Int'l toppers come together at Cinema Expo

AMSTERDAM — The international toppers of all the Hollywood majors went into a form of group therapy on Thursday morning, giving them a chance to share hopes and fears with sympathetic listeners at a Cinema Expo panel discussion.

The session was a rare occasion when the international heads of all the studios were gathered on the same stage, demonstrating the pulling power that Cinema Expo possesses.

Emerging territories such as Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East were seen as major sources of new money.

“Russia has become a top 10 territory. It has really exploded,” said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, prexy of international distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. “It will slow down a bit but still has a lot of potential.”

Five or six years ago, a Hollywood pic could be expected to gross $10 million at the most in Russia; now a movie could earn up to $50 million, said Duncan Clark, exec VP at Universal Pictures Intl.

Former Eastern Bloc territories from Siberia to Bulgaria were showing dramatic growth, said Tomas Jegeus, co-prexy of 20th Century Fox Intl., although Ukraine’s potential is being held back by a local law mandating that pics be dubbed in Ukrainian rather than Russian.

Jegeus also pointed to Turkey and the Middle East as growth areas. UAE and Lebanon, in particular, have seen substantial improvements in infrastructure, demand and diversification of tastes.

Anthony Marcoly, prexy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Intl., said the company had seen a substantial improvement in the gross in UAE for “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” compared with the first pic in the franchise.

Local product, all agreed, was another sure way to maximize the potential of territories. “Expansion is dependent on the strength of local product,” said Mark Zucker, prexy of Sony Pictures Releasing Intl.

Andrew Cripps, prexy of Paramount Pictures Intl., added, “Films like ‘Welcome to the Sticks’ in France have demonstrated that this is where you’ll see a lot of growth, whether we are involved or not.”

Kwan-Rubinek added that most local-language pics, including “Sticks,” fail to cross borders. Local product from the U.K. and Australia have the greatest potential for generating cross-border hits but have failed to fulfill their full potential, Jegeus said.

Clark warned of the dangers of overheating the local production sectors.

“When Hollywood comes to town, people tend to change their prices,” he said.

South Korea, where budgets had spiraled out of control and investors had been frightened off, was held up as a cautionary tale.

Marcoly said local production biz tended to be cyclical, with one hit spawning imitators, leading to a drop in quality and a fall in B.O. “It’s still about the quality, whatever pics you are making,” he said.

Pics in 3-D were held up as another prime driver of growth. “It is a different experience, and I think people will embrace it and pay a premium. It will change our business,” Cripps said.

However, there’s a danger in expanded output faster than the market can absorb the product, with all speakers agreeing that there are still too few screens that can take 3-D pics.

Most 3-D pics are aimed at the family market and most head for a release during the holidays, said Clark, creating a logjam of product. December 2009, in particular, will see a collision of several Hollywood 3-D pics.

The key to unlocking the potential of 3-D is to get more screens converted to digital, they agreed.

“It is not just about how we grow the business but how we maintain the business. We constantly have to reinvent ourselves,” Kwan-Rubinek said. “If we have not got an all-digital environment in 10 years, we’ll have missed the boat.”

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