Like many veterans in this industry, Mark Christiansen grew up at the movies. The son a theater manager, Christiansen followed his father’s footsteps along a slightly different career path, starting out as a booker for Columbia Pictures. That opportunity led him to theatrical sales positions in several different cities before joining DreamWorks as head of operations in 1995. A decade later, Christiansen became executive vice president of worldwide operations at Paramount Pictures, the studio that he still calls home. Beginning his tenure at Paramount shortly before the move to digital, Christiansen’s contributions were vital to ensuring a seamless transition for smaller theaters through the implementation of a virtual print fee. The ensuing benefits of digital cinema opened the door to an overseas box office boom that has kept Christiansen busy at Paramount, overseeing the studio’s releases around the world. Boxoffice caught up with Christiansen ahead of CinemaCon to talk about his career so far.
What do you consider to be some of the highlights of your career to this point?
I have had a chance to do just about every job in theatrical distribution, including sales, collections, analysis, print control, security, localization, and electronic delivery. It has given me a very wide view of the process of getting movies from the filmmakers to the theaters. I can usually anticipate how a change in one area of distribution will affect another, for either the positive or negative. The most fun I have had was starting DreamWorks’ distribution operations with a clean sheet of paper. Being able to shape the organization and work flows exactly as I liked was challenging and rewarding.
Going back to the digital transition, how did you develop Paramount’s VPF business plan in a way that didn’t leave smaller exhibitors out of the loop?
The idea of a VPF was born out of our desire to find a way to assist with the transition to digital cinema within our current studio budgeting process. I’m not sure who coined the term “virtual print fee.” Fixed budgets for the purchase of 35 mm prints were an industry standard, so a fixed price for each print equivalent was a requirement in any agreement we struck. Only first-run theaters were contemplating switching to d-cinema in the early days, so there was little consideration given to off-break and second-run locations. Prints were coexisting with d-cinema, and those prints could be used multiple times to cover the off-break locations. Eventually we got to the point where film was not widely available, and servicing these other theaters was not economically sound.
The weekly print fee was a response to this problem. The fee is a fraction of a VPF, and no matter how many weeks are played, the WPF cannot exceed the VPF. Because the theaters in question rarely play a title for more than a week or two, they end up generating a fee every week of the year. We had done the math and knew that theaters using the WPF scheme would actually achieve recoupment faster than most regular theaters, but it took quite a bit of conversation to get everyone to see the benefits.
Overseas dates have been coming up sooner on the calendar, both day-and-date and releases ahead of a North America launch. How has that impacted practices such as dubbing, subtitling, and government clearances?
International dates moving up is part of the equation. Films are also finishing later than ever. Both of these factors have put an enormous squeeze on the localization business. We have streamlined all of our work flows to extract every minute of slack time. Even with every trick employed, I still get anxious as the release dates approach.
A lot has been made on titles that have succeeded overseas despite poor showings in the U.S. How integral is localization in ensuring a film’s success in any given market? Can a strong local office, through marketing or subtitling/dubbing, change the fate of a film? Or is it more of a symbiotic relationship with the original cut?
A strong local office can have an influence on a film’s in-territory success, including through marketing and publicity. The local offices know their markets well and aim to tailor the studio’s materials to create the biggest impact in their respective country.
Localization is a tricky business. I once had a filmmaker request their film be translated verbatim, which doesn’t take into account idiom or lip sync. We spend a lot of time making sure that the filmmaker’s original meaning is conveyed to the audience and that it’s done seamlessly.