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DIRECT TO THE WORLD

As United Intl. Pictures enters its second quarter-century, the U.K.-based foreign distrib of Universal, Paramount and MGM/United Artists fare has become one of the most remarkable movie success stories born of potential disaster.

The combine that started life as Cinema Intl. Corp., formed in April 1970 from the foreign sales departments of Paramount and Universal, has seen rentals recover from an abnormal low of $215 million from 1984-85 to $642 million in calendar 1994. Latter figure translates into $1.6 billion in grosses.

With a worldwide staff of 833, UIP now operates 37 direct distribution offices and two coventures, servicing a total 101 countries. In an additional 61 territories, UIP fare is subdistribbed via agents.

Overcoming obstacles

At the start, though, the naysayers were in the majority.

“Everyone predicted there’d be strains,” recalls Gerry Lewis, CIC’s first head of international marketing. “Everybody said it was totally impossible for two competing companies to work together in the same organization without stresses.

“Remarkably, there were none,” claims Lewis. “And that’s a tribute to the joint chairmen of CIC at the start – Arthur Abeles and Ricky Michaud. Ricky came from Paramount and Arthur from Universal, and they made it work. They managed to weld one company out of two with astonishing speed and success.”

Lewis says each CIC office handled pix regardless of their individual studio origins. “Every film got an equal shot,” he says. “And that’s been carried on ever since.”

Per execs, this policy helped to even out the flow of hits and carry operations through the down periods of both parents. In 1973, CIC expanded to include the overseas operations of MGM; in 1981, after MGM bought United Artists for $380 million, CIC merged with MGM/UA and became UIP.

While UIP has weathered many changes of control in its U.S. parents, its management team has remained steady. Michael Williams-Jones has been prexy since 1984 and Hy Smith been marketing supremo even longer. Tony Themistocleous, VP, European sales, is a veteran of the entire 25 years, and Mike Macclesfield, VP international sales and development, has logged a similar period of service.

Though the company is only directly concerned with foreign theatrical and pay TV sales (homevideo is handled by the Par/U-owned CIC Video, and other TV sales by the individual studios), UIP has been an aggressive campaigner for upgrading theaters and spreading of multiplexes as keys to expanding and reviving ailing markets.

While distribbing local movies, UIP has been accused of cultural tokenism when it handles such fare, an accusation strongly rebutted by UIP honchos, who claim they use business criteria. It may also be wary of expanding too far in this direction for fear of attracting more flack for further increasing its market share, already sizable as Yank pix dramatically increase their share in many territories.

However, as foreign increasingly outstrips domestic in theatrical revenues, UIP is looking to the international marketplace, with the potentially massive marts of China, India and Russia still undeveloped in multiplex terms and barely tapped with its product at present.

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