Niels Swinkels, the recently promoted executive vice president and managing director of Universal Pictures International, is this year’s recipient of CineEurope’s International Distributor of the Year award.
Prior to taking on his current role in January 2021, Swinkels served as executive vice president of international distribution—a role that required him to relocate from Los Angeles to London in 2015. Swinkels’s ties to Universal date back to 2004, when he joined the newly created Universal Pictures International head office as its international marketing director. Further promotions saw him move up to V.P. of sales and distribution EMEA in 2006 and a change in title to senior vice president in 2009, before spending over four years as managing director of UPI U.K. and Ireland. In his current role, Swinkels manages the day-to-day operations of the UPI businesses, delivering strategic direction for all international theatrical distribution efforts and leading business development, including regional partnerships, productions, and market expansion.
“Universal Pictures International has been a strong supporter of CineEurope since its inception, and Niels has led that effort with great professionalism,” says Andrew Sunshine, managing director of CineEurope. “We are delighted to have this opportunity to thank and honor Niels and Universal for their leadership position in maintaining the even flow of product to the industry during the past 18 months.”
Boxoffice Pro spoke to Swinkels ahead of CineEurope and asked him to look back on his career and about the challenges of distributing and marketing global tentpole releases during a pandemic.
You’ve worked at a variety of companies throughout your career. What has been the biggest change in the industry during that span? Is it harder to get a film on an audience’s radar today than in the past?
I would say, over the 25-year time span, the biggest change has been the growth of the international market, helping global box office to a record $42 billion in 2019. Secondly, and that answers your other question, is the way films get marketed and the environment in which we do that. Campaigns used to be a lot less complex. Getting your one sheet and trailer right as key elements, plus a set of derivative TV spots, were your main tasks as marketer. Nowadays, the volume and variety of marketing elements on each release are vast. We’re now to able to directly target moviegoers with customized messages. This is not only the opportunity that the intricate media landscape now provides, but also a necessity to break through the—mostly online—clutter.
Have you had any mentors throughout your career that have helped you be where you are today?
Absolutely, from my first two bosses in the Benelux, Dirk De Lille and Marc Punt, who helped me on my way as a movie marketer, to David Kosse, Duncan Clark, and now Veronika Kwan Vandenberg at Universal as I moved into distribution and management. Each of them has taught me different things about my job, the industry, how to strive to be the best at what I do and be the most effective leader. I am grateful they have all allowed me to grow and evolve and at critical points change roles to continue that journey. And during my entire 17-year-plus career at Universal, Donna Langley has always been an incredible inspiration, showing how to combine business smarts with creative excellence and how to always strive for change and progress. If it wasn’t for the hugely motivating environment at Universal, I would not have chosen to stay at the same company for such an extensive amount of time.
The rise in prominence of the international box office is one of the major industry developments of the last 25 years. As a distributor, was there a specific period when you noticed the industry had realized the true potential and power of international markets?
Titanic was of course an early indicator of the enormous potency of international when box office receipts for that movie seemed without end in 1998. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s when the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises started to show consistency of international box office potential at $500 million or more for each installment, plus some big animation hits around that mark from Pixar and DreamWorks. Moving to London to take an international role in early 2004 was perfect timing to be part of this surge and helped me be an advocate for and contributor to it. The growth hasn’t stopped since.
Universal is one of the few studios to consistently release films worldwide since cinemas reopened. What lessons did you learn from that process? From your perspective, where is the global cinema recovery today compared to last year?
We learned and still learn new lessons on each release weekend and in between, as everything is still in such a state of flux. Most importantly, we learned that you can release movies around the world with extended rollout patterns, holding out and waiting for opportune moments from market to market. For example, we are still in release on Croods: A New Age, which opened in North America at Thanksgiving 2020, and we’ll cross $165 million in international box office, the highest gross for any family film since the start of the pandemic. We have yet to release markets for F9, for which we started the rollout in major international markets like China, South Korea, and Russia an unprecedented five weeks before domestic. We are approaching $550 million in international box office, by far the highest-grossing film since the start of the pandemic.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it shines brighter in some places than others still. But we are committed to our slate for the remainder of 2021, including No Time to Die. Along the way, we may need to revert to unconventional release patterns, if market circumstances require it. It’s the reality of today, but it can work. We have confidence that in 2022 we will return to a more normative situation.
Launching a global release under regular market conditions is difficult in itself. How did the pandemic change your approach, as you balance the challenge of helping audiences return to cinemas while being sensitive to those who may not be ready to come back?
The unusual rollout strategies we conceived on prior-mentioned releases proved that you can manage the availability of movies for the right audience at the right time, market by market. This includes in the home as well. We have found very effective ways to release in the home at shorter windows while protecting the theatrical opportunity when cinemas are open. This not only secures a constant flow of available new titles, it also enables profitability on releases during very challenging times and is therefore a business model that has a foundation for a future. The profile of the content-consuming population and its propensity to leave the house to see a movie on the big screen or watch at home will continue to evolve. Safety will be the first and foremost concern initially. The overall experience will be next—like in normal times. When we come out of the pandemic, in ideal circumstances, we will have grown both theatrical and in-home viewing as audiences will have developed a very strong sense of the value of one versus the other.
When was your first trip back to the cinema since theaters reopened in your area? Can you tell us more about that experience and what it meant to you?
It was on April 16. A private hire with friends at the Cinemark North Hollywood. We watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It was an emotional night: being back at a cinema with great company, having an old-fashioned good time. I won’t forget it. I posted about it on my social media, and it got huge response. I have been back to the cinema for regular programming many times since, both with my family and with friends.
Cinemas have an extraordinary challenge ahead of them as they continue to reopen. How do you believe the industry can move forward from this crisis?
For a while, exhibitors will need to deal with Covid-safe measures to make patrons feel safe as well as their staff. I think each of them has done an incredible job in that sense. I’m a huge believer that moviegoing will come back in a big way. We have already seen very promising signs of this in markets where circumstances allowed for recovery.
Like before the pandemic, if cinema owners invest in places people want to leave their houses for, because they offer value for money in quality and experience (that includes anything from making a reservation to leaving the theater) on something you cannot replicate at home, and we deliver on the expectation of what people want from a movie in the social space of a movie theater, we will recover and prosper like before and even go beyond. Look at the restaurant business currently. It’s booming! People have had enough of cooking at home, cold takeaways, and washing up. I believe that analogy is a sign of hope for all of us.