You might say that Gene George, executive VP of worldwide distribution at Starz Media, began his career in film distribution at age 10. He was at the Cannes Film Festival with his father Louis, one of seven founders of the American Film Market, an association of industry leaders devoted to film development and sales.
Young Gene was tasked with a hands-on role in his father’s business. “I can remember being at Cannes, putting fliers on cars for a film that my dad was screening,” he says.
His dad was a pioneer in the international distribution business, and Gene was trekking to France every year by his late teens. “[It] allowed me to really learn the various facets of the business,” he says. “I had the ability to deal with the technical aspects of delivery and understand what’s important for businesses.”
With distribution in his blood, George went on to hold senior roles at some of the industry’s premier entertainment companies. He now uses the better part of a lifetime of international experience to help him, among other things, raise Starz Media’s profile beyond its longtime reputation for animated content.
“Given the deals that have to be closed now, which are much more complex because you have to factor in mobile, Internet and on-demand, you need someone on the other side of the table who is going to listen to you. Gene understands that,” says Ghislain Barrois, CEO of Spain’s Telecinco Cinema, with whom George has been forging deals for the better part of a decade.
George first put those skills to work at Arista Films, which he joined even before earning a degree in international business at California State University at Northridge. He held a number of positions at the company, including president of Arista Classics and director of operations for Arista Films.
In 1995, George left Arista and moved to NewStar Worldwide as VP of sales and acquisitions before joining Regent Worldwide as president in 2000.
George took his current position at Starz Media in early 2008. The distributor still has animated hits like Garfield and Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! in its stable, but George worked quickly to bring live-action movies, dramas and comedies to the international marketplace.
“[Starz] spent a lot of 2008 transitioning buyers’ mentality that we’re also in the live-action business,” George points out. This year he is pushing the hour-long action series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, starring Lucy Lawless; musical comedy Bollywood Hero; and sketch comedy The Whitest Kids U’Know, among others.
To ramp up international interest in Spartacus at MIPCOM, the annual entertainment market in Cannes, Starz threw a Roman-themed gala on Oct. 5, opening night. Spartacus—with its $15 million marketing push—is a top priority for George. “Part of our game plan going into original programming is having our own distribution group sustain [selling] internationally,” he says.
Promo galas are part of the business for George, but he understands that successfully distributing a program to the international market—particularly in a down economy—has as much to do with personal relationships as creating buzz. “As suppliers and salespeople, if we’re not creating and selling content that buyers want, we’re in trouble,” he says. “[We need to] have a dialogue with broadcasters and find out where their needs come from.”
It’s a lesson he’s long understood and used to his advantage. “He would always come to Madrid once or twice a year to see what the channel was doing,” Barrois says. “Now a lot more people do that, but it was unique at the time to have someone come here to listen to what works and what doesn’t.”
While George admits the economy is still making it tough to sell programs internationally, he sees opportunity and optimism in Starz’s diversified content, especially if, as he puts it, “You’ve got something that really is compelling, where a broadcaster can look at something as a real game-changer. People are still watching TV.”