- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
When ViacomCBS chief Bob Bakish announced during an earnings call May 6 that the Mark Wahlberg movie Infinite would bypass theaters for a debut on the company’s fledgling streamer Paramount+, the CEO said the film would “create a lot of noise.” But the noise it created was the sound of angry phone calls.
Wahlberg, director Antoine Fuqua and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura had no inkling an announcement was coming, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. The movie’s team was said to have received calls from Paramount brass the day before that outlined a move to streaming as a “possibility.” One person close to the Infinite team noted: “It was not handled well.”
This sequence of events should sound like deja vu for many dealmakers in pandemic-era Hollywood. Universal caught talent off guard when the studio said in March 2020 that animated sequel Trolls World Tour would get a premium video on-demand debut priced at $20. On a larger scale, talent was blindsided when WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar said in December that Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 theatrical slate was moving to a day-and-date release on HBO Max. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, In the Heights director Jon Chu said he found out the day-and-date plans 15 minutes before it was announced: “It was emotional.”
Earnings calls, streaming service launch presentations and press releases have become go-to venues for unveiling feature release plans, sometimes with A-list talent and their reps finding out at the same time as their potential audiences. Regardless of how stars learn of streaming releases, the new blueprint is a round of talks between talent and studios to recoup lost box office bonuses, as well as possible post-theatrical revenue streams. “There is no track record for what is going on right now,” says one dealmaker.
After decades of box office-based feature deals with talent, the challenge facing reps is how to quantify a star’s worth as it relates to bringing in streaming subscribers. “It’s impossible for the studios, as they change windows and strategies, to be entirely consistent,” says one studio insider. “It’s going to feel arbitrary to certain people.”
Contractually, talent typically has little leverage should a studio decide to put a title onto a streaming service, sources say. It did not readily occur to either agents or studios that contracts for projects releasing in 2021 — drawn two to three years ago, before some of the major services had launched — would have to stipulate paydays should the film be moved from a planned theatrical release.
Shorter windows have proven to be one go-to solution. At February’s Paramount+ showcase, it was announced that A Quiet Place II and the next Mission: Impossible installment would debut on streaming after a 45-day theatrical window. In May, Disney said Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy and Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would do the same, on Aug. 13 and Sept. 3, respectively. Insiders note that in the current theatrical climate, pandemic or not, 45 days is enough time to reach box office thresholds. (The first Quiet Place film grossed 93 percent of its total domestic box office, $188 million, in its first 45 days of release.) Notes one rep who has clients in features headed to Paramount+ after the theatrical window: “After a month, who cares?”
Meanwhile, Disney gave an early heads-up to talent when it moved its theme park-inspired movie Jungle Cruise to a day-and-date premium video on-demand model on its service, Disney+, for July 30. Sources say that Disney began talks with stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and director Jaume Collet-Sera two to three weeks before the announcement. When it came time to unveil the news, it was made by Johnson on his social media channels, hours ahead of the company’s May 13 earnings call.
The situation can become more complicated when the studio is selling to its own service. “If it’s an unaffiliated service, you try getting a market value,” says a dealmaker who works with A-listers in both the theatrical and streaming worlds. The pandemic has seen Paramount, Sony, Disney and Warners sell off titles to Netflix, Amazon and Apple. But, the rep notes, “when it comes to this situation” — a studio selling to its own streamer — “you know what they’re willing to pay, but you don’t know what the true value is. It’s not being shopped around.” Warner Bros., after revealing plans to send films to HBO Max, halved box office bonus thresholds for its 2021 slate, making it easier for talent to reach backend targets.
The worry now among creatives is that leadership is not as attentive to the world of talent relations. The $43 billion plan to merge WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc., to be led by Discovery chief David Zaslav, is just the latest deal rattling the industry. (Zaslav, in an effort to reassure Hollywood, has said his “No. 1 priority” will be building “relationships with the creative community.”) Adds one rep, “If you’re going to be making movies, you need big stars and big directors and you need to communicate effectively.”
This story appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day