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Warner executive takes a world view of films

As president of international distribution for Warner, Veronika Kwan Vandenberg manages the release of about 20 movies a year in more than 120 countries.

October 21, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • As president of international distribution for Warner Bros., Veronika Kwan Vandenberg manages the release of about 20 movies a year in 120-plus countries.
As president of international distribution for Warner Bros., Veronika… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Veronika Kwan Vandenberg is president of international distribution for Warner Bros., Hollywood's largest film and television studio. She manages the release of more than 20 movies a year in more than 120 countries around the world, selecting release dates, dealing with cinema owners and collecting ticket sales revenue. In addition, as a senior executive in the studio's motion picture group, she helps select which movies Warner makes, with an eye toward potential worldwide popularity.

An international childhood: It's hard to imagine a more apt upbringing than Kwan Vandenberg's for someone whose job spans the globe. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and German mother, she spoke English, Cantonese and German by the time she was 6. Her family moved to Lebanon but fled during that country's civil war. She spent her adolescence in Germany and the Netherlands.

"Growing up as I did definitely prepared me very well to converse comfortably with different cultures and to be open and adaptive to new and different environments," she said.

Jumping blind into the U.S. Despite having never previously visited the United States, Kwan Vandenberg enrolled in Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles because she was "fascinated by America and the entertainment industry" after watching movies such as "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake" during her youth.

Kwan Vandenberg began a career that merges her interest and skills with an internship in foreign movie marketing at independent company Lorimar, where she eventually landed a full-time job. When Warner acquired Lorimar in 1989, she became an analyst in the studio's international distribution unit and worked her way up the ranks.

Still, one of her favorite parts of the job is visiting movie sets, including most recently "The Hobbit" in New Zealand. "I always enjoy seeing how things work behind the scenes," she said.

Growing with the business: When Kwan Vandenberg started at Warner, she was one of fewer than 10 international distribution employees at its Burbank headquarters, which made sense given that international box office accounted for only 25% of the studio's worldwide receipts.

Today foreign box office is 60% of the global total, and Kwan Vandenberg oversees about 200 people in offices around the world. That makes her department much more important to Warner's bottom line than it was in the past and is the reason she was asked to join the motion picture group's greenlight committee about five years ago. "This is a dramatically different job than it used to be," she said.

Foreign last to foreign first: In Kwan Vandenberg's early days at Lorimar and Warner in the late 1980s and early '90s, Hollywood was focused exclusively on the domestic market. As a result, she had to sell pictures with little foreign appeal, such as "Action Jackson," six months after they premiered in the U.S.

"By the time we were working on a movie, everyone else had moved on to something else," she said.

Today, movies such as "Harry Potter," "Wrath of the Titans" and "Sherlock Holmes" are made more for overseas audiences than for Americans. But Kwan Vandenberg said some of her greatest pleasures come from surprise international hits such as "The Hangover," which few suspected would appeal to Germans, the French or Russians.

Four women, 2,000 men: Kwan Vandenberg immigrated to the United States in part because she thought it would be easier to succeed as a woman than in Asia and Europe.

But she ended up in an industry in which the executive offices are still mostly occupied by men. She credits former Warner President Alan Horn for promoting her to her current job in 2000. "His confidence in my ability to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated environment gave me confidence," she said.

But when she meets with cinema owners around the world, Kwan Vandenberg often stands out even more than in L.A.: "I recall once doing a presentation to a room full of Japanese distributors in a room with about 2,000 men and four women."

Family focus, frequent travel: With a global job that requires her to travel once or twice a month, family life is a tough balance for Kwan Vandenberg. Since she had children, she began leaving the office early to be home for dinner. But turning the BlackBerry off is no easy task. "Everybody who works in international is available 24/7," she said. "I have had conference calls with the Chinese at 1 in the morning."

When she's in the United States, the 49-year-old Kwan Vandenberg, her husband, 13-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter often cycle together along the Pacific coast — a hobby she retains from her first year in Los Angeles, when she had to get around the city without a car.

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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