Lion-less UIP eyes indie to fill slate

Distrib to trim costs due to MGM exit

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA — Foreign theatrical distrib United Intl. Pictures is trying to fill the gap caused by MGM’s exit from the international distribution partnership — buoyed by the belief that Universal won’t bail out.

“I am optimistic Universal will make its decision to renew its commitment to the UIP franchise within the next few months,” UIP chairman/CEO Paul Oneile told Daily Variety Wednesday.

Universal is obliged to give 12 months’ notice if it intends to quit the co-venture with Paramount when the pact expires in October 2001.

Boosting rep

Oneile’s bullish statement appears designed to quell industry speculation that U’s top brass are likely to pull out of UIP in favor of routing all the studio’s films via United Pictures Intl., the rebranded Polygram Film Intl.

Interviewed at the Australian Movie Convention, where UIP is screening “American Pie” and UPI is previewing “Mickey Blue Eyes,” Oneile marshaled economic arguments to support his belief that U will stick with UIP.

He asserted that UIP is the most cost-effective of all the U.S. majors’ international theatrical arms by virtue of its shared overheads. Also, as a standalone entity, UIP does not carry any of its member studios’ head office overheads such as business affairs and administration.

“UIP has the biggest reach and penetration of any (overseas) film distribution company,” he said, noting the distrib operates in 48 markets — more than any competitor. He wouldn’t confirm reports that UIP’s overhead runs about $60 million per year.

Contending it’s cheaper to release product via UIP subsids than to go through subdistributors, even in smaller markets, Oneile said UIP expects to expand its operations in Eastern Europe, where it currently has outposts only in Poland and Hungary. He cited the Czech Republic as one growing theatrical market where he intends to plant UIP’s flag.

The distrib also intends to fill the void created by MGM’s departure in October 2000 by trimming operating costs and significantly bumping up acquisitions.

Oneile declined to detail areas he’s earmarked for consideration, but indicated the company is upgrading its computer systems, which will lead to cost savings in Europe when the Euro currency unit is uniformly adopted in 2001.

Talking with indies

To acquire more indie films, UIP is in advanced negotiations with four production companies which operate outside the studio system. “We’re talking to people who can deliver six to 10 films a year,” he said, noting UIP has the flexibility to pursue all rights or purely theatrical — seeing the latter as an attractive option for producers who want to retain TV and homevideo.

MGM’s decision to join forces with 20th Century Fox Intl. has prompted UIP to upgrade the status of the acquisition exec it’s been seeking to hire. Oneile aims to recruit a director of acquisitions within a month or two.

Historically UIP has picked up rights in various territories to between 40 and 80 films a year, but this appointment signals a move to chase bigger-budgeted fare.

Oneile said the exec’s mandate will be to buy “commercial films which will help make up for a lot of the revenue shortfall” stemming from MGM’s exit.

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