Universal Intl. revamps local strategy

Unit features new structure with same production goals

Despite a clutch of executive shuffles and a corporate buyout, Universal Pictures Intl. says it remains as committed as ever to local production around the world.

Last year saw Comcast take over the entire Universal Pictures operation, while in London, the studio parted company with the two senior execs who led its drive into local-lingo movies over the past few years.

Industry stalwart Christian Grass ankled as prexy of international productions and acquisitions in July, and exec VP Clare Wise followed in November.

Neither has been directly replaced, prompting industry speculation that UPI was paring back its production division. But president of international, London-based David Kosse, insists that it’s business as usual for the production company, with a different structure but the same budget for local pics. (Kosse declined figures, but some have pegged it at $50 million-$100 million.)

“As any business, we reevaluate,” Kosse says. “I want to be clear we’ve been in the local production business consistently under different executives and in different ways in the nine years since I’ve been at Universal, and we continue to be in that business.”

The company has promoted two execs to oversee the local production division and to discover regional pics in their home markets.

J.J. Lousberg has been upped to VP of international production. He has been instrumental in finding French- and Spanish-language projects for UPI over the past few years, and recently oversaw Spanish pic “Intruders,” which UPI co-financed with local broadcaster Antena 3.

Peter La Terriere, who also has been upped to veep of international production, will work in tandem with Lousberg, who will focus more on the European home front, while La Terriere handles developing opportunities in Russia, the Far East and Latin America.

They will work closely with key local territory managers, notably Paul Steinschulte in Germany, Stephane Huard in France and Jose Luis Hervias in Spain, who have been given more responsibility to develop filmmaker relationships in their regions.

A look at the box office shows why it makes sense for UPI to continue its commitment to investing in local-language fare. In the past few years, the company has had hits with pics like French romantic comedy “Heartbreaker,” which took $29.8 million in Gaul, and biopic “Gainsbourg,” which grossed $9.8 million .

In Spain, “Julia’s Eyes” minted $14.4 million, while Russian and Ukraine auds flocked to the Timur Bekmambetov-produced “Black Lightning,” which grossed $22 million in the two territories.

More recently, December release “Rubbeldiekatz” grossed $19.2 million in Germany, while Spanish pic “Brian Drain 2,” also released in December, grossed $7.1 million in Spain.

“We are still willing and able to invest on short notice,” Kosse says. “That’s effectively the strategy going forward. It is a robust, active and sizable effort. … We are still looking at projects and are (empowered) to invest in those projects.”

But while UPI remains tasked to invest in local productions, there clearly have been changes within the company.

During Grass’ tenure, Universal forged close ties with leading local filmmakers, including Russia’s Bekmambetov, Fernando Meirelles’ O2 Filmes in Brazil and the Mexican triumvirate of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron through their shingle Cha Cha Cha, via relationships largely initiated by U’s former co-prexy David Linde.

Those deals have all lapsed, although long-term deals with Germany’s UFA Cinema and Italy’s Cattleya remain in place.

“A few years ago, there was more of an emphasis on slate deals, but now we’re moving (ahead) much more with an opportunistic take on it,” Kosse says. “I’ve always felt that in local markets, because of the cyclical nature of local productions’ success, the key is being ready to come in to any given market, and prebuy and finance. The key is to not have any fixed agenda.”

UPI will continue to back fewer than 10 local productions per year, although Kosse is quick to stress there is “no prescribed number.”

However, while local production continues to be run out of London, the other half of Grass’ former job — the acquisition of selected foreign territories for bigger international movies — has been relocated to Los Angeles.

Peter Kujawski, tapped as exec veep of worldwide acquisitions for U in September, is in charge of a restructuring effort to centralize and streamline Universal’s acquisitions efforts across the globe, and maximizing distribution opportunities. The worldwide acquisition effort is under U co-chairman Donna Langley.

“The way we look at acquisitions is different,” Kosse says. “There are global acquisitions that other people are making that we take domestic on, and more tactical decisions where we look at our pipelines and what we’re making locally and how much capacity we think we have. We endeavour to find films for those territories that fill that pipeline.”

Universal has had notable success with acquisitions in the past few years, including Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” which it bought for Blighty and Oz, and the “Step-Up” franchise.

But Kosse notes that the company is not chasing deals to fit a global strategy.

“Our ambitions are to be an engaged buyer and co-producer in all markets where there are enough opportunities that are, in most cases, relatively pre-packaged and have a chance to work in the marketplace,” Kosse says. “If you look at local language films as a percentage of box office, it’s rarely a growing line; it’s a spike and trough business. Some years it’s enormously big and some years less, dependent on the filmmakers out there. It’s not as consistent as a studio approach.”

Stepping into Berlinale this year, Kosse says he and his team will be acquisitive if the right pic fits the UPI bill.

“We try to be disciplined at markets,” he says. “It’s a different story if you’ve got overhead and you’re an indie distributor and you need something as an engine. We have engines for 2012 and 2013, and we’re looking for films that complement that.”