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UIP's Oneile oversees growing global box office

LONDON The future looks rosy for United Intl. Pictures topper Paul Oneile. "More and more films are generating at least 50% of their income from the international marketplace," he says. "That's growing and growing so significantly that probably within the next five to 10 years it will account for closer to two-thirds of the eventual worldwide box office gross."

"Shakespeare in Love" is already close to achieving that, notes Oneile. "Although we were always very high on the film, I wouldn't have predicted it was going to take $175 million. We haven't had a disappointing market anywhere in the world."

Another unexpectedly strong performer has been "The Rugrats Movie." "We were very, very pleasantly surprised with the level of business that's done in the international marketplace given that the characters themselves weren't as well-known as they were in the domestic market," he says. "More and more, films have to find their own place in the market. You can't simply rely on success or failure in the domestic marketplace."

UIP is the international theatrical distrib for Paramount, Universal and MGM, jointly owned by these companies. The European Union threat to take UIP to the competition regulators and break up its activities in the region seems to have receded. But U's retention of Polygram as an alternative foreign release conduit, now renamed Universal Intl. Pictures, poses a potential clash of interests.

Oneile, lauded as this year's Distributor of the Year, goes back a long way with UIP. He joined its predecessor, CIC, in 1973 in his native Australia and became managing director after it evolved into UIP. He then rose to supervisor of Southeast Asia before jumping over to Australia's exhib sector in 1987, first as managing director of Hoyts Entertainment, then in 1990 as managing director of the other vet Aussie loop, Greater Union.

"Australia was certainly the leading international market right through the early 1990s and still ongoing now," recalls Oneile. "The rate of multiplex development really took off and it was very exciting when you could see, year after year after year, the dramatic growth in admissions for cinemas in Australia.

Aggressive Aussies

"I think it's as a result of that expansion that each of the three Australian circuits became very aggressive in the international marketplace because they were among the first to see the benefits that multiplexing brought to the market," he says.

In November 1996, Oneile succeeded Michael Williams-Jones as president-CEO of UIP in London. That decade as an exhib has proved useful. "It has given me a better understanding of the industry as a whole. It has certainly given me a better understanding of the machinations of exhibition and the way exhibition works."

Regarding his recent elevation to UIP chairman and CEO, with Andrew Cripps becoming prexy and chief operating officer, Oneile comments: "I wanted to spend more time developing relationships with producers, developing new relationships with the creative community in general, so that they know what UIP can do for them.

"In addition, I was finding that more and more and more of my own time was being occupied with liasing with the studios, with our ultimate shareholders, to the point where I wanted to ensure that the operation of our own business in each of our markets didn't suffer. So I wanted to have a structure whereby somebody was taking care of that side of the business."

He adds: "UIP can certainly handle more films that it has distributed in each of the last several years. Obviously there is an upper limit, but we're a long, long way from reaching it. It's more a matter of ensuring that each film gets the love and attention it deserves and you achieve that by assigning the right mix of marketing and sales people to that film."

Int'l growth

Looking over UIP's various regions, Oneile reports "dramatic growth in the number of films we release in India" although it remains a minor market. In China, even before NATO chipped in with its bomb, Oneile declares that very little progress was being made. "There was a major forward movement four years ago when the international film community was able to import films into the Chinese market on a percentage basis," he says. "Unfortunately, we have been unable to move forward since that point."

In Latin America, "the market has grown exponentially over the last seven or eight years, driven by the multiplex development, which has really gathered pace. We're now seeing progress in Colombia and Venezuela."

Turning to Western Europe, Oneile sees the recent slump in U.K. attendance as a blip but adds, "It certainly couldn't be put down to the quality of the product."

Cool in Italy

He notes recent "significant progress" in Europe, saying, "Take the Italian market, for example. Multiplexes have now been built there for the first time and they are air-conditioned and they will attract customers all the year round. UIP and our competitors are prepared to supply product to those multiplexes in the summer, so we are taking something of a risk. What we've tended to do is to extend the season into the early parts of the summer and bring forward films that would be held to the fall to the back end of the summer.

"We've got very strong relationships in Hungary and Poland and we're delighted with the rate of growth in Turkey. I think the Eastern European market will grow quite dramatically over the next five years. The demand for genre films is not dissimilar to what it is in any other market around the world. If anything, they prefer the more sophisticated film."

UIP frequently has to alter the advertising material for its pics to enhance their appeal. "The campaign for `Patch Adams' we were very pleased with. We wanted to focus more on the comedy aspects of the film as the peculiarities of the American health care system were irrelevant in the international marketplace."

Oneile is complimentary about the promotional support UIP receives from Hollywood stars and other creative personnel. He credits Brad Pitt's cooperation with propelling "Meet Joe Black" to an ultimate $100 million internationally. On "Shakespeare in Love," "Gwyneth Paltrow was wonderful. She just couldn't do enough for us. A lot of the results around the world were due to the fact that she gave so much of her time to us to promote the film.

"The director's become an important part of the publicity. We've used Steve Sommers, the director of `The Mummy,' more extensively that would perhaps have been the case three years ago. Pierce Brosnan is another one who's incredible in giving a lot of his time." Oneile looks forward to the star tub-thumping "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "The World Is Not Enough."

"Like Oliver, we're always asking for more. But I think the stars and the directors -- the producers to some extent-- are only too well aware of how important the publicity aspect of films is and they will do what they can."

Driving business

Even if a rival distrib has the hottest film of the summer, Oneile is not too disturbed. "I'm a deep believer in the industry needing locomotives and I see `Star Wars' as a locomotive and I think that's very healthy for business -- in fact, essential for the business to keep growing.

"Obviously, I'd like UIP to have the bulk of the so-called tentpole films but, quite honestly, provided somebody has got a very strong product on the market all the time, there's no reason to think that the ongoing growth of the industry will slow."
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Title Annotation:Paul Oneile of United International Pictures
Comment:WORLWIDE CLOUT.(Paul Oneile of United International Pictures)
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 21, 1999
Next Article:Live events put cinema screens to extra uses.

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