Overseas strategy leans on Disney moniker, counterprogramming

It was 1990. “Pretty Woman” was playing to sexy business Stateside. However, Warner Bros. screening reports were showing the Garry Marshall pic looking ugly to overseas auds.

“They thought the film was too American,” remembers Bill Mechanic, who was then Buena Vista Intl. prexy. “Julia Roberts was largely unknown and Richard Gere was not at the height of his popularity abroad.”

Although BVI was in the midst of an overseas distribution pact with Warners, Mechanic took charge of the film’s international marketing and distrib campaigns. In an unusual stroke, he unspooled “Woman” during the summer of the World Cup.

“I used the season as a defacto screening period that permitted the film to build up momentum with audiences,” says Mechanic. The result: “Pretty Woman’s” foreign gross topped out at $260 million, 46% above domestic.

Mechanic’s brio has been inherited by the current regime. Last month, BVI passed the $1 billion mark at the foreign B.O. for the ninth consecutive year, becoming the first major studio to achieve such a feat. Seven out of the last 10 years, BVI has had the No. 1 or No. 2 spot among majors in annual overseas market share, and this year surpassed their ’99 high of 1.319 billion.

“There’s no secret to our success,” says BVI prexy Mark Zoradi, “the accomplishments we’ve enjoyed over the past 10 years stem from having good live-action and animated product.” Last year, animation made up 40% of BVI’s annual take.

“If we’re releasing an animated film in a specific territory, we don’t look at how Disney films grossed there for comparison,” says a competing studio foreign topper, “Disney animated fare has an awareness built into their brand, like the Goodhousekeeping Seal.”

One way Disney ensures toon success is with a staggered release sked that capitalizes on school holidays abroad. For example, a big summer release such as “Finding Nemo” (current international take is $100 million) will open in a majority of Euro territoriesNovember through January.

While cartoons equal cash, Zoradi also credits the foreign branches with BVI’s boffo numbers.

“We’ve given a significant level of authority to each branch office to reach certain goals and implement plans,” says Zoradi. “What’s really important in international is that you can guide from Burbank, but with a finesse not to overcontrol. Allowing authority to be out in the field accounts for entrepreneurial spirit and more aggressive marketing plans.”

Such indigenous promotion has been the key to BVI hits. While “Monsters, Inc.” was sold primarily as a comedy domestically, the film’s emotional appeal was primarily emphasized in the Japan ad campaign.

With “Bruce Almighty,” BVI minted $203 million overseas from only 75% of the pic’s foreign territories. In France, where you can’t advertise on TV during primetime, BVI bulked up the print campaign. The exclusive overseas poster campaign featured Jim Carrey in place of Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel “Creation” painting.

“They actually understand the dynamics of a Miramax-Dimension picture,” says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands, who was wowed by BVI’s handling of “Chicago” and “The Hours” in the U.K., Italy, Germany, Australia and parts of Latin America.

With a release slate of 20-plus pics in 1992, Mechanic believed that Disney needed its own distribution network. Since 1987, Disney had a five-year pact with Warner Bros. Intl., and while the Mouse House maintained P&A budgetary and creative control under the deal, all campaign decisions had to be channeled through the Warner lot rather through individual territory offices.

When Mechanic got the greenlight for BVI from corporate, he had 11 months prior to their first release, “Sister Act,” to open roughly 13 overseas branches and make 40 subdistribution deals. Today, BVI branches number 27.

If there’s one edge that BVI has over the competition, it’s continuity.

“The company couldn’t work without Zoradi,” says Mechanic about the management that’s been largely in place since his departure for Fox and his subsequent return as a producer. “He provided the thing BVI needed to succeed in the overseas market; he made it a people business. And that’s something that all movie companies can profit by.”

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