U’s new arm accents foreign clout

Working Title pix beef up early slate

LONDON– In the original premise of Universal’s upcoming Jamie Foxx drama “The Kingdom,” an FBI squad is sent into Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack on an American compound in Riyadh.

But when the studio’s international executives read the script, they suggested some subtle tweaks to better sell it to overseas audiences. Instead of showing Yanks cracking a case locals couldn’t handle, the story became about U.S. and Saudi investigators teaming to fight bureaucrats from both countries.

That such a change was made reflects the increasing influence of international at U, which will be further bolstered in January when the studio launches its own foreign theatrical operation, based in London. Heading the international arm is David Kosse, formerly U’s president of international marketing and distribution, who has quadrupled his London staff over the past six months in readiness for the move.

Called Universal Pictures Intl., the international operation was created after the studio decided to dismantle its foreign theatrical joint venture with Paramount, United Intl. Pictures.

From day one, UPI will have its own direct distribution operations in all the major European territories excluding France, with Australia and New Zealand coming on stream in the middle of 2007.

It also shows the influence U’s acquisition of Polygram Filmed Entertainment and its Working Title Films label has had on the studio. Kosse was a Polygram executive before it was absorbed into U in 1999. In addition to U films like “The Good Shepherd” and Focus pics like “The Return,” the initial release slate of UPI will be dominated by movies from U’s Working Title including “The Golden Age,” ‘Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” “Atonement,” “Smokin’ Aces,” “Catch a Fire” and “Hot Fuzz.”

“When it started to integrate executives from Polygram five or six years ago, the studio was very domestically focused,” Kosse says. “But it feels very internationalized right now, and it wants the opinions about the international marketplace about everything.”

U chairman Marc Shmuger credits the influence of Polygram veterans in opening the eyes of the studio to the importance of the international marketplace.

“We understand that the spring-well of movies is not just out of the Hollywood Hills, but from any fertile part of the planet,” Shmuger says. “Pre-Polygram, greenlight decisions were entirely through the perspective of an American citizen and a Hollywood executive living in Los Angeles. But today, we are making a movie like ‘Dambusters,’ which is not a story anyone in America knows, and that’s greenlit largely out of interest from the international market.”

This global mindset was cemented by Shmuger’s elevation to chairman of the studio in March; and reinforced when David Linde, a veteran of the overseas indie biz, was plucked from Focus to serve as co-chair.

The promotion of another Polygram alumnus, video topper Peter Smith, to become prexy of NBC Universal Intl., means that, uniquely among the U.S. majors, all three of U’s international presidents — theatrical, TV and video — will be headquartered in London rather than Los Angeles.

Smith will continue to head video until a successor is appointed, but his added responsibilities take him outside the movie studio to run TV distribution and global channels, with a wider mandate to ensure closer co-ordination between all three distribution divisions. He shares responsibility for international TV with U’s L.A.-based vice chair Rick Finkelstein, who is also a former Polygram executive.

With UPI’s London team working closely with David Livingstone, Working Title’s London-based president of worldwide marketing, the new structure is likely to squeeze even more international upside out of Working Title’s foreign-friendly slate. While Working Title’s movies increasingly hold their own in the U.S., they regularly do double the business overseas.

Across the entire U slate, Kosse argues that his new structure will enable “quicker, more nimble decision-making” than the “clunky” old UIP joint venture, where local managers were the servant of two masters but never fully trusted by either.

Under the divorce settlement, U will take over UIP’s offices in Germany, Italy, Spain, Benelux and Russia, while Par will get the U.K., France, Australia and New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil.

Each will distribute the other’s product in those territories, until they launch their own rival operations. Par has yet to declare any plans to do so, but UPI will open a British arm in January under former Fox exec Simon Hewlett, followed later in 2007 by an Australian office under Mike Baard. (Meanwhile, a scaled-down UIP will continue to release movies from both partners in the rest of the world).

By Jan. 1, Kosse will have 93 staffers in his London headquarters (up from 31 six months ago), including Duncan Clark as exec VP, distribution; Andrew Brown as senior VP, marketing; David Bullock as senior VP, legal; Rachel Staff as senior VP, creative; Kate Wyhowska as senior VP, publicity; Niels Swinkels, VP distribution, Europe; and Jack Ledwith in Los Angeles as senior VP, distribution.

Another 25 staffers will be working for Hewlett’s new U.K. arm, including Shephali Patel as marketing manager and Andy Leyshon as sales director.

UPI will become more aggressive about holding onto movies from Focus — particularly in territories such as the U.K. and Australia, where it won’t have Par pics to handle — and it will seek to acquire more local pics.

Kosse argues that UIP’s perceived weakness in handling more specialized movies — such as those supplied by Focus and Working Title — was not due to a lack of aptitude, but to the fact local managers were not always mandated to give those movies the personal attention they needed.

The test of this will come with “Hot Fuzz,” the sophomore pic by the team behind “Shaun of the Dead.” “Shaun” was a modest hit in the U.K. and North America, but went virtually unreleased elsewhere because UIP had no faith in its B.O. prospects.

Kosse and Livingstone were always convinced “Shaun” could have won a cult aud with careful handling, and they are determined to prove UPI can achieve with “Hot Fuzz” what UIP refused to attempt with “Shaun.”

Meanwhile, local execs will be encouraged to think beyond the narrow theatrical agenda, and to see the studio’s longterm profile within their territory.

Says Kosse, “We want them to be creative magnets, to be out there with the creative community looking for new talent, not just on the theatrical side, but looking for anything hot that could be fed back to the studio.”

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