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Sony`s Mark Zucker speaks highly of `Quantum of Solace`

02-Dec-2008 • Quantum Of Solace

Although it seems more like yesterday, the last time this author spoke with Mark Zucker, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Releasing International (SPRI), about receiving global distribution accolades was back in 2003. That July, the senior executive VP of the company then known as Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International was singled out by Cinema Expo International for his work in Europe. Now, Zucker and his team of some 400 people around the world are being honored at CineAsia in Macau for their equally astounding success across that territory too, reports Film Journal.

“Getting an award every five years when there are six big film companies around is not half-bad,” Zucker happily laughs. “I figure I’m doing pretty good.”

Just how well Sony has done internationally under his executive guidance is reflected in a box-office total of over $10 billion, including the most successful films in company history—The Da Vinci Code, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and the Spider-Man trilogy. SPRI released an astounding 27 titles that grossed more than $100 million internationally since Zucker took the international helm in 2000. Highlights of his distribution résumé include Hancock, The Pursuit of Happyness, Ghost Rider, Open Season, Click, Hitch, Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, Panic Room, and the XXX and Charlie’s Angels movies.

“Longevity is something to be proud of,” Zucker says as one can hear the obligatory knock-on-wood in the background. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but ever since starting on the domestic side in 1975, I haven’t been fired anywhere yet. It’s something I feel lucky about and proud.”

Beginning his 33-year career in the motion picture industry as director of marketing administration at Paramount Pictures (until 1980) and director of marketing finance at MGM/UA (1980 to 1984), Zucker then launched his near-25-year association with his home studio as VP of marketing and distribution administration for TriStar Pictures in 1984. Six years later, he moved across to Columbia Pictures Distribution (until 1994), culminating as senior VP, operations and administration, a position that he also held for another two years at Sony Pictures Releasing before becoming its executive VP, domestic distribution (1996-1999). In 2000, he took the international leap to become executive VP, worldwide distribution, for Columbia Pictures, and has not left the global stage or the Sony family since.

“It’s been an incredible experience so far,” says the recipient of CineAsia’s International Distribution Achievement Award. “I look forward to our next picture, as I always do, and to our next worldwide hit—all the while hoping to have many more years to work with this great group of creative and wonderful executives at Sony.”

Without question, Zucker believes in the significance of such relationships. “Working with people over time and keeping your team intact, especially when you have one with an all-star member in every position, is truly important, and certainly when it comes to communication… After working with the same people for a while, you know how they think and what they will do. You can anticipate some of the moves,” he says, drawing a comparison to sports. “Keep the team together as long as you can,” Zucker advises. “We have established a great level of cooperation that way and have become successful together.”

“The connection with Sony as one of the premier global brands certainly helps our business as well,” Zucker adds. “That’s why we’re proud to be called Sony Pictures Releasing International. There is also some assistance from Sony Electronics and Sony Ericsson in promoting our films,” Zucker notes of the “fantastic partnership” on Quantum of Solace. Selecting films, for the most part, is left up to co-chairmen Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, who have both been with the studio for numerous years as well. “This is really the most collaborative, straight-talking, talented, honest and caring management team that I have ever worked under. I remember the day that [worldwide marketing and distribution chairman] Jeff Blake walked in here in 1992, and I’ve been thrilled to work with him ever since.”

“Nobody can win an award on his or her own,” Zucker declares. “We have a huge and talented team of people working on our films in over 100 countries around the world. They do all the work on the ground,” he insists, “brilliantly and very cooperatively.”

Looking at the region being highlighted at CineAsia, Zucker says, “The Asian markets are surely growing and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. The box-office performance of films in China is certainly improving. There is more cooperation to combat piracy and I think the marketing within the country has also markedly improved. We are really fortunate to have had more than our fair share of movies pass censorship. Going forward, things can only get better and a lot bigger.”

For Zucker, “Korea is another country where, over the last seven or eight years, the expansion of state-of-the-art multiplexes has led to dramatic increases in box office.” Asked about India, he concurs with Film Journal International that the subcontinent is poised for markedly improved business too, “not just on the theatrical end” but across all media everywhere. “Russia takes up a significant amount of space in Asia,” he reminds us, “although traditionally it is considered an Eastern European country. The expansion there has been beyond what anybody ever saw anywhere else. Going from a place where you had only a handful of theatres ten years ago to a country where we can open Quantum of Solace on over 700 screens is amazing.”

Championing local productions “is a particular initiative that Sony, as you know, was the leader in,” Zucker further attests. “We have made local-language co-productions in Hong Kong, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and make and release films in Brazil and quite a few in Germany. Sony now has also formed partnerships to make movies in Russia and India. We have great expectations for all of our films.”

Every day on the job is “very gratifying” to Zucker, “especially when we do something that hasn’t been done before—such as setting the record for the biggest opening of all time or taking an American-style comedy…to gross over $100 million internationally. That is very gratifying. Having Spider-Man as our prime franchise making almost $1.4 billion overseas is something that thrills me and I am even more thrilled to know that we’ll have more of them.”

With satisfaction and success come challenges too, of course. Other than the ever-present theft of films and intellectual property, Zucker finds “translating your pictures—either by subtitling or dubbing them in the local language—while maintaining their flavor and appeal” is another hands-on activity. “That’s probably the biggest challenge, along with running our offices efficiently at all times.”

As for the coming digital transition, Zucker notes, “There are about 15 financial integrators around the world who are busy negotiating with the studios to start the rollout. Digital cinema could move very quickly, though domestic will certainly take the lead. I think the great unknown now is the availability of credit.”

Looking ahead, “the international share will grow relative to North America because there are those previously mentioned markets that are still continuing to expand. The domestic marketplace grows, though admissions are fairly flat. Internationally, attendance count continues to rise. Of course,” he cautions, “we can never predict which way the currency exchanges will go. Right now, I would say, even though the dollar has gained a lot, it is still highly favorable.”

Looking at the global economy, Zucker knows “movies will continue to be the least expensive popular form of entertainment. And people will continue to go to the movies. Historically, films have been called ‘recession-proof.’ Although I am not so sure if that is the appropriate phrase, Quantum of Solace popped the biggest opening ever in the U.K. Yet all you read about in the papers is the global financial meltdown, credit crisis, stock market problems… I think that tells you something about this business.”

Zucker is enough of a consummate professional to realize that “perhaps there will be some product that falls by the wayside. People will get a little more particular about what they will go to see. But, in general, the trend will continue where the big pictures just get bigger.”

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