Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

The United Opus – a book so big that you can hardly lift it

Posted by Kimberly on July 23, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
July 23, 2007, page 2 (2,510 pages)

As if the arrival of Manchester United to Macau hasn’t created enough of a stir, United Opus, the biggest football book ever created, is sure to outshine even Cristiano Ronaldo.
Billed as the heaviest (at 37 kilograms), the largest (images are displayed at up to 100 x 50 cm) and the most exclusive (limited editions that are, on average, upwards of ₤3,500), it’s no wonder the opus is garnering world-wide attention.
Chief Executive of Kraken Sport & Media, Mr Karl Fowler, in an exclusive interview with the Macau Daily Times, spoke about his creation, its uniqueness and his vision for the future of the opus brand.
“One of the interesting things that comes about when people order is they can tell us which number they want.
“It’s really funny because the common theme is their wedding anniversary or the birthday of their first-born,” he says.
According to Mr Fowler, the opus has two objectives.
“What we’re trying to do with the Opus is two things; bring the reader, or the viewer, as we call it, as close to the subject matter as possible.
“Then we tell the story in a way that maybe hadn’t been told before and doing it in a way that makes it as personal as possible,” he says.
And buyers have been rushing in to purchase their favourite number of the opus.
“There are obviously special numbers and David Beckham for instance, bought number seven, which is his shirt number,” says Mr Fowler.
Apparently China’s lucky numbers, says Mr Fowler, are 888. It wasn’t mentioned who had purchased that particular edition, if it had indeed been purchased.
Mr Fowler likens the experience of reading the opus to watching a film.
“We’re trying to make you read a film, we’re trying to do is give you a cinematic experience on paper,” he says.
To further clarify, over three million photographs were researched, with the opus team choosing just 2,000 of the best to tell the story.
And there’s no doubt about exclusivity.
Two images contained in the opus, of the Munich air crash and the team dressing room just prior to them boarding the plane, have never been seen before.
“The key thing about the Opus is that at minimum, 50 percent of the photographic content has to be, never-been-seen-before material. It’s very important,” says Mr Fowler.
“We had to push back the publication date on this by three months because we hadn’t hit that target,” he added.
One might ask why such high expectations have been placed.
“Because we’re talking about a lot of money.
“There has to be a certain integrity and a justification of the prices.
“So 50 percent has to be a combination or archived never-before-seen material or exclusive photography that appears only in here, that we won’t syndicate to anyone else,” says Mr Fowler.
With such a large scale to play with, the opus team have also been able to combine another 20 percent of the photography as full bleed images.
“We brought the world’s largest polaroid camera to Manchester,” he says.
“It’s this huge camera; it comes on a lorry, takes four people to operate it. There’s only one of these in the world. It’s 40 years old. But it’s a polaroid; no photo-shopping, no computerisation, it’s pure. “These pictures are 26 x 24 in size. the images are raw, as you see them.
“The definition is just unbelievable,” he says.
There is no doubt about the time and effort gone into the creation of the opus.
Viewers need only venture a few pages into it, pausing at the image of neon Manchester United sign at the football team’s grounds in Old Trafford.
“This sign, Manchester United, this is the actual neon sign at old Trafford,” says Mr Fowler.
“We wanted it because it’s an iconic piece of image but we couldn’t find it anywhere.
“So we had to get air traffic control clearance, police clearance, to take England’s largest crane.
“It costs a lot of money to shoot, it, at 3 am, because of the noise of the crane and get the image we wanted for this picture,” he says.
While on the topic of exclusivity, it must be noted that the opus also contains the transcript between the control tower and the pilot two minutes before the plane crashed in Munich.
“It took us six months to secure form the German Aviation Authority archives,” says Mr Fowler.
There are over 400,000 words in the opus, written by twelve of the world’s best writers on United, including Hugh McIlvanney, Jim White and Jonathan Northcroft.
But the opus transcends football. It also tells the story of Manchester, its social, economical and political history, “setting the scene [of] Manchester throughout the years and what the club has meant.”
As with Manchester’s history, so too does the opus showcase the club’s greatest players, such as Eric Cantona.
“He finally agreed to participate under two conditions; one, that he art-directed the whole shoot and he said whatever pictures came out of the photo shoot, whatever he decides to go in, goes in.
“And Eric Cantona, being Eric Cantona, you never know what you’re going to get.
“He’s quite temperamental,” says Mr Fowler.
The team turned down a huge offer from Vanity Fair for one of those images.
“There’s no integrity if you buy this, and a month later, you see it on the cover of Vanity Fair,” says Mr Fowler.
The opus has captured far too many vivid moments to be faithfully re-told within the limits of a newspaper article.
They include Ronaldo’s tricks with the ball, in quick succession, taken by “one of the world’s greatest and most prominent action photographers.”
And there’s the keyword to describe the opus; definitive.
“We have every single fact in here,’ says Mr Fowler.
“Right from 1892, every single game, every single goal, every single player.
“Before they were called United, they were called Newton Heath,” he says.
More importantly, the opus includes the essence of every football club; its fans.
“We had an enormous amount of respondents. We wanted to get a diverse selection of fans from around the world,” says Mr Fowler.
Persons of note to have purchased the opus so far include HRH Prince Charles, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and the King of Malaysia “who’s a huge United fan.”
Over 145 people worked on the opus throughout the world, with every issue being hand-bound.
“We couldn’t find anywhere a machine that could bind it with the durability that we needed.
“Each one takes about two weeks individually to put together to the standard that we set,” says Mr Fowler.
To clinch the deal, those that purchase the opus become members of the opus club.
Every three months, they are invited to the website for the opportunity to win experiences of a life-time, including watching the training sessions and meeting the players. And the membership is “evergreen” according to Mr Fowler.
Those curious about the expense might be interested to learn that “the budget for this particular one, I would say, is more akin to a film budget,” says Mr Fowler.
There is no “skimping” but that’s not to suggest the dream of purchasing a United opus, or any of the others to come into existence, is a distant one.
Potential buyers have the option of paying off their purchase over an interest-free period of between 12 and 24 months.
“Again, we want to make it accessible, maybe for the person that doesn’t have three or four thousand pounds right there,” says Mr Fowler.
And while the exclusive label is clearly evident, the team at Opus are ensuring the ordinary person can be a part of the experience in other ways that don’t require vast sums of money.
“We’ve donated a lot of copies to libraries, not only in the United Kingdom, but wherever we’re on tour as well,” says Mr Fowler.
“So here in Macau, we’re donating one to the Municipal library here.
“We’ve also made sure copies go to schools in less advantaged areas around the world as well,” he says.
But at the end of the day, Mr Fowler has no intention of apologising.
“It is a luxury item and a lot of effort and cost has gone into it and hopefully the end result will justify that cost,” he says.
Copies are restricted within countries to ensure print runs aren’t exhausted.
South Africa, for instance, has been allotted only 300 copies.
“We announced last week in Seoul, we’ve only got 200 copies of the Park Ji-Sung edition where he signed every copy.
“But we’re only allowing 50 to be sold into Korea,” says Mr Fowler.
And copies have been flying out the door on magical wings.
Only 500 of the icon editions signed by Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and Eric Cantona were created.
There are now only 100 copies available.
Half of the Class ’92 edition, or 125 copies, featuring signatures from Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs and Gary and Phil Neville have already been pre-ordered.
“We’re not realising it for another three months,” says Mr Fowler.
The group is working with key reatilers such as Harrods and Selfridges in the UK, and Saks Fifth Avenue in the US.
“If you order it on a Monday it will be on your doorstep Wednesday morning, anywhere in the world within 48 hours,” says Mr Fowler.
And to complete the experience, a group of designers in the UK have been commissioned to create a stand for the opus in the shape of the FA cup trophy.
For those not particularly keen on football, or curious to know if their team will feature as an opus, others are in the works or soon to be released.
“We’re launching with Formula One in October at the Shanghai Grand Prix,” says Mr Fowler, adding that that opus will go one step further.
“Embedded in the spine, in the middle of the book, there’s going to be a microchip and once activated, you can track your copy, through satellite anywhere in the world,” he says.
“The idea there was not just security but trying to tell the story of Formula One and the sport and technology are very intertwined.”
This idea will be taken on board every opus.
Other opera that have been created include the American Super Bowl, one on Diego Maradona, Arsenal and Celtic.
More excitingly for some, are those in the pipeline.
These include the story of Disneyland, one about the Vatican and the Dalai Lama.
As Mr Fowler says, the story of the Vatican is “completely interesting.
“It’s going to be our first opus where 100 percent of the content will be by definition never seen before because all of the contents are coming literally from the private library of the Vatican.
“They gave us a charcoal etching that Galileo drew that’s never been seen before,” he says.
The team is also in talks with two film studios “to tell their stories,” but Mr Fowler has one dream he’d like to see realised.
“We’re calling it the US Presidential Opus.
“It will be to tell the history of the United States through the eyes of the 43 US Presidents.
“Using great photography, to tell both domestic and world events but tell them looking through the eyes of the Presidential office in all its forms,” he says.
This idea will be entirely not-for-profit, with the dream being to have a copy in “every high school library in America.”
“The proceeds of that would go to charitable foundations in the different states,” he adds.
The “pipeline” of projects for the team currently extends into 2012, right into the Olympic Games in London.
For Mark Fowler, publishing was an entirely new pursuit.
Previously a banker with Goldman Sachs, he admits that “I wasn’t good enough to play sport but it was always in my blood.”
A collector of first editions, he felt “disillusioned” with the content coming through “whether they be autobiographies or productions on teams or sport.
“There just seemed to be a lack of integrity,” he adds.
“So we thought, if we were going to do this, and we really wanted to give it a go and see if we could do it better, we have to do it on a scale and a level of integrity and creativity that hadn’t been done before,” he says.
To him, a benchmark had to be set, or there would be no point.
“We set down all the things that we thought needed to be different and unique needing to go into an Opus and that was a challenge,” he says.
He recalls the morning that Wimbledon called, and the first time they used the word ‘opus’.
“The call was ‘would you like to come in and discuss making the Wimbledon opus.’
“It’s a small thing but they didn’t use the word book.
“And at that point we thought, hang on, maybe we’ve got something that’s more than just a one-off,” he says.
“People say, ‘how do you justify a ₤3,500 book? ‘ Very easy. It’s not a book, it’s an opus.
‘If you look at that end of the market people wouldn’t think twice now of spending ₤10,000 on a work of art for the living room,” he adds.
There is one idea Mr Fowler has for those wanting an opus in the entertainment field.
“The Rolling Stones. That story would be just fantastic because there’s so much there, so much content.
“So we’re in discussion with the Rolling Stones,” he says.
And that’s not all, as the opus ideal keeps rolling.
“We’re also working on a discussion with Pavarotti. There’s so much content there that hasn’t been said before,” says Mr Fowler.
Not to mention the talks with Picasso’s daughter Paloma.
“They’ve got a wealth of imagery that she’s kept and have never been seen.”
Finally, Mr Fowler and his team are working with Charles Saatchi to create “our first opus on contemporary art.”
“There’s only going to be 900 copies worldwide,” he adds.
And for those Macau residents who are car and racing enthusiasts, the opus on Ferrari has the signature page made out of rubber.
“It’s not just any rubber. It’s a piece taken from a tyre which has actually raced on a F1 car during the race.
“We’ll tell you what car it was on, who was the driver, what race, what time the pit-stop was and when it was taken off,’ says Mr Fowler.
The first 100 copies of the Formula One opus signed by all living Grand Prix world champion drivers, has the clam shell made out of the same carbon fibre as an F1 car, which can be locked with a key.
You may well find a copy of any of these opera on Ebay in future, but with one recent seller receiving a return of 175 percent of the purchase price, its an investment worth purchasing from the creators.

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