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Grass grows overseas at Universal

Named head of London-based unit

Universal Pictures has tapped Christian Grass to head a new international production arm based in London.

Grass, who joins the studio in October, will be prexy of production for Universal Pictures Intl. Move comes as U ramps up its worldwide acquisitions and local-language productions in a bid for the growing overseas market.

As part of this ongoing expansion, Universal has struck a partnership with Moscow-based director Timur Bekmambetov and his Bazelevs Prods.

Under this deal — the studio’s second local production pact — Bekmambetov will either direct or produce both Russian- and English-language films for the local and international marketplace.

These movies will be distributed in Russia by UPI under the new marketing label Bekmambetov Pictures. The first release will be Bekmambetov’s action pic “Wanted,” which he’s shooting in Prague for U; James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie star.

Other pics to be released under the Russian banner include “9,” an animated movie that Shane Acker is directing for Focus, with Bekmambetov as one of the producers; and an untitled 3-D animated ballet film that’s shooting in Russia.

Bekmambetov enthused about the chance to give Russian films and filmmakers wider exposure. “We will be able to bring new voices to our own country and possibly introduce the rest of the world to Russian films and filmmakers,” he said.

U previously signed a deal with Fernando Meirelles and his 02 Films to produce Brazilian and Latin American movies. The first project under that deal will be “Adrift,” a coming-of-age story written by Heitor Dhalia and to be directed by him this fall in Brazil.

Meirelles lauded Universal and Focus’ initiative and understanding of filmmakers.

“With their help, I can discover and encourage even more new Brazilian films and filmmakers,” he said.

Grass will join Universal from 20th Century Fox Intl., where he is serving out his contract as exec VP of Europe, Middle East and Africa. At Universal, he will report to co-chairman David Linde and exec VP Michael Joe. Joe, U’s chief strategy officer, recently gained oversight of local-language production and worldwide acquisitions (Daily Variety, May 7).

The international production unit will fund a slate of internationally based stories and local-language films. It will focus its efforts outside North America and the U.K.

Studios are ramping up international productions to feed a growing appetite overseas: Last year overseas box office for the majors jumped 9% to $8.6 billion.

Late last month, rival Sony tapped Deborah Schindler to oversee its growing overseas production with Gareth Wigan.

Universal’s move also comes in the wake of the gradual unwinding of United Intl. Pictures, its decades-long overseas distribution arrangement with Paramount. Early this year, the studio consolidated all of its worldwide acquisitions under one umbrella group. The UIP phase-out began Jan. 1 (Daily Variety, Jan. 30), with some regions taking longer to untangle.

At Fox, Grass pioneered local production and acquisitions. He was instrumental in Fox Searchlight’s pickup of Bekmambetov’s debut “Night Watch” and its deal to co-produce the sequel “Day Watch.”

Universal already has a diverse slate of international projects in the works, including Justin Chadwick’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” starring Scarlett Johansson; Japanese actioner “Midnight Eagle,” to be distributed by Shochiku; and German pic “Tell,” a spoof about Swiss national hero William Tell that U will release in German-speaking territories.

Universal execs said the initiative reflected the studio’s commitment to overseas markets. “These local markets support local films for weeks or months at a time, generating revenue that sometimes outpaces hits that everyone around the world knows by name,” Joe said. “Universal feels certain that by supporting localized production, we not only become the creative home for emerging talent from around the world but also keep pace with the growing emphasis on revenue from non-American markets.”

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