United International Pictures (UIP) is forging a series of distribution deals with independent companies in key European territories, apparently bolstering its position as a business in its own right rather than just the international outlet of its US studio parents.

The international distribution venture of Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and MGM this week finalised an alliance with Germany's Advanced Medien, providing UIP with studio-level titles and smaller pictures on which Advanced has taken rights. UIP also confirmed that it is in advanced talks with Rai Cinema, the start-up film arm of the Italian state broadcaster, to handle Rai productions and acquisitions.

Further deals encompassing US and European pictures acquired or produced by European companies are expected imminently. "This is the beginning of a very significant push by UIP further into European distribution," said UIP chairman and chief executive officer Paul Oneile.

The deals are partly geared at helping provide a replacement product line when MGM exits the operation in October. UIP also faces European Commission pressure to add more European titles to its line-up.

Additionally, any proof that UIP can be a viable business in its own right will no doubt be especially welcome following the take-over of Universal parent Seagram by Vivendi. Although Vivendi's Canal Plus has said it will maintain both UIP and its own film operation StudioCanal, which has its own distribution outlets across Europe, few expect it to operate the two operations side-by-side in the long term.

Other distribution pacts since Marion Pilowsky joined before Cannes as UIP's head of international acquisitions and development include a deal with UK-based production outfit Axiom for the UK. Late last year, UIP finalised a partnership with Beyond Films for Australia.

The Advanced deal covers German-speaking territories and kicks off in November with Bless The Child, a mystery thriller starring Kim Basinger and Christina Ricci which has Paramount Pictures on board. The deal is also expected to eventually include high-profile product from the aggressive German rights buyer's co-production deals with filmmakers such as US producer Chuck Gordon and director Wolfgang Petersen. The partners have scheduled three more titles this year and six for 2001.

Advanced CEO Veronika Morawetz said that the primary goal is to use UIP's expertise and booking power to secure screens in multiplexes. UIP's current set of deals are not as a rule expected to include a p&a commitment, with the distributor acting more as a physical distribution force. Oneile said the Advanced deal would be decided on a title by title basis in terms of how p&a costs are divided.

The pact is not expected to affect Advanced's current distribution agreement with German independent distributor Filmwelt, which will release Advanced titles such as Saving Grace and Cecil B Demented.

Karsten Kastelan IN BERLIN also contributed to this report