Distrib fights to save its biz

With its bundle of U.S. majors, it’s no surprise that UIP is often first in line when European filmers look for a convenient whipping boy or Eurocrats huddle over protective legislation.

At the height of the 1993 GATT spat, UIP was demonized by the French as the chief rep of the U.S. threat. And the company is now locking horns with Brussels over a variety of issues in both the theatrical and pay-TV arenas in which it holds foreign rights.

At issue in both sectors is whether UIP breaches standard rules of competition by holding too powerful a share of the market. Though UIP honchos say they’re confident about the outcome, Eurocrats could still force the company to unbundle its co-venture.

UIP claims it’s been instrumental in opening up pay-TV markets throughout Europe. “Ours was the first licensing group in 11 of the 12 member countries (in the EU),” says Brian F. Reilly, UIP senior VP and general counsel. “And it basically enabled programmers to acquire a critical mass of product to get their services off the ground.

“We helped create the marketplace for pay-TV in Europe,” he claims. “Otherwise, it may not have happened – or not quite so quickly.”

He disputes UIP’s clout is anticompetitive. “In almost every major territory in Europe, there’s only one pay-TV buyer, with a monopoly on programming services. The critical mass of three studios’ products that UIP offers at least holds open the possibility that another programmer by buying our product, could enter into competition with the entrenched programmers – to the benefit of consumers.”

UIP has also come up against the Eurocrats over its applications for loans from the European Film Distribution Office (EFDO) to support the release of two Europix.

UIP wasn’t amused when EFDO’s board decided at its annual general meeting a few months ago that, in future, applications wouldn’t be accepted from distribs that were less than 51% Euro-owned.

The legal eagle says EFDO is really hurting Euro producers, not UIP. “They now face a serious obstacle in choosing any non-European distrib to market their films.

“EFDO is a creature of the European Commission – it’s almost entirely funded by it and, under its contract, must follow the commission’s instructions. If EFDO excludes UIP and other major American distributors, it’s making it infinitely more difficult to achieve its objective to help the broader pan- European distribution of films.”

The UIP legal maven paints a potentially dark future for the country’s theatrical biz, unless the situation changes. “Last year, the Spanish government saw fit to impose more limits on the availability of these dubbing licenses. As a result, distribs and exhibs there are in danger of being starved of the steady stream of commercial, mainly American, titles they depend on to survive and expand.”

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