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When Jim Gianopulos held his farewell Zoom call with Paramount senior staff Sept. 13, the entire group had as their backgrounds an image of The Godfather — Marlon Brando with Robert Duvall whispering in his ear. This silent, multilayered tribute to movies (and allusion to betrayal?) added intensity to an already emotional call. Choked up, Gianopulos ended the meeting early.
If you look between a rock and a hard place, there you will find his remains. You might say the former Paramount chief was stuck between ViacomCBS chairman Shari Redstone’s determination — even desperation — to feed and build Paramount+ on one side and, let’s say, Tom Cruise franchises like Mission: Impossible or sequel Top Gun: Maverick on the other. Obviously, Cruise is not the only major talent in business with Paramount, but he has symbolic value: There is no star in the world more empowered and determined to defend a traditional, exclusive theatrical release for his movies.
Not everyone is or can be as intractable on this point as Cruise. But Paramount has a bunch of movies — either greenlighted or in some stage of production — with major players whose deals were made with the assumption of a traditional theatrical release. Having signaled what appears to be a hard pivot to streaming by replacing Gianopulos with Nickelodeon chief Brian Robbins, ViacomCBS may have plunged itself into another round of the fights that have embroiled WarnerMedia and Disney.
ViacomCBS sources have told reporters on background that the company is still committed to theaters. But none of the company’s on-the-record statements so far has made mention of an ongoing commitment to those picture palaces on which founder Sumner Redstone built his media empire.
There was no language on that subject in statements that ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish and Robbins sent to staff. The press release announcing that Robbins “will assume oversight of films produced for Paramount+” said nothing explicit about who would oversee the release of the big theatrical movies. On Sept. 14, ViacomCBS CFO Naveen Chopra did nod to the challenges with theatrical at a virtual investor conference, saying: “I think Brian understands that in order to successfully navigate that change, you have to figure how to leverage the traditional parts of the business, including theatrical distribution as well as newer parts of the business, like streaming and changes in consumer behavior.”
Robbins has his work cut out for him. Paramount+ is still a very undernourished also-ran — it has between 12 million and 15 million subscribers in total, a source says. (ViacomCBS, in its August earnings report, noted that its paid global streaming subscribers topped 42 million, but that figure also includes Showtime and other niche services like Noggin.) Some of Paramount’s creative partners are not eager to see their projects used to build it up. While money often smooths over disputes on release plans, ViacomCBS does not appear to have buckets of it.
Among the movies with theatrical-only plans are Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, with Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, and The Lost City, with Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock. And the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog? Robbins will need to have a chat with litigious producer Neal Moritz, who is said to be adamantly opposed to anything other than a theatrical release. Even Jackass Forever has a deal for an exclusive theatrical release — and the filmmakers are said to be insisting on that.
So much potential for conflict, and then there’s Cruise, who was even said to be unhappy when Bakish said in March that Mission: Impossible 7 would debut on the service after 45 days in theaters. (Naturally, Cruise wants his usual 90-day minimum. But at least he’s not Christopher Nolan, who demanded 110 days for his next project.)
Now Paramount is expected to become primarily a dealer of low-cost and, many suspect, mediocre movies to its streamer. ViacomCBS might well sell the Paramount lot, as it sold Black Rock, the original CBS headquarters in midtown Manhattan, in August. The old Hollywood empire is crumbling fast: Fox is gone, long-troubled MGM is likely to become a label at Amazon, and now Paramount is whatever it’s about to become.
Ironic, isn’t it? ViacomCBS named its service for the legendary movie studio but has now made it just a part of Robbins’ broad portfolio, which includes everything aimed at kids and young adults: Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Nick Jr., TeenNick, Nicktoons, Nickelodeon Studios and Awesomeness. (Robbins has not taken Gianopulos’ chairman title; he is president and CEO of the film studio.)
While Robbins is widely liked and has plenty of relationships and experience in film and TV — he directed Varsity Blues and Norbit, executive produced many seasons of One Tree Hill and produced a slew of forgettable movies — a top executive at a rival company says, “Brian Robbins, as far as I can tell, has never made or overseen a ‘wow’ movie in his life.” That helps explain why Gianopulos had discounted the rumors of his own ouster. After all, he was making a bunch of movies for the streamer, as Redstone wanted. And he had executed a major turnaround, pulling a studio that was hemorrhaging hundreds of millions when he took over in 2017 to hundreds of millions in profit.
But in August, Robbins released PAW Patrol: The Movie, with its modest budget and its day-and-date release as well as branding tie-ins and merchandising opportunities. And that is exactly what Redstone feels she must have if she hopes to shape ViacomCBS into a thing that can be sold.
It would be great to have the big movies on the service as well, of course. But the cost of that is sure to be daunting. The company may have wanted to launch the service with A Quiet Place Part II, for example, but surely John Krasinski’s reps suggested that their client should be compensated in accordance with the price a competitor might have paid to stream the film. They might have asked for a guaranteed sequel, too, since movies on streamers don’t often get those. Netflix paid about $465 million for two sequels to Knives Out. Universal is paying about $400 million for an Exorcist trilogy.
Can Robbins solve this dilemma? A ViacomCBS source says he can. “Unlike [WarnerMedia CEO] Jason Kilar or some of the other executives who are attempting to bridge this gap between where the industry is and where it’s going, he does obviously bring to bear a long history as actor, director, showrunner, producer,” this person says. But an executive at another studio says, intentionally or not, the choice of Robbins sends a Kilarish signal.
And theatrical movies aside, there is the question of whether Robbins can make movies for the service that can raise Paramount+ into an attractive acquisition target. Making movies fast and for a price is one thing, but a top exec at another media company observes that that is hardly the only key to success. “What people forget in a creative business,” he says, “is unless you have good movies, none of that matters.”
Alex Weprin contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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