelancing in California, I certainly felt I had talent and good ideas, but I didn’t always get the audience or meetings I wanted.’

Sandra Green argues the needs of rookie producers and lesser-known production companies are better served at smaller events, rather than at MIP. ‘I think it’s easier to pitch projects that are in development at festivals,’ she explains. ‘Commissioning editors are there to deal with producers and are accessible. It’s the right environment for that kind of interaction. Yes, it can be done at market and it has been done at market, but it’s much more difficult and your chances of success are far less. At MIP, it’s pretty hard to get people to notice you.’

Although Willock agrees it’s difficult to get noticed at MIP, he cautions that smaller events offer a limited number of potential buyers. ‘There is a perverse logic that says as the world fragments into specialized broadcasters, you need more and more specialized marketplaces,’ he explains. ‘I think the opposite is true. Love it or hate it, MIP is highly comprehensive. You get a wide range of people there, from broadcasters and distributors to producers. If you fragment the marketplace into more diluted groups of people, you reduce the potential. There are exceptions – Jackson Hole is great for a very specialized group of people. But, MIPTV and MIPCOM have everything. You could spend more and more of your time going to increasingly specialized marketplaces and never achieve enough. There’s a lot of cost involved in that and not everybody you want to see goes to these small places, whereas most of the people you want to see go to MIP. The trouble is how do you get to see them once you get there?

‘My suggestion to the producer is that he shouldn’t go to Cannes [alone] unless he has such a track record that Discovery and people will open the door for him,’ Willock advises. ‘It’s far more effective to use a market like MIP, working with a distributor that is capable of handling the packaging and funding of their programs. I’m not interested in meeting a producer on the last day who’s talked to everybody and had the show rejected.’

Meetings are essential for ensuring a trip is productive, but the power of mingling shouldn’t be overlooked. Recounts Davies, ‘Adam Alexander from Mosaic Films in London was the first person I met at my first MIP in 1987. He is still a great friend and copro partner today.’ Fiveson adds, ‘If you’re sitting with [Discovery's] Chris Haws and having a drink, you’re likely to end up meeting his colleagues or friends. You’re in a Machiavellian environment, so it’s expected that you’re going to exchange cards and that you might follow-up.’

But, producers who are unable to set up the meetings they wish and are considering trying their luck on the cocktail circuit alone can consider themselves forewarned. ‘Things that aid conversation are a seat, which is quite difficult to get, and a drink, which is very difficult to get because you have to stand ten deep at the bar,’ Explains Action Time’s Davey. ‘You nip off to get a drink and return three quarters of an hour later to find the person you were talking to is long since gone. [The markets] are good in that the volume of people means there’s loads of interesting people. In terms of the perfect venue to socialize and try to get to know people, I wouldn’t put it top of my list.’

Trend Setters

Producers go to MIP to do more than pitch and sell their wares. ‘I see MIP as a unique instrument for getting an overview of the market situation,’ says Jörg Langer, managing director of T&G Films in Berlin, which acquires finished programs and adapts them to the German market, in addition to producing and coproducing non-fiction films. ‘What are the trends? What is being internationally produced? More series, singles, docudrama, docusoap? In Germany we have all the trends in the following year, so [at MIP] I get an idea of what we can do. On the other hand, I get an impression of what our competitors are doing. I can also acquire projects or join productions and become the German partner. So, it’s not only sales for me. For sales only, you can’t sell much at MIP.’

Davey (who jumped on a format he discovered on his last trip to MIP) also goes to Cannes to evaluate trends in the market, but admits its usefulness in this regard is beginning to wane. ‘The last couple of times I’ve been I’ve walked around thinking, my god, this is Groundhog Day. It’s exactly the same stuff, normally in all the same places. If you compare it to using your contacts, it’s not the best way to do it, because of its size and because it’s only twice a year. Your big thing may have come out in July, but it doesn’t make it to MIP until October. By that time, the way things are going now, it would have been snapped up.’

In Sum

Producers who choose to go to MIP usually attend only once a year. But, even dedicated MIP goers feel the trip isn’t crucial to their ability to make films. ‘The whole MIP thing is an expensive business,’ says Davey. ‘Action Time commits a lot through international sales and it’s critical to our distribution people. I’m a long way down the list of priorities as compared to them. If anyone is going to get chopped to save money, it would likely be me.’

Langer, however, feels producers should attend the fabled market at least once, ideally at the beginning of their career. ‘If a young producer comes to me and tells me he wants to make films for the international market, I tell him to spend the $5,000 to go to MIP and then decide what he is going to do. In other words, is he going to produce for the international market or just for German television? It’s more than $5,000 to make a film for the international market that won’t sell. Making that mistake is more expensive.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.