Universal acclaim: Distribution vet Duncan Clark earns a CineEurope salute


CineEurope is honoring Duncan Clark, president of distribution at Universal Pictures International (UPI), as its 2014 International Distributor of the Year. Supervising
Universal Pictures International's operating companies, United International Pictures (UIP), as well as UPI’s independent partners and sales agents, he oversees theatrical distribution for Universal and its partners in all countries outside the U.S.

While Clark’s focus is international to the max, especially as the non-domestic share of the box-office pie continues to grow, his influences might be described as “cross-pond.” Although U.K.-born and London-based, he has been waving the Hollywood flag for decades on behalf of a number of studios.

Universal has kept him the busiest. He has guided the studio to some of its best years at the international box office, most notably 2013 when Universal crossed the $2 billion mark in foreign markets for the first time in its history with hits like Jurassic Park 3D, Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6, Oblivion and Les Misérables. Also in this mix were local productions like Argentina’s animated Foosball and Germany’s Der Medicus.

2014 for Universal overseas also sizzles with titles like The Wolf of Wall Street (acquired for nine territories) and Neighbors (known as Bad Neighbours in the U.K. and Australia) also hot overseas. Just out of the gate is A Million Ways to Die in the West; close on its heels for the remainder of 2014 are horror pic The Purge: Anarchy, the James Brown biopic Get on Up, the deliciously cast Theory of Everything (about brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife), Dracula Untold and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. All suggest no unbroken streak for Universal and no rest for Clark.

Clark began with Universal in his native U.K., where he headed up marketing/distribution from 1980 to 1986 for UIP/U.K., distributor at the time for Universal, Paramount and MGM/United Artists. He then moved over to Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures in New York and Los Angeles, where he remained till 2000. He first served as head of its international marketing division and culminated his 14 Sony years as president of international distribution. For Sony, he oversaw the release of such critical and commercial hits as Men in Black, Sense and Sensibility, As Good As It Gets, Jerry Maguire and The Mask of Zorro.
Prior to returning to Universal in November 2006, Clark was a marketing and distribution consultant, working in 2005 and 2006 for Steven Spielberg on War of the Worlds and Munich and on Casino Royale, the 21st Bond film.

As Universal transitioned from its UIP joint venture with Paramount Pictures in 2007, Clark was a key executive in helping set up Universal’s current standalone distribution operations internationally. He has had his current post since 2011.

Asked what got him into the film business and on the theatrical side (after school gigs like ushering and selling tickets and sodas), Clark confides, “It was probably an accident. I originally came from a world of marketing and journalism, but found myself one day working for a distribution company, the old Paramount/Universal CIC [Cinema International Corp.], which was later superseded by UIP [Universal/Paramount/MGM/UA]. But like all 20-year-olds I was a film fan and working at CIC made me realize that I loved the business.”

Today, as part of his extensive international distribution responsibilities, he also oversees the print servicing/post-production adaptation/delivery for the company’s international releases. But what about this quaint “print servicing” in an age that is inexorably digital? Won’t the designation “print servicing” go the way of the 2,000-foot reel? Answers Clark, “It will, as we’re in the final stages of print servicing and are adapting to this change. Our countries now in fact are already from 75% to 100% digital and soon it will be digital servicing.”

But the digital revolution notwithstanding, post-production adaptation and oversight remain critical. “Most countries mostly want our original versions but with subtitles. And this does not present as much of a challenge as dubbing. But the dubbing we do, especially in countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia and for the animation titles everywhere, remains an important craft. It’s finding the right actors and the best writers to do the translations. And it’s always a challenge and requirement of good craftsmanship to get foreign versions that do justice to the American versions.”

Dubbing and subtitles have forever been critical to films that travel and, now especially, as they cross borders to reach more screens. But it’s the changes in the business that get the attention these days and Clark has seen his share over the past 30 years.

Most striking, he says, are the changes that have taken place in the past ten years, including the homogenizing of tastes across territories. “I believe this [trend] has to be looked at culturally, because there’s more and more worldwide travel and it goes both ways, meaning travelers to the U.S. and those traveling from the U.S. and back and forth between so many countries.”

But, Clark continues, “there are still distinct cultures in each market and films that are central to the nervous system of what any market wants to see. Yet people like Cameron, Spielberg and Lucas and their blockbusters strike right down the middle and into any market and become successes. Whether it’s in China or France or Brazil, these films have overpowering cinematic appeal; it’s universal and testament above all to their quality.”

Clark also acknowledges those films that need more careful handling and don’t find homes in many parts of the world. Predictably, “the U.K. and Australia continue to be more receptive to U.S. titles outside the familiar grid, films that may be sports-themed or more obscure or differently flavored.”

There’s no formula, of course, so there can be surprises. One of the biggest for Clark was Ted. “We all recognized it as a brilliant piece of writing by [writer/director/star] Seth MacFarlane, but he was unknown in many parts of the world. We then started to sense its potential as I took it around and got it screened. There was a spark, audiences were really enjoying it. So at $350 million theatrical [gross], it was a great surprise and unprecedented how it won over local audiences and even was a hit in Japan, where comedies struggle. People really connected with our little foul-mouthed Ted and found the emotional ties, something that was difficult for us to predict until we screened.” He credits the “brilliant” dubbing of the Ted character using local players as having much to do with the film’s international success.

Asked whether he believes it was more marketing or word of mouth that also contributed, Clark answers: “The film became famous very quickly. Exhibitors saw it early and went ‘Wow,’ so we tried to build that word of mouth. Also early on was the foundation [of acceptance] that came from America and our local markets because of the local screenings we did. So we did suspect early on that once Ted was out and performing and touching a chord with audiences, word of mouth would take over. Of course, we fanned the flames of that early appeal.”

Speaking about the current Universal comedy hit Neighbors, Clark again credits clues provided early on “when you start to screen certain clips at trade shows. We first must get exhibitors excited and noticed their enthusiasm for Neighbors.”

As for local productions in his territories, Clark notes, “We try to be in co-productions on these when we can, as certain local territories don’t make the blockbuster kind of movies but comedies that are locally accessible and use the skill sets in local markets. And there’s the added value to these productions of familiarity with local actors, etc. We just got involved with a Spanish film where we weren’t equity investors but became the distributor. On other titles we become co-producers, but often they [foreign producers] don’t want studio involvement.”

Clark says he never sees the competing local fare as a challenge. “I’m a great believer in local product because it increases the general enthusiasm for film. The cake increases in size, so it’s not taking away from us but adding pieces to the whole.” He says that in places like Germany, Italy and Spain, “their market share [of films made in their respective countries] can be from 15% to 20%, although France has more admissions,” no doubt the result of the country’s protectionist “cultural exception” policy to extend theatre life for these films and lessen competition from U.S. releases.

As an example of “the eclectic mix of what’s available on the local level,” Clark points to Japan, which produces a lot of local animation and thrillers.

Speaking about his approach to marketing Universal’s films, Clark says he “works off the same principle, whatever the territory: build awareness, create interest in targeted demographics and an urgency to see the film. These are the challenges in every country.”

But again, France throws a bit of a curved ball. “The French make more than 300 films every year and there’s no TV advertising allowed for films. But again, the challenge remains to win over that demographic.”

Regarding the impact of digital on marketing, Clark cites the tremendous growth in the past five years of “online and viral vehicles.” And, if you discount the mass of content that digital has made available today, there’s an advantage to the technology: “For those who missed seeing trailers years ago, now there are an enormous amount of platforms in every market for trailers to play and be watched.”

Marketing online has, in fact, become a real opportunity. Yet amidst all the changes, one thing hasn’t. “The release pattern in every market is about the same,” says Clark, “as we’re driving toward that one date.”

Clark readily acknowledges the impact home entertainment is having on theatre traffic. “It’s a challenge, as there are so many more sophisticated possibilities” for watching films.

But he couldn’t be more confident about the continuing appeal of theatres. “That’s a world where we know many want to leave their homes to get to, so our response is to give them the best environment and continually look at where we can improve and reform. The numbers show the power of the large-screen format and other amenities. This kind of civilized state in which you can see movies in theatres is a real opportunity and the more enlightened exhibitors know this. They are building the great multiplexes which are an absolute joy with their incredible screen size and stadium seating, etc. The standard of projection is high and there’s good food and wine. They have a real desire to do all that and this is so important because they are the gatekeepers.”

But what about audiences? As theatres improve, do audiences change? Clark reflects, “They are social animals and are how humans have been for many generations. The 16-to-25 demographic remains single and available and eager to get out of the home. But now, as I see it and with the quality of TV so high and binge viewing so popular, it means everyone has to up their efforts and make sure that the theatre environment is great and is at such an elevated standard you can’t have at home.”

And what continues as paramount (and certainly “universal”) is that the magic must continue to be great in the movies themselves. “I’ve learned that the films have to capture you, have to have the story and characters that connect,” says Clark. “[As viewers] we have to be swept away to a world we couldn’t find anywhere else. And the element of surprise is central to all this.”

As the business continues to grow and screens sprout in China like kudzu, might there be new territories around the world to penetrate? Answers Clark, “We have about seven or eight billion people on the planet, so there’s plenty of room for growth. Just look at China, which had about 6,000 screens a few years ago and now has something like 20,000. And Indonesia has plans for some big buildings that will come with the shopping malls, a trend we’ve seen everywhere that has been successful. In America there are more screens per 100,000 people than anywhere, so there’s a long way to go in the rest of the world. So it’s a very, very exciting time."