WB's Knobloch has the Gaul to face France

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PARIS -- Imagine a major market where U.S. movies have barely a 50% share, one with some 29 disparate video-on-demand platforms, and where, according to an MPA study, loss of consumer spending to piracy last year cost the filmed entertainment industry some $1.5 billion. Welcome to France.

Tackling the challenges of this marketplace is the task of Iris Knobloch, recently appointed head of Warner Bros.' French operations. The Munich-born lawyer, who has been with WB and Time Warner for more than a decade, oversees the studio's theatrical, home video, TV, digital and consumer products activities in Gaul.

But Knobloch has not been brought in to sort out an underperforming territory. On the contrary, WB was the leading distributor in France in 2005 with a 12.3% share and looks set to be in the top three this year. The company is also in the top spot in the video market.

"I found here four businesses, each led by extremely talented executives," Knobloch observes in slightly accented English. "My role is not to take credit for the great work that they are doing but to add value to it."

Knobloch says one of her objectives is to take a more strategic approach to develop business. "It's the obvious one, but the big opportunity is the development of the Internet," she says. With its plethora of competing VOD platforms, she notes that France is not yet very coordinated. "It's very confusing for the consumer to have limited product spread across so many places. For VOD to truly catch on and become a viable outlet for consumers to access content, we need to look at how we can be more strategic and create something simple and attractive."

France's strong broadband penetration doubtless contributes to the staggering losses to piracy estimated by the MPA. "This is almost the equivalent of the French video market. Will we be able to recapture everything? No. But if you can capture a small piece of that, it means growth."

WB's French operations will essentially continue to operate as before, which means head of theatrical distribution and production Francis Boespflug will continue to cherry-pick Gallic movies, such as the comedy "Les Bronzes 3," which topped the local boxoffice this year with 10.3 million admissions.

Whether the studio will take the lead on another major local production, as it did with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "A Very Long Engagement," is an open question.

With a constitutional court decision pending on whether the U.S.-financed film can tap into France's subsidy system, Knobloch says WB wouldn't do it again until the legal position is clarified.

"I think France is a difficult market but there's plenty of room," Knobloch observes. "It's one of the few markets where admissions are up. It's an extremely cinephile country, they love going to the cinema and appreciate movies. That's fabulous -- it provides a challenge for us to be really good."
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