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Not The NATPE We Remember

NATPE 2002 was a breaking point for the event. Split into two different venues with a steep decline in attendance, some said it was the end...but others just shrugged and did their usual business. How bad is it? Adam Snyder reports.

snydernatpe01.jpg The convention floor at NATPE 2002 just wasn't the same as in previous years. Courtesy of NATPE.

"It's not what it used to be," rues Marie-Christine Dufour, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the Canadian animation company, Cinegroupe. "Where were all the celebrities, the free lunches, the giveaways?"

Dufour and more than ten thousand others who attended this year's NATPE television conference in Las Vegas last January are lamenting more than just a lack of pizzazz. "NATPE has been changing for the past few years, but this year the change was more drastic than at any other time I can remember," explains Dufour. "There were many more sellers than buyers and that's not the kind of show we're looking for. If it continues the way it's going, we'd very seriously consider whether to attend."

snydernatpe02.jpg Mary Bredin, Director, International Acquisitions and Programing for Walt Disney Television International, was just one of the many who found the convention to be disorganized this year.

Breaking Point

When NATPE -- the National Association of Television Programming Executives -- had its first conference in 1964 it was within a totally different television landscape, dominated by three broadcast networks and hundreds of television stations making their own independent buying decisions. Syndicators and the major studios spent millions on elaborate booths, food and entertainment in order to woo individual stations and station groups in the hopes of selling them their talk show, game show, drama or comedy. But those days are long gone. With the rise of Fox, WB! and UPN, independent stations have virtually disappeared. In their place, smaller production and distribution companies, many from Latin America, have filled the void, making for a very different NATPE.

"For years the major studios have threatened to bail on NATPE, and this year they finally made good on their promise," explains Greg Kimmelman, president of the distribution company Global Telemedia, who has been attending NATPE for more than a decade. Indeed, this year the Studios abandoned the convention floor for suites at the Venetian Hotel, a long taxi cab ride away. The result was long lines at the Venetian's elevator banks, missed meetings, and feet even more tired than usual.

snydernatpe03.jpg Joan Borsten of Films by Jove took the Venetian route. Courtesy of Joan Borsten.

"In terms of getting my business done, seeing the people I needed to see, it was fine," says Mary Bredin, Director, Acquisitions and Programming, Worldwide Programming Strategy, Walt Disney Television International. "But in terms of organization, what a mess. I went to my first NATPE on a broken leg and got around on a little wheeler. I could have used one this time."

Two Separate Worlds

"Having two separate NATPEs was weird," agrees Vincent Ferri, MIFA Manager of the Annecy Animation Festival, which had a small booth on the convention floor. "On the one hand, some companies that exhibited in the French pavilion were disappointed because they wanted to interact with the majors, and that was more difficult than in past years. On the other hand, of course they will continue to come to NATPE because it is now a recognized meeting place for selling programs to both the U.S. and Latin America."

Joan Borsten, president of Films By Jove which distributes classic Russian animation, skipped last year's NATPE after a bad experience the year before, and this year took a suite at the Venetian. "Two years ago in New Orleans the convention center was a football stadium and the animation wing was in Timbuktu," she said. "The people walking by were from local stations in Dallas and Omaha, not the international broadcasters who buy Russian animation. At the Venetian we were able to have all our meetings comfortably, and the traffic from the majors was usually the kind of people we want to meet."

Borsten also cites cost as a major reason for preferring the Venetian. Instead of paying for a booth and a place to stay, Films By Jove rented a suite for four days where they held their meetings. "It cost us $1200 instead $5,000," Borsten explains. "Multiply that by 200 and you see how much the majors saved."

snydernatpe04.jpg For Richard Winkler of Curious Pictures, there was still something to be gained from attending NATPE. Courtesy of Curious Pictures.

For some, however, the shrinking of NATPE isn't necessarily a negative. Greg Kimmelman thought that the absence of the majors actually made it easier for him to do business. "A lot of the buyers I met with had already finished their business with the majors, so by the time they got to the convention floor they weren't distracted by the typical hoopla. They were receptive and kept their appointments on time. Sure the show wasn't as glitzy and as fun as it used to be, but it was a very productive show for me."

Others simply think that NATPE will settle down into a more intimate show more along the lines of MIP and MIPCOM. "With a lot of the big American networks not there, it was even more like MIP, with more of a concentration on international business and co-productions," says Richard Winkler, executive producer at the New York-based independent animation studio, Curious Pictures. "It's a little sad I suppose that NATPE is becoming less significant, but for us it is still a good place to meet with people."

Something Must Change

No one, however, particularly wants a repeat of this year's split convention/Venetian Hotel experience. In addition to the inconvenience of the two venues, total attendance fell a whopping 50% to 10,125, down from 20,348 in 2001. Beth Braen, NATPE'S Senior Vice President for Marketing, tries to explain away the dramatic drop-off by pointing to the poor economy and the fact that so many new media companies disappeared from the face of the earth in 2001. "Attendance last year was an all time high," she explains. "The drop-off isn't as dramatic as it first appears."

But the numbers don't lie, and the 50% drop was noticeable at every turn. All sorts of suggestions are currently being bandied about so as not to repeat the confusion at this year's convention, and to boost convention traffic. On the one side is complete anarchy represented by Warner Bros. president Dick Robertson, who has been quoted as questioning the need for NATPE altogether. He has suggested a smaller programming gathering in Los Angeles in November and an advertiser-related meeting in March in New York.

snydernatpe05.jpg NATPE is open to suggestions on how to improve its annual meeting. Courtesy of NATPE.

But few people honestly believe that NATPE will not survive as a annual event, and a NATPE organization strategic task force will soon announce its recommendations on how to bring the Studios back to the convention floor. "NATPE is scheduled to be held at the convention center in New Orleans next year, and it would be financially untenable to get out of that commitment," says Braen. "But beyond that, we are open to all suggestions."

Braen is counting on the fact that thousands of independent producers and distributors rely on NATPE as the equivalent of MIP and MIPCOM, but with some important differences. "There is less and less difference between MIP and NATPE," Disney's Bredin points out. "I can't see everyone even at three markets, and NATPE is particularly good for seeing companies from Latin America."

Adam Snyder is president of Rembrandt Films, an animation company currently working on a history of animation program to be aired on the Bravo cable television channel in the United States.