The new jet set

The entertainment industry knows few geographic boundaries, and neither should its workers. In addition to the financial benefits of working outside the U.S., the cultural perks are, by nature, often outstanding.

Many Hollywood pioneers were American immigrants; in the contemporary global marketplace, perhaps now is the time to return the favor.

Stewart Till is one of the most powerful film industry executives working and residing internationally. During 2004, as chairman and CEO of the world’s largest motion picture distribution company, United International Pictures (UIP), Till’s films — which include Universal’s, Paramount’s and DreamWorks’ — are expected to generate $2 billion at the box office outside North America — a company record. Speaking by telephone from his London office, Till discussed life in the global workplace and why he’d rather work 16 hours a day in the film business than half that in a less satisfying enterprise.

Q: What characteristics are valuable for executives seeking to move to other countries?

A: The differences between countries seem to be shrinking by the day. For the strong executive, business skill and culture and personality are applicable around the world.

Q: On what bases do you judge whether your territorial managers are doing well?

A: I’m a great believer that good marketing and distribution can add 30% … to a film’s potential box office and bad marketing can shrink it by 30%. A distributor in a country is empowered by the fact that you have the ability to make a huge difference to the box office of that film. And there’s not a natural number for it; it’s a number that you can dramatically influence. We spend a lot of time evaluating, after the release, how territories have performed. We go over the whole host of criteria of how these executives performed against their forecast and how the film performed against similar films in their territory and the same film in other territories.

Q: How do far-flung workers avoid feeling disconnected?

A: I’m a great believer (that when it comes to) a local decision about marketing and distribution inside Germany, the person in Hamburg or Frankfurt should know better than the person in London or Los Angeles. So we spend a lot of time empowering the local general managers, which I think is very motivating. … The other extreme is the person who uses the opportunity to be by the desk when you ring, but is actually not as conscientious as he would be or she would be if they were in the next office.

Q: How do you handle an operation that never sleeps? How do you, as a senior executive, avoid burnout?

A: Personally, I just so enjoy the job. And you’re right, it is all-encompassing. You work very long hours in London, because you have a normal working day and then Los Angeles wakes up. You then put on top of that quite a lot of evening events, most of them pleasurable. Over the weekend is obviously the time when you’re looking at the box office numbers. And there’s a lot of traveling, which is demanding. On the other hand, who could get tired of this job?

Q: You’ve had a lot of experience working in and around American workplaces. How do they differ from their British equivalent?

A: Ten, 20 years ago there was a sense that the American workforce worked harder and was more competitive. … I do think the European workforce has caught up dramatically in terms of attitude.

Q: Do Los Angeles-based executives overlook the film business employment opportunities available overseas?

A: Ten years ago most Americans thought it was a demotion to come to Europe; I think that’s less so now. I interviewed someone about an hour ago who’s a junior executive from an American film company, and he said, “I want a job working in London. I want to work internationally.” There is more variety here. In terms of different markets with different nuances, it’s growing at a faster rate than domestic. International’s bigger than domestic across theatrical, video and television. … We all know executives who go from L.A. to Chicago and New York for a better job at the drop of a hat. That mobility doesn’t yet extend, I think, to come to Europe at the drop of a hat; but it has definitely changed.

Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.

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