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For Universal, It's a New Dance

'Billy Elliot' marks the launch of the studio's specialty division. Will it have the right steps?

October 08, 2000|ELLEN BASKIN | Ellen Baskin is a regular contributor to Calendar

At Universal Focus, the new specialty film division of Universal Pictures, executives are anxiously awaiting the arrival Friday of "Billy Elliot," cautiously optimistic that the small British story will make box office waves on this side of the Atlantic.

Comparisons to "The Full Monty," Fox Searchlight's 1997 smash hit about unemployed British steel workers that cost $3.5 million to make and grossed $256 million worldwide, have become inevitable whenever a low-budget, gritty-yet-sentimental British drama is about to debut, inspired in part by wishful thinking. "Billy Elliot," which has proven an audience favorite at film festivals and screenings in recent months, is the coming-of-age story of a young boy in industrial Northern England who by chance discovers a love--and gift--for ballet dancing.

"Movies like 'The Full Monty' or 'Waking Ned Devine' ultimately proved themselves to be more broad-based in appeal than niche-oriented, even though they started out that way," says Mark Kristol, the Universal executive who is supervising Universal Focus. "They needed the support of the public and the press to make it sound like they were OK and would be enjoyable." That's where Universal Focus comes in. The studio announced the formation of the division in June. "When we think about what would qualify to be released through the Universal Focus label, one of the most important considerations is that it would be a film that leaned toward being publicity-driven," says Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider. "Something that needed that special TLC in terms of generating stories and word of mouth to garner attention.

"We feel that a domestic audience can relate to 'Billy Elliot' despite the strong accents and very localized story. My hopes and expectations are that we present it in such a way that there's time for people to talk about it."

Snider notes that a specialty film usually "isn't easily simplified to a one-line, high-concept idea, so what you want to do is literally walk that movie around to its prospective audience." That takes time, a deliberately paced market-by-market build and a hands-on approach to exhibition that is different from the 2,500-screen opening-weekend blitz common to big studio releases. ("Billy Elliot" is opening on nine screens in four cities.)

The low-budget "Billy Elliot," is also the first movie produced by WT2, which is an offshoot of Working Title Films, the partially Universal-owned British production company. Working Title has been responsible for such hits as "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Fargo" and "Notting Hill," and is producing "Bridget Jones' Diary" for the studio.

Before the formation of Universal Focus, the studio's specialty films, such as "Being John Malkovich," were distributed through USA Films. But some of the filmmakers who worked with Universal were interested in doing specialty films. "It became obvious that without having to go out in search of projects, we could fill a pipeline, that we had access to a new product flow," Kristol points out in an interview. "The question was, what is the most appropriate way to handle it?"

The answer was to form Universal Focus, which would, according to Kristol, develop these specialty projects while at the same time using the studio's clout to support the films.

Universal Focus' initial goal is to release eight to 10 films a year. Claudia Gray, a marketing veteran who came to Universal via its acquisition of Polygram Filmed Entertainment, is handling marketing and publicity, and Paul Hardart, who has been with Universal for four years in strategic planning, is overseeing operations and distribution.

For the most part, Universal Focus will draw upon existing exclusive and first-look deals with companies such as Jersey Films (which develops its specialty films under the Jersey Shore Films banner), DNA Pictures and Shooting Gallery. Snider also notes, in reference to the recent Universal acquisition by French media conglomerate Vivendi, "It's conceivable that through some of the Canal Plus acquisitions [the French pay television company that is also a subsidiary of Vivendi] there might be a specialty film release for us as well."

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"Billy Elliot," the first film out of the gate for Universal Focus, also represents the debut effort of WT2. "The timing between us setting up WT2, this script coming in, people responding well to it and Universal setting up Universal Focus couldn't be better," says Jon Finn, producer of "Billy Elliot" and head of WT2.

"The main slate of Working Title has moved on to bigger films," he explains. "But the tradition in the U.K. of making small-budget films at about the 3-million quid mark (about $4.5 million, the budget for 'Billy Elliot'), that's how the company started."

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