The spectre of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment (PFE) has haunted the international industry for the last 10 years. Since the European studio was swallowed up by Universal in 1999, the vacuum it left is frequently cited by those seeking a reordering of the international sales and distribution sector.
Indeed, PFE has its own highly influential diaspora of former executives who went on to success elsewhere. But the rebirth of PolyGram looks to have taken its most literal turn with the acquisition of the international operations of Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey's Icon Group by Stewart Till's Stadium network.
Till was president of PFE at the time of its demise back in 1999, following its acquisition by Universal parent company Seagram. He played a leading role in some of the European studio's biggest successes, overseeing marketing and distribution of hits such as Notting Hill and Four Weddings And A Funeral and acquiring films such as Trainspotting and The Usual Suspects.
That sense of unfinished business is certainly an inspiration for Till among many others. But he has never been one to talk about simple recreation of business models. Since PFE, Till has picked up plenty of other experience, notably as chairman and CEO of UIP until 2006. Yet PolyGram is, understandably, a byword for the current gap in the international distribution market.
Over the last two or three years, there have been a number of moves to fill what is seen as a gaping middle ground between the Hollywood studio giants and the inefficiencies of single territory distribution.
Though details of its deal remain unclear in the current period of due diligence, Icon explicitly steps into that breach. It intends to buy all international rights to a slate likely to be in the region of 10-12 mostly English-language films with commercial potential. These will take advantage of a strong multinational distribution network covering key territories, created through acquisitions or by setting up new operations. The Icon deal includes sales outfit Icon Entertainment International, the UK and Australian distribution operations and the Majestic Films & Television library.
It has already been announced that Stadium - likely to be rebranded as Icon - will be extended to France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia. The rest of the world will be sold on through the sales outfit.
The new Icon faces competition from a small but ambitious group of players which have identified the same opportunities. They include Wild Bunch, StudioCanal, Entertainment One (E1) and the Goldman Sachs-backed Alliance. However, the acquisition of all international rights - which sets it apart from the likes of E1 and Alliance - will be a key part of the Icon business plan.
The new business will not have a foot in the production camp which PolyGram enjoyed. PFE was able to notch up huge hits through Working Title and Propaganda.
Despite an announced first-look deal with Gibson and Davey's Icon Films, Till and his teams will be vying for titles with the competition at the markets and talking to the same US companies. Where the all-international-rights muscle might be brought to bear is in having the power to help finance product which has potential for global reach, putting the company into the position of de facto producer. The trick, of course, will be to identify the winners, or at least not to back too many losers.
Even given that the hedge fund-boosted glut of studio fare will soon have worked its way through the system, competition for this middle ground will be tight. But there is a sense that the market is settling down into a more manageable pattern.
After recent disruptions, it seems likely that, in Europe at least, we will have a three-tier system of distribution: studios including large-budget global franchises; microbudget arthouse films produced at a lower cost and often distributed online; and the middle tier of international distributors, handling commercial product. Till will fancy his chances in that market.
His plans are backed by New York-based international industrial group Access Industries. He will have experience in Mark Gooder, the LA-based executive who was named CEO of the Icon Group in late 2007, who will continue to oversee the company's operations, though he will be looking to hire an executive to run the sales operation since the departure of Ariel Veneziano earlier this year.
Till, who chairs the UK Film Council, is also optimistic about longer-term business trends and is one of those who have grasped the long-term potential of online distribution. Recreating PolyGram's instinct for hits will of course be a huge challenge in these very changed times but it at least begins with a PolyGram-sized ambition.