Tonis Kiis, the senior vice president of international distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures, will be honored as this year’s International Distributor of the Year at CineEurope. Based in Los Angeles, Kiis is responsible for a wide range of theatrical film distribution activities in more than 125 countries, including release planning, filmmaker relationships, partnerships with theatrical exhibitors, business development initiatives, and emerging cinema technologies.
During his more than 14 years in distribution, Kiis has helped Warner Bros. reach more than $35 billion in international box office. Working with one of the most robust and diverse slates in the industry, Kiis has helped guide international release strategies to maximize box office for such hugely successful film franchises as Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts, The Hobbit trilogy, DC’s Joker, Wonder Woman, Shazam!, and the highest-grossing DC title of all time, Aquaman, with its sequel slated for later this year. He has also helped shepherd such acclaimed titles as Dunkirk, A Star Is Born, Dune, and Elvis, among numerous others, to box office success.
Boxoffice Pro caught up with the executive ahead of CineEurope to discuss his career—and his perspective on the recovery of the overseas box office.
How did you find yourself working in international distribution?
My journey to international distribution has been somewhat unusual. I’m originally from Estonia and moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago after marrying my wife of 26 years, who was born and raised in California. Back then when the internet was still working on dial-up connections, film distribution was rather old-school—35 mm prints were still around, and the overseas box office was nowhere near the levels it represents today. At the time, as I was trying to get a footing and establish a career, I quickly realized that my competitive edge was that I was a hard-working guy with an international background and, I daresay, a resourceful self-starter, eager to learn. And because I did find myself in Hollywood after all, the obvious path, like for millions of others, was to see if I could make a run for a career in the film industry on the business side of things, given that I had graduated from a law school in Estonia and had a very decent understanding of how contracts work. I still remember how, back in those days, I was frequenting industry bookstores for film-distribution catalogs, looking up phone numbers and addresses of all the distribution companies so that I could cold call them for a start-up job. There was no one there to open doors for me, and I was ready to invest a lot of sweat equity into any opportunity that came my way. My first full-time job with a film studio didn’t come until 2006, however. The years before that included the arrival of my two beautiful children, grad school, and a four-year run with the Welk Group, the TV impresario Lawrence Welk’s family holding company with robust real estate holdings, a hospitality business, and two record labels. It was a great learning experience and a window into the U.S. entertainment business. What was particularly great about the Welk experience is that I was able to wear many hats during my tenure at the company, including a general manager role managing an independent studio facility, now known as Quixote Studios in Griffith Park. From then on, things started picking up. First, I found myself at Warner Bros. with the International Theatrical Operations team, and almost two years later I was recruited by the Walt Disney Company to help launch Disney’s EST business on Apple iTunes. It was a role with a company within a company in a very entrepreneurial setting, a real start-up if you will. I had the privilege to work with great minds, and we started the business from nothing and had to figure it out on the fly—Disney was the first studio to offer EST downloads on Apple iTunes. So from my perspective, it was the perfect environment for me, as my previous jobs required me to wear many hats, and to this day, I still define myself as a jack of many trades—and I guess also a master of some, given that I’m still around. Most importantly, it was my first experience with digital distribution, which in retrospect ended up being the most crucial piece of my career puzzle that followed. While at Disney, it just so happened that my previous boss at Warner Bros. had recommended me to Tom Molter, who was spearheading digital distribution at WB on the international theatrical side at the time. Digital distribution for cinemas was only getting started, and to help the entire industry to convert to digital, all major studios were helping to subsidize the technology conversion from 35 mm to digital. It was a gargantuan effort involving all distributors, exhibitors, vendors, and digital integrators, all of which played a significant role in turning the theatrical space into what it is today. This was also a great opportunity for me to continue down the path of film distribution, and I accepted the role in international theatrical digital distribution without hesitation. My first day back at WB was January 20, 2009, the same day that Barack Obama took office, and I have been with WB ever since. While in 2009, I was typically looked at as the “digital” guy and not necessarily incorporated into the day-to-day international distribution business. Over time though, the entire business transitioned to digital distribution, so my role expanded as a result. And as before, I have had the pleasure of wearing many hats once again as part of the international team, which I’m particularly grateful for, as in any corporate environment, roles tend to be rather narrowly tailored. It has been a great 14-year-plus run, and I feel very blessed for having had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people from all over the world. So the thought, or wish rather, that I had put out to the universe 25 years ago, i.e., to have a career in film distribution, worked out in the end, albeit through some zigzagging along the way.
Are there any executives you consider mentors in your career?
There have been many great people I have looked up to over the years, and that includes everybody, not just executives. My entire career has always been about learning, rethinking, and improving the business and myself along the way, so every person who I have ever crossed paths with has left a mark on me as a person. That’s why working in international business is such a blessing, because the curiosities of the people and world around us are endless. With that in mind, I have always tried to pick up the best attributes from everyone who I have worked with and learn from everyone around me.
Clearly, I wouldn’t be here without the support of some very special people who have supported me over the years, starting with Tom Molter who gave me my big break by hiring me in 2009, as well as Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, both of whom were the previous heads of international theatrical distribution at WB, and our current leader Andrew Cripps, whom I have had the pleasure of working with for almost four years now. I consider my entire journey at WB a learning expedition if you will, and an endless discovery, a continuous story. There is always something that we have yet to figure out—whether it’s films by great filmmakers that pose new, intriguing challenges for distribution, or challenges to our business in general with the business models continuing to evolve after the pandemic, and the list goes on. This is a long way of saying that I have always enjoyed being on the way to a destination versus getting there. So as long as I can continue on this journey without arriving, it will literally keep me in motion and on the right path.
What have been some of your proudest achievements in your role at Warner Bros.?
In short, I would want to say it’s the overall body of work. Even though there have been smaller milestones, as well as bigger achievements that have made me feel proud of what we have accomplished along the way, it’s the overall list of films from A to Z that I have had the privilege to work on over the years. I recently tallied up the international box office of the films that I have worked on since 2009, and it’s a staggering $35 billion-plus. It goes without saying that in our industry it takes a village to release a film, so proud achievements are all based on team effort, which makes the sense of accomplishment even so much sweeter as it is a shared experience.
I also have to say that working with world-renowned filmmakers has been particularly intriguing, and also rewarding. The creative community puts a great deal of trust in what we do at the studio as we deliver their films to worldwide audiences, so it’s a great feeling when we get it right from the pre-release process perspective, and then deliver international box office above expectations. And there have been many films that we are particularly proud of, including hugely successful film franchises such as Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts, The Hobbit trilogy, DC’s Joker, Wonder Woman, and the highest-grossing DC title of all time, Aquaman, with its sequel slated for later this year. Plus, acclaimed titles such as Dunkirk, A Star Is Born, Dune, and Elvis. And the list goes on.
I must say though that, as we operate in a very fast-paced environment, the special and memorable moments have come and gone quickly. The contemplation of the proud moments often comes later as a result. So thinking about it, I’m also proud of the opportunity to be part of the WB 100-year storied legacy, with my own small contribution to its success. It’s easy to take it all for granted, so I consciously try to remind myself to be more appreciative of it. I’m one of these lucky people who get to do what I love for a living, so it feels like I’ve never worked a day. I would say that this is another achievement on a very personal level.
From your perspective, how is the European market evolving and recovering? Which markets are performing best, and which are taking longer to get back on their feet?
I can say with confidence that things are looking up not only in Europe but everywhere internationally. Based on Gower St. tracking, Q1 of 2023 is pacing ahead of the same period in 2022 by double-digit increases almost everywhere, with our key international territories overall tracking 30 percent-plus ahead of 2022. In Europe, Germany and Italy were outpacing the same period by 72 percent-plus and 61 percent-plus, respectively, with France and Spain coming in 33 percent-plus and 30 percent-plus ahead of 2022, and the U.K. not far behind with 7 percent-plus increase year over year.
Admittedly, we are still lagging behind the pre-pandemic averages. When comparing Q1 of 2023 against the three-year average of 2017–19, Germany again is leading the pack by coming virtually on par with the pre-pandemic era, which is a great milestone to celebrate. France is trailing their average by minus13 percent, followed by the U.K. and Spain at minus 31 percent, and Italy is behind by minus 38 percent. But the most important and positive message here is that we are moving to the right direction.
Let’s put our pandemic challenges into further context. Covid was undoubtedly one of the worst challenges our world has seen in decades. With the official number of deaths at 6.6 million and unofficial counts way above that, it wasn’t just the human tragedy that unfolded. The world economy was severely impacted, with GDP in the advanced countries dipping more than 2 percent on average, and the shock felt across most industries. With theatrical declining 30 percent from the pre-pandemic era, we did see a similar trend also in other important industries, such as the airlines and hospitality, which from the industry size perspective are both much, much bigger than us. So based on that, should we then conclude that if our business shrinks by 30 percent due to reasons beyond our control, we should just pack our bags and call it a day? Do we expect that airplanes will no longer fly and there will no longer be hotel accommodations offered given that they too shrunk? Clearly not. That doesn’t mean though that there won’t be challenges to all of us ahead. But the opportunity is there not only to bring back the business as we know it, but also to bring it back better. It’s up to everyone in our industry to make it happen, including content creators, distributors, and exhibitors.
We’ve seen genres like horror perform exceptionally well in the domestic market, while family films have struggled to pick up the pace. What trends have you seen across genres from an international perspective?
Genre preferences have largely remained the same. Drama and/or horror films don’t suddenly work better than action in one region versus another because of the pandemic. However, aside from the big event films of 2022 and 2023, the horror genre has indeed performed surprisingly well in recent months. Take the surprise hits like Smile, with over $217 million globally and roughly $75 million in Europe alone, and our own Evil Dead Rise, which has taken in nearly $123 million to date at the global box office, with Europe delivering an excellent $33 million of that. And there have been also some drama standouts. Air, which is distributed by WB for Amazon internationally, has taken in over $35 million overseas and over $86 million worldwide. Creed III, which WB is distributing for MGM overseas, has delivered nearly $120 million internationally and a whopping $92 million from Europe, making it the highest-grossing Creed film of the franchise internationally. With the Creed III global running cume now over $274 million, can we really say that dramas no longer work in cinemas?
But I must say, it’s really the local films that have shaken things up, with many films breaking out at the international box office. And most importantly, many of them are also crossing borders. Take RRR in India last year, for example. Having generated $130 million in India, the film went on to generate over $14 million in Japan, over $2 million in Australia and UAE, over $1 million in the U.K., and an excellent $15 million-plus in the U.S. for a total global take of $167 million. Japanese anime is also making a splash at the global box office. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba launched in Japan earlier this year and grossed $30 million, but also released in a long list of other markets, including the U.S., where it generated $10 million and helped propel the global running cume for the film to $56 million. In addition, Suzume, released last year, took in $98 million in Japan and $189 million overseas for a global cume of $287 million, with the bulk of the international total outside Japan coming from China. And speaking of China, let’s not forget Chinese local films that continue to generate astronomical results, including the recent hit in 2023—Full River Red, with over $670 million in the market.
Do you believe moviegoers are more difficult to reach after the pandemic? How is the moviegoer of today different than the moviegoer of 2019?
We have already observed since 2022 that cinemagoers are returning to theaters for the right movies. Take Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, or Elvis, for example. These are all very different films that did exceptionally well even when measured by pre-Covid standards. Things have gotten a lot more competitive though for distribution and exhibition in the theatrical space given the proliferation of digital content platforms. Content is ubiquitous these days and clearly, there is a home for all content. The opportunity for cinema is what we’ve done best in the past, and that is content curation across 52 weekends of the year. The theatrical business model is founded on the notion that only select films find their way to the big screen, creating events and experiences that audiences are drawn towards. It’s a responsibility that distribution and exhibition communities have to continue to take seriously in order to offer consumers experiences that they don’t have access to at home. And cinema-worthy content comes from all genres, and every genre has its own target audience. So even though the pre-pandemic audiences may not find their way back to cinemas all at once, with the right content curation, combined with memorable cinemagoing experiences in partnership with exhibition, we will get back to the annual box office levels that are similar to those generated before the pandemic.
Warner Bros. has an exciting theatrical slate planned for 2023. What can exhibitors and moviegoers expect from the studio at theaters later this year?
What’s exciting about WB is that we have always offered a very diverse slate of films by the best filmmakers in the industry, and 2023 is no exception. We are kicking off the summer with the much anticipated The Flash, which has received very positive feedback from early screenings. So personally, I am very much looking forward to that one. We will then release Barbie, which is turning out to be a real cultural moment, and a ton of fun no less. And the list goes on with The Meg 2: The Trench, followed by The Nun II, and then Dune: Part Two, Wonka, and of course Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom. These are all major event films of different genres that we hope will light up the box office and further highlight the importance of the big-screen experience.