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Prexy predicts global golden age

The global cinema business is entering a new golden age unlike anything seen since World War II.

So says UIP president and CEO Michael Williams-Jones. And as head of a foreign distrib powerhouse that has contributed much to the renaissance, he should know.

Within five years, says the UIP chief, the current B.O. ratio between domestic and foreign for Hollywood films of around 50-50 will swing to 30-70 in foreign’s favor.

The international marketplace’s share could be even higher once behemoths China and India develop into substantial markets, he believes.

“The revolution is gathering momentum around the world and it’s only the beginning,” says the Welsh-born exec, pointing to vigorous multiplex building in Southeast Asia and Latin America. He also foresees spectacular growth in parts of Europe, such as Germany and Italy, riding on the back of cinema construction.

Long-playing records

Last year, the UIP stable – Paramount, MCA/Universal and MGM/UA – posted its second consecutive record, with combined grosses of $1.7 billion ($642 million in rentals).

The topper is shy about predicting a new peak and won’t give a progress score, but he’s convinced 1995 will rank as another “outstanding year.” He expects a huge fall season for UIP, powered by such titles as “Apollo 13,” “Waterworld,” “Species,” “Clueless,” “Jade” and, for Christmas, “Babe, the Gallant Pig.”

UIP stands as the longest-running overseas distrib partnership, outlasting such coventures as WB/Disney, Columbia/Warner and Fox/Disney. “It’s the only international joint venture that has survived for this length of time,” Williams-Jones says.

Along the way, he’s set a personal record for longevity, occupying the top slot at UIP since 1984. His association with the UIP group dates back to 1969, when he was named United Artists’ regional manager in southern Africa. He later had stints with UA in Brazil, England and New York, before joining UIP in 1981, initially as senior VP, international sales, based in London.

Some industry vets see Williams-Jones as the glue that has held the triumvirate together through occasional periods of instability, infighting and jealousy among the three. In his years at the helm, he has had to ride the roller coaster of member companies’ fluctuating fortunes, and has seen studio regimes come and go.

“Michael is the doyen of the foreign managers, as we used to be called,” says WB Intl. prez Wayne Duband. He has known Williams-Jones since the early 1970s, when both served in South Africa and Duband was WB’s manager.

“We’ve both seen the international marketplace grow from being something that people (in Hollywood) barely thought about, to being predominant. And we’ve seen distribution change from the roadshow, single house, wait-in-line (operation) to the broad, mass release.”

Duband marvels at Williams- Jones’ ability to keep the UIP partners, and their cadres of producers, happy.

“I sometimes think how difficult it is to distribute films for one studio, with its relationships with filmmakers, and how difficult it must be to have three studios and all the filmmakers within those camps.”

On the balancing act of serving three studios, Williams- Jones says, “At the end of the day it falls into place. A big part of the job is building relationships based on trust.

He’ll shortly have a fourth studio to look after, when Dream Works starts pumping out films. Via Universal, UIP has collared overseas theatrical rights, excluding Asia, to its output. He hails the Dream Works deal as a “vote of confidence in the UIP team and organization.”

Asked to single out the achievement that gives him the most pride, he cites UIP’s groundbreaking efforts to open up South Korea to direct distribution a few years ago.

In the campaign to end the practice of selling films to that market for a flat fee, UIP and co-operative exhibs had to undergo a fiery baptism.

Enraged competitors slashed screens and let snakes loose in cinemas showing UIP product. That turbulent period “was not dull,” he says in reflection.

But it was a turning point that transformed South Korea from a territory that generated less than $20 million a year for the majors from all windows – theatrical and ancillaries – in 1987, to a gold mine that yielded $130 million last year.

UIP has experienced less visceral opposition from some quarters in Europe, while the European Commission has plodded its way through a seemingly interminable review of whether the distrib partnership should continue to be exempt from anti-monopoly regs.

“Since the furor during the GATT negotiations,” says Williams-Jones, “there has been a tremendous change of opinion in Europe toward UIP. We’re being seen increasingly as bringing additional value to the marketplace. We’re the most scrutinized company in the business.”

He attributes the formation of CIC, UIP’s predecessor, to Lew Wasserman and Charlie Bluhdorn, the then titans at MCA/Universal and Gulf+ Western’s Paramount. When they put it together, “they got the mold right,” he says.

An unabashed admirer of Wasserman, Williams-Jones says, the silver-haired veteran “has encouraged me to continue to develop the international markets; and he is a close friend. His influence will resonate for years to come.”

As for his own role, Williams-Jones says, “I’m committed to building for the future.”

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