Universal's Foreign-Release Guru on French Box Office, Why 'Fifty Shades' Didn't Work in Japan
Duncan Clark, president of distribution at Universal Pictures International, discusses the impact of the Paris attacks and what it takes to set global records.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Last fall, Universal Pictures International expanded the role of London-based Duncan Clark as president of distribution, giving the dual British and American citizen full oversight of the company's international operation after the departure of veteran David Kosse. Roughly a year later, Clark has much to celebrate: Universal has passed $6.67 billion in worldwide box office this year as of Nov. 20, marking the highest-grossing year for any film studio ever. That's thanks in large part to its international gross of $4.32 billion, also a new industry record (with six weeks to go in 2015). Universal also has become the first studio to release three billion-dollar grossers in a single year: Minions, Jurassic World and Furious 7.
The youngest of six kids, Clark lived in the U.S. for about 20 years. Back in the U.K. from 1980 until 1986, he was head of marketing and distribution at UIP, at the time a joint venture with Paramount Pictures that distributed films for Universal, Paramount and MGM. Clark joined Universal in 2006 and helped create its own distribution operation, then was elevated to president of distribution in 2011. The 63-year-old cricket and soccer enthusiast, who lives with his wife and son, spoke with THR about the impact of the Paris attacks, the outlook for China and the wisdom of local-language productions.
A fan of English soccer club Arsenal, Clark has a coffee mug with a picture of himself and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (“a mutual friend introduced us”). Director Alan Parker gave Clark a toy bus bearing the insignia of a boys’ Christian organization that both were members of as kids. Its motto: “Sure and steadfast.”
Beyond a strong slate, what are the tricks that have driven the international box office this year?
Between the L.A. office and the London headquarters, we have a very integrated approach. It's very global. We don't talk North America and Canada and then, "What about international?"
Furious 7, a co-production with China, grossed nearly $400 million there, but some have raised concerns about the stock market and consumer spending. Are you worried about that market?
There are fluctuations and pressure points on economies all the time. There is probably not any one year where there isn't a crisis of sorts. China has seen an incredibly meteoric rise in both the building of screens and box office. The infrastructure has gone from 6,000 screens to 27,000 screens in a short period of time, and they are continuing to build them. It obviously came home in a major way for Universal with the gigantic success of Furious 7 and Jurassic World. Dealing with the market in China was a very clear objective of ours going back to over two years ago, when we decided to build our own company [there]. We built a superb office and team led by a very talented, experienced and knowledgeable executive called Jo Yan. There are challenges in China that don't come around in many other markets, clearly, but it is one we have developed and worked with to maximize our position.
Any interest in creating local-language films in China? Those tend to do very well.
There is a very strong cultural imperative for the Chinese production community to make their own movies, and they have done it very successfully this year. That I see as something that one day we may be part of.
Are local-language films a key opportunity for Universal across the world?
It is definitely part of our strategy. We had Der Medicus in Germany, which was a huge hit for us [$42.8 million in local box office]. And we have had successful titles in France and Spain and many markets. Identifying those opportunities is part of our overall remit. If we can use that dimension to supplement the main slate that is being built by the studio, it makes absolute sense.
India is famously insular. Is that market becoming easier to crack? Any other foreign markets with much upside?
India is a market that continues to be dominated by the local titles, and that's something that is a fact of life. We have had enormous success this year with our two movies, Furious 7 and Jurassic World, and we'll continue to look at that. It is a market of over a billion people, and we have not yet integrated ourselves into making Hindi movies. There are many parts of Asia where we have to be patient, where the exhibition infrastructure hasn't been built out as well as the Chinese market has been built out. In Indonesia and Vietnam, there are huge populations, and there is a sign of economic growth. Brazil is a market that we see as having potentially enormous growth.
How long will the French box office take to recover after the recent Paris attacks?
The boundless resilience of the French character alongside their enormous passion for cinema will prevail. The box office will return in a matter of weeks, but if it takes a little while longer, it will be because of the unprecedented, vile and loathsome attack on their capital.
Three of Clark’s favorite movies, from top: 'The Blues Brothers,' 'Scarface' and 'The Jerk.'
What makes a global hit these days?
We have to recognize that there are certain territories that lean in more to the American culture than others. Clearly, England and Australia are among those that lean in, linguistically, and there are certain common factors. But then there are other markets that lean in, and there are some that lean away. So you have to be very realistic about that. We had enormous success with Fifty Shades of Grey. It worked virtually in every market of the world except for a couple. One being Japan, where the book wasn't published to any great degree and didn't have any kind of foundation.
How did Universal market Fifty Shades overseas?
Fifty Shades thrived in most markets where the book was a huge best-seller but was less well-received in areas where the book was not as popular or censor ratings were very restrictive. Specifically in Southeast Asia, the film never reached blockbuster levels, but aside from Japan, it was still a successful release everywhere.
Clark snagged this poster at a charity auction: “I’m a fan of film memorabilia, and this one was particularly brilliant.
What was the strategy for Straight Outta Compton internationally? Where did it work?
Bottom line: Straight Outta Compton was an amazing story beautifully crafted that found resonance wherever we screened it. We took the talent on the road in markets where the music and history had the strongest footprint, and the standout successes were in the U.K., Australia, Germany, France, Holland and Switzerland. All markets have degrees of positive interest and awareness in the story and genre, but the process of mining for box office has to be balanced against the marketing investment required, and in many [markets], it was not strong enough to sustain a full theatrical release.
Will the international rollout of Steve Jobs be limited because it didn't perform in the U.S.?
We were always opening in England and Germany as the two main international markets before Christmas and the rest of the markets in January and February [hopefully riding awards buzz]. It's sobering to see some underwhelming returns, but nothing has changed, this was always the plan. We will determine as we go whether we narrow the release, perhaps. At some point, if audiences aren't turning out to see this really special film, we will make further changes, but as of now, we remain optimistic.
On his desk Clark has a “brain teaser” (left), intended to stimulate the mind, which he got from a friend in Japan, and a small container designed to look like a cricket ball. “I used to play and coach it,” he says.
What was the international input on Universal's plan to reboot the classic monsters universe?
Our involvement in the development of this new production endeavor to expand and unify a network of classic monsters was very early in the process. The DNA of these classic titles is very strong. The Mummy is the first up in 2017, and that is a very exciting prospect for us everywhere.
Give us an update on the piracy problem and which international markets are most affected by it.
In certain markets, there is a real political will to fix it and police it: France, Australia, England. But there are other markets where there isn't quite that political will, and it's a nonstop battle. Some of the Asian markets — Russia has been a minefield for the piracy program. It's about political will, and we are very connected with all our fellow studios to do what we can to fight that fight.