Vivendi Universal appears to be seriously considering channelling some StudioCanal-backed films though UIP, the international distribution venture it co-owns with Paramount Pictures.
The title-by-title arrangement could extend to both European and US films bankrolled by Vivendi Universal's StudioCanal. UIP could even release certain films in markets where StudioCanal already has distribution partners, such as Pathe in the UK, Tobis in Germany and Bac in France.
The move is understood to be under discussion ahead of this month's expected announcement about Vivendi Universal's future structure. "As soon as the merger is effective, Canal Plus will do its best to improve the distribution of French films in Europe, through UIP," Vivendi Universal chairman Jean-Marie Messier said this week.
Until now, most observers expected UIP to handle big-budget Hollywood fare from Universal and possibly Canal Plus. Smaller local films were viewed as the staple diet of StudioCanal's international distribution network.
But sources suggested that Vivendi Universal could free up certain films on legal technicalities by arguing that Canal Plus has the rights, not StudioCanal. UIP may now be utilised for local fare if the distribution giant says it can deliver a hit by giving the picture a wide release.
Even if Vivendi Universal had wanted to, it is unclear how easy it would have been to pull out of UIP. Prior to the merger, Universal renewed its deal with the distributor until 2006.
But UIP appears to have impressed with its wide release of UK hit Billy Elliot. Taking $22m so far, the distributor proved it is possible to treat a low-budget local film as if it were Godzilla.
However, some argue that UIP was not the true driving force behind the decision to go big on Billy - giving that honour to Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider. Meanwhile, Universal this year sold off O Brother, Where Art Thou' to Bac in France and Momentum in the UK instead of going through UIP. The quirky comedy became the highest-grossing Coen brothers' film to date in both markets.