Dialogue: Christian Grass

The CineExpo International Distributor of the Year reflects on the international marketplace

For the past 11 years, Christian Grass has been one of the key staffers responsible for Fox's international success. As executive vp in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for 20th Century Fox International, the London-based Grass has worked on such major releases as the latest "Star Wars" trilogy; the "Ice Age" and "X-Men" franchises; as well as recent titles like 2006's "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Night at the Museum." In October, he will take on a very different assignment as president of international production and acquisitions for Universal Pictures International. On the eve of receiving an award as Cine Expo International Distributor of the Year, he spoke to Stephen Galloway for The Hollywood Reporter and Film Journal International about his present and future jobs.

The Hollywood Reporter/Film Journal International: You've been in the international business a long time. What has been the most significant change of late?
Christian Grass: Internationally, the big blockbuster still performs on a high level and the more specialized niche product also works really well; what has changed is the middle area -- budget-wise or creatively, especially product that is very U.S.-centric. In Europe a lot of those films have been replaced by or are competing with local films that deal with local content more relevant to local audiences.

THR/FJI: And yet Fox has done very well internationally with some of those mid-level films.
Grass: That's true. Fox International has been more successful than others in making these kinds of films work by listening to the local markets, by adapting our strategies -- whether creative or media or publicity -- and by being flexible in our dating and distribution. Successful examples last year include "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties," "Pink Panther," "Big Momma's House 2" and (2005's) "Walk the Line." And you have to be aware the markets have changed. If you look at local films' market share, while it fluctuates from year to year, it is generally at a high level. In France last year it was 45%, in Germany 23%, in Italy 22%. So you have to compete with local product.

THR/FJI: Is local product doing better because foreign audiences are getting tired of the same old Hollywood product?
Grass: First of all you have to look at the cinema-going audience. While trends vary by market, in some countries it's a fact that people are seeing fewer movies. If you look at the frequency of movie-going -- annual visits per capita -- you have a healthy market like France with over three visits per year; you have another really healthy market like the U.K. with 2.6 last year; and you have Spain with around three. But then you have Germany with 1.6 and Italy with 1.8. A market like Germany should be much bigger, but moviegoing is not as culturally entrenched and therefore not on people's agenda so much.

THR/FJI: What other challenges are you facing?
Grass: Media fragmentation combined with rising media costs. We are now spending a lot more money on digital media -- the Internet and mobile. How do we adjust our marketing campaigns and make them more efficient?

THR/FJI: You are about to go from distributing to buying and developing films in your new job at Universal. What will that entail?
Grass: I will be in charge of the studio's new international production arm at Universal Pictures International (UPI), based here in London. The new venture will expand upon its existing worldwide acquisitions and local production efforts to fund a diverse slate of internationally based stories and local-language films. The division will focus its efforts outside North America and the U.K. and will be pivotal in supplying product for UPI, while also working to identify emerging talent and trends for the production groups at Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Rogue Pictures, with whom I will coordinate closely. The idea is to complement (their) line-up with international product by developing partnerships with local producers and filmmakers. They can either be local films that only need to work in local markets, or something that is maybe more European or can work internationally or even globally. It is a great opportunity and a natural next step for me.
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