Columbia TriStar International president Ted Shugrue brings a dual perspective to the international arena, having spent the first part of his career in the trenches of domestic distribution. His move into the international theatrical sector over the last decade was timely, paralleling the incredible growth of that side of the exhibition business. Shugrue, who is receiving the Distributor of the Year award at Cinema Expo, says it was simply a matter of good timing.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” says Shugrue, “I arrived at a time in the international business when the world was becoming more capitalist. Places where we couldn’t do business for 50 years were suddenly available to us.”
Shugrue’s peers say his domestic experience makes for a different approach to the overseas distribution business. “What gives Ted an advantage is that having come out of domestic, he is well positioned to adapt that knowledge to international, which is a carbon copy of the U.S.,” says Warner Bros. International prexy Wayne Duband.
After stints in domestic sales for Columbia and Fox, Shugrue was recruited for the top distribution spot at the newly formed TriStar in 1983. He helped form Triumph Releasing, which handled domestic and international distribution for Columbia and TriStar, and was then given the chance to take over international when 45-year Columbia veteran Patrick Williamson retired in 1988. “I had begun to realize that the domestic business was shrinking,” says Shugrue. “Not that the dollar revenues were declining, it was just becoming a smaller arena.
“So I decided that maybe I could bring a little bit of American expertise to international. It’s now seven years and I’m still getting an education,” says Shugrue. “I couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Aside from expanding my horizons educationally, my horizons have expanded commercially.”
Columbia TriStar now does business in over 54 territories, compared to just 30 when Shugrue entered the international sphere.
The greatest growth during this time has been in Eastern Europe, as well as Asia, where American films have broken into Korea and Indonesia in recent years. “We’re about to go into Vietnam and China,” Shugrue adds. “Think of the kind of business you could do if you could get into China. It would be the equivalent of having another continent, if not another planet.”
Sony Pictures Ent. has just opened a sales office in Beijing for theatrical, television and video sales, and Shugrue hopes that “First Knight” with Sean Connery and Richard Gere will be the first Chinese release in the fall.
Despite the enormous potential for expansion in developing countries, much of the world remains shortchanged by lack of venues. “The biggest cancer we face in this business is the absence of movie theaters, and it also affects video and television. Of the 54 markets that we operate in, I would say that as few as 10 of them are properly screened,” says Shugrue.
Particularly frustrating, he notes, are Italy, with its archaic cinemas that close in summer, and Holland, with declining admissions despite a rainy climate ideal for filmgoing. “The situation is both so bad and such an opportunity,” he says, “that there’s room for lots of people to jump in.”
With American studios such as Warners, Universal and Paramount increasingly investing in overseas sites, Shugrue remains hopeful that Sony’s Loews Theaters will also get into international exhibition in a major way.
“Our business is growing now because of the increased number of territories and it’s growing because of the new cinemas coming on line,” he observes. “If more cinemas continue to come on line, I don’t think we can even begin to reasonably guess-timate how much business we can do overseas,” he says.
“We’ve moved from international revenues representing 35% or 40% of every dollar of revenue to 50% now and I believe that by the end of the century we can be at 55 to 60%. The North American market is developed about as far as it can go. The growth in this business, on virtually every front, is overseas.”
International successes with “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” “Little Women,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Street Fighter” and “Bad Boys” have meant a strong year so far for Columbia TriStar, and Shugrue thinks the studio is on a winning streak. “It reflects what happened with Sony domestically, where Sony had the No. 1 market share in the spring, and I expect that by July, we should be sitting in the No. 1 market share overseas.”
The international division did a spectacular turnaround on “Frankenstein’s” lukewarm U.S. reception, with overseas business totaling 400% of domestic. Similarly, “Legends of the Fall” and “Street Fighter” both doubled their domestic business in overseas release. “‘Frankenstein’ was really hurt in the U.S. by ‘Interview With the Vampire,'” opines Shugrue. “You have a couple of strategic advantages overseas – you don’t have to open in every territory simultaneously. In international, you can adjust your expenses and commitment from one territory to another, which is a luxury you don’t have in North America. You can also change your campaign.”
Shugrue thinks the upcoming “Desperado” with Antonio Banderas, will be “huge” overseas. He’s also high on “Money Train” with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, “The Juror” with Demi Moore, and “Mary Reilly” with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich.
Hollywood majors are not the evil giants some would accuse them of being, says Shugrue. The forthcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” with Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson is a good example of how to do cultural things commercially, he explains. “We’ve found a way to do it so that economically it makes sense. You can do that in any country in the world. But if you subsidize and place quotas and barriers, you’re going to create an environment that’s artificial.”
As far as recent complaints that local offices of the majors are buying up the promising independent films, he replies “We’re not going into these places with drawn guns and stealing the movies. We’re paying the money and taking the risk financially because we believe we can make them financially successful.”