Franchise division explores platforms

2 prod'n units merged to create new franchises

HOLLYWOOD — When a new owner moves in — to a house, a storefront or even a multinational entertainment conglom — they usually want to repaint and reorganize the place. Such has definitely been the case since the merger formation of Vivendi Universal. Among the actions taken by Universal Pictures, execs earlier this year created a new entity, Universal Pictures Franchise Development, under the leadership of Louis Feola.

With the startup of UPFD, U brought two production units that create original programming mainly for the straight-to-vid market and children’s animation fare under the same umbrella as the conglom’s consumer products arm.

“If you bring the people responsible for licensing consumer products and those for producing programming into the same division and under the same leadership, hopefully they can figure out strategic ways to create new franchises because they know those markets and know their consumers,” says Rick Finkelstein, prexy and chief operating officer of U Pics.

As much as it was a proactive move, Finkelstein says part of UPFD’s raison d’etre was a recognition that the company had not fully capitalized in the past on franchises such as “The Land Before Time.”

The newly minted division is part of a series of realignments designed to make U faster on its feet when it comes to responding to both the shifting fortunes of the increasingly global entertainment biz, and the challenges and opportunities of various output platforms — DVD, video-on-demand, Web-based streaming media, et al.

“We weren’t as efficient as we could have been,” Finkelstein says. “Because of all the new methods of distribution, the coordination of release windows, marketing and pricing needs to be in one place.”

Unified distribution

To that end, almost simultaneously with the formation of UPFD, execs brought TV distribution operations led by co-prexies Philip Schuman and Belinda Menendez, into the U Pics fold. Previously, TV distribbing had reported directly to U Studios head Ron Meyer.

Perhaps as a sign that the leaner-not-meaner U operations are clicking over more elegantly than their industry counterparts, the company recently signed a trendsetting cable VOD deal with InDemand, the dominant pay-per-view distrib in the U.S. At present, there are only 500,000 VOD subscribers nationwide. U’s July deal will begin to funnel the likes of “The Mummy Returns” and “The Family Man” into the VOD pipeline.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” says Finkelstein. “No one else has taken the plunge. Cable operators are ready to make the investment but they need product.”

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