Fox's Christian Grass, distributor of the year at the upcoming Cinema Expo, says a solid partnership between distributors and exhibitors is essential for the future. Michael Gubbins reports

There is a certain irony in this year's choice of distributor of the year at European exhibitor conference Cinema Expo. Christian Grass, executive vice-president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Twentieth Century Fox, has been involved in high-profile battles with cinema owners over release windows in both Germany and the UK.

But Grass prefers not to focus on the short term. Taking advantage of international growth means seeing the bigger picture, he suggests. And, for better or worse, that means cinema owners and distributors working together.

'This has to be a partnership,' he says. 'We want the same things - bums on seats.'

And filling theatres is the primary reason for this year's honour, to be presented in Amsterdam next week.

Last year, Fox Emea boasted 'pretty amazing' box-office revenues of $1.3bn, with its top two blockbusters Ice Age 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand performing very well in Europe. Yet it was the diversity of product that should excite attention.

Grass points to mid-range winners such as The Devil Wears Prada and Borat, which took respectively $136m and $110m in Europe; and what might be called arthouse breakouts, such as Walk The Line and Little Miss Sunshine, with European takes of $49m and $28m.

'The blockbusters still perform well but it's exciting to look at the more specific movies for a specific audience,' he says.

He will pick up the award against a more positive backdrop than last year, where the difficulties of 2005 still loomed large. But a sense of perspective is important if one wants to make the most of international markets, he suggests.

'We need to stay positive in a more general way to see the opportunities. Sometimes you get the feeling that bad news is what everyone wants to talk about but you have to see the positive, particularly in the theatrical business.'

The positives include the opening up of territories that offer the prospect of a return to the exponential growth that once characterised now mature markets. Russia, for example, has a long cinematic tradition to couple with the rebuilding of its cinema infrastructure.

Turning potential into performance is a more difficult proposition, even in supposedly mature markets. There are some signs of a market overheating. Grass points to the huge numbers of prints of blockbusters on release at any one time, limiting choice.

'With due respect to some of our competitors, there's a tendency to go too wide ... though that's not just the responsibility of the distributor, there's also a responsibility on exhibitors to say no.'

Grass also believes this summer's market may be overcrowded which could disproportionately affect international markets where the average number of visits to the cinema lags behind the US.

Yet the potential for the growth of diverse products in a wide range of markets remains the real story.

Grass is taking a personal leap on the development of the international market with a new job as president, production for Universal Pictures International (UPI). The new venture, to which the studio has diverted substantial funding, will expand on its worldwide acquisitions and local production programme outside North America and the UK to back a slate of international stories and local-language films.