David Kosse is now celebrating a full year as president of Universal Pictures International (UPI), and he will tell you it has been a challenging ride.
While he is no stranger to the company - Kosse has been head of UPI's London operation since 2003 - this is the company's first year as a standalone entity following the United International Pictures (UIP) split at the close of 2006.
"It's been a great year," says London-based Kosse. "We've had some terrific and significant movies and our slate was filled with a lot of films that overperformed."
While the rest of the studios launched multi-billion dollar franchises throughout the summer months, Universal chose to release their biggest offering, The Bourne Ultimatum, in August. The film generated $212m to date internationally, accounting for 24.3% of the Bourne franchise total.
"We certainly feel very good about where we're performing on the movies we've made," says Kosse. "We didn't have a Spider-Man or a Shrek or a Harry Potter to work on, so we didn't go into the year expecting their kind of numbers because we weren't building off those franchises."
With the blockbuster 2007 summer behind the six major studios, UPI was the only one that failed to reach the $1bn benchmark by the close of the summer on August 31, reporting a $533.8m international tally. But on December 16, UPI managed to hit the $1bn mark.
Kosse says the company is embracing what he calls an increase in "universal attitudes".
"We started with Hot Fuzz in February, a small British film which took enormous amounts internationally ($56.5m), far more than we expected," he says. "Then there was Mr Bean's Holiday, another film that shocked the industry, particularly in the US. It launched internationally to nearly $200m before even opening in America. This was a phenomenal start to the year."
Facing the challenge of creating a strong slate is nothing new to Kosse. Having kick-started his career in 1997 as head of international marketing for film, TV and video at PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, he left to set up UK-based independent distribution company Momentum Pictures in April 2000, which has now grown to the UK's second-largest independent distributor. And Kosse knows a versatile slate is not just about franchise films anymore - he wants to spearhead a more "local films in local markets" approach.
"If you look at the franchises and where they come from, most are based on intellectual property," Kosse says. "They were developed in a time when there was more of a mass culture. Now, culture is more fragmented. Comic-book heroes had 20, 30, even 40-year runs in a consumer culture that was less fragmented, so spawning new franchises from the general entertainment culture is generally much more difficult because there are more media outlets."
With this understanding, UPI is looking to capitalise on new relationships in local markets. "Of course I'd love to have some big franchises that are going to make $500m or $600m at the box office," Kosse says. "But we also want to have a significant part of our revenues to be coming in all major territories from local films."
This strategy can be seen in the announcement made in Cannes this year, in which Universal signed a local production and distribution deal with Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Day Watch) and his Bazelevs Production. This came at the same time Universal confirmed the appointment of former Twentieth Century Fox executive Christian Grass as president, production, for UPI.
"The local business is certainly going to grow in importance for us," says Kosse. "The reason we're approaching it is simple - if local films make up, say, 20% of the local market and we're film distributors and producers (who fail to get involved in this), then we're only chasing after 80% of the market. Why would we want to do that' We want to be part of that 20%."
The importance of local relationships
Kosse adds that building on local relationships is an important part of UPI's new agenda. The studio already has a deal with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles and his 02 Filmes production company.
"The community of talented directors and actors is now a global community," he says. "It hones a set of skills for a Universal Pictures executive in France, Germany, Italy and Spain to not only work on American studio films but to work on local-language films, get the ability to learn to develop those relationships locally and understand the film-making process and film-maker relationship in a more thorough way. Plus, it's a better portfolio to be able to present exhibitors with a fantastic studio slate and some local films."
UPI has certainly had a lucrative few months, with autumn releases such as Atonement, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, American Gangster and Elizabeth: The Golden Age all contributing to the $466.2m post-summer takings, 46.6% of UPI's 2007 total revenue.
Golden Globe-nominated Atonement has taken $32.5m since its September release and has yet to open in Australia, Spain, France and Russia. Chuck & Larry has made nearly $65m at the international box office, representing 35% of its total takings. Ridley Scott's American Gangster has taken nearly $50m in less than two months and is yet to open in South Korea, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Australia and Japan. And Cate Blanchett starrer Elizabeth: The Golden Age has generated 68% of its total revenue in the international arena - the sequel has generated nearly $34m outside the US since its late-October release.
A solid portfolio of films
"When you look at it, we've got a lot of solid films that will do well, rather than one massive breakout film," says Kosse. And he is looking forward to the summer 2008 line-up, with obvious tentpole releases such as Hellboy II, Mamma Mia! and The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor.
"I think we've got to be the best distributor for all types of films, whether it's local films, big films or small films," Kosse says. "I'd like to be market leader, year in, year out and be in a place where producers feel like UPI is the best place to handle their films. That's the challenge that lies ahead."
- See Review of the Year, p22.