In his first interview atop the storied film power, the former Fox chairman talks getting fired by the Murdochs, how Trump impacts his job and the strategy to restore stability: "It's surprising it got so bumpy here ... because all the elements are in place."
It's straight out of Greek mythology: A Hollywood studio chief is blindsided and fired after 16 years of service to a powerful family, only to rise from the proverbial ashes and take the helm of a rival family-owned studio in desperate need of rescue. Last August, Jim Gianopulos was on his annual summer sojourn to the Greek isle of Antiparos, his parents' homeland, when news broke in Los Angeles that his new bosses, James and Lachlan Murdoch, were replacing him with Stacey Snider at 20th Century Fox a year ahead of schedule.
Gianopulos, 65, suddenly found himself without a job for the first time since he delivered newspapers in his youth. Rumors immediately swirled that he would replace Brad Grey at Paramount, where a disastrous run at the box office and leadership turmoil at parent company Viacom under CEO Philippe Dauman had left the storied studio in shambles, capped by an operating loss of $445 million in fiscal 2016. But after flirting with the top roles at Sony Pictures and Wanda's Legendary Pictures, Gianopulos decided on the Paramount job once he was assured by Viacom vice chairman Shari Redstone — daughter of Viacom founder Sumner Redstone, who now guides her ailing father's empire — and new Viacom CEO Bob Bakish and CFO Wade Davis that he would enjoy the autonomy traditionally afforded studio heads. It took some negotiation, but the Viacom board offered Gianopulos full greenlight authority for films with budgets up to about $100 million. In March, he closed a deal to run the studio where he once worked in business affairs (for five years starting in the late '80s) before moving to Fox.
"There's a sense of urgency at Viacom to see a relatively quick fix at Paramount, and [Gianopulos] has a long track record of success. He adds immediate value," says media analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. But the challenges are many. "The studio's vault is depleted in terms of franchises," Handler adds.
Bakish, to whom Gianopulos reports, believes that vault can be restocked. “Jim is an exceptional talent whose vision and creativity have shaped countless critical and commercial hits,” says Bakish. “His leadership is reinvigorating Paramount, bringing new ideas and opportunities to our iconic studio and ensuring that Paramount delivers must-see content to audiences around the world for years to come.”
In his first interview since arriving on the Paramount lot, Gianopulos, husband of 16 years to wife Ann and father of three daughters — Mimi, 28 (from his first marriage), Alexa, 14, and Nikki, 12 — sat down June 15 with The Hollywood Reporter in his semicircular office with The Godfather posters on the wall to talk about his early impressions, his plan to make 12 to 16 movies a year and how Trump's election plays a role.
Do you have any lingering anger about how it went down with the Murdochs at Fox?
No. The only constant is change, and you move on. It was time for a new adventure.
But you didn't see it coming.
No. But look, when you're at a company for 26 years and you're in a chairman's role for 16, that's a pretty good run. I hadn't been out of work since I had a paper route, literally. I was able to explore a variety of entrepreneurial options in the film sector, the television sector, the general media sector and the technology sector.
What was it like being a studio head one day and the next day not?
When you’ve had the privilege of being in that chair for an extended period of time, you have a certain amount of pride in having survived it for so long.
What about losing the trappings of power — the phone ringing, the best table at restaurants.
I had great advice from a very dear friend who told me the two things you need to know about leaving a big job in Hollywood. First, you find out who your real friends are, and I felt very fortunate in that regard. And to your [second] point, if you can't get the table that you used to get when you were a big shot, just give the maitre d' a couple hundred bucks once in a while. You can get any table you want.
What's the window to get another job before becoming irrelevant?
I honestly didn't feel that, I guess because there were some interesting ideas that came up, big and small.
Why Paramount, with its obvious challenges?
Look around you. It's an incredibly storied institution and one of the oldest studios. Some of the best movies ever made were made here. The chance to revive it is an exciting one.
What are three things you told Shari Redstone and Bob Bakish you needed in order to take the job?
I didn't have to ask because they already made it clear what I would have, which is support financially in terms of capital, the right amount of autonomy and the willingness to understand the time frame it takes to turn something around. Plus the reach of Viacom. I'm a collaborative person with the people around me, beneath me and above me. I always look to socialize ideas and make sure that everybody's on the same page.
Do you have full greenlight power?
Let's put it this way: I have all the power I need to do the job. What I said to Bob is that two of the films I greenlit at Fox before I left were War for the Planet of the Apes, which is in the high-$100 million range, and Hidden Figures, which cost in the low-$20 million range. Hidden Figures was more of a risk than Planet of the Apes. I said to Bob, "I would have told you about both of them, but I would have made them both." The press tries to put budget levels on greenlight authority. It doesn't work that way. It's really about the risk factor. There are some films that cost well over $100 million that are relatively safe. And then there are lower-budget movies that are maybe more ambitious and riskier. It's a question of how much you're going to make — or maybe lose.
What's the biggest surprise so far?
It's surprising it got so bumpy here for a couple of years because all the elements are in place. There are only six companies that comprise all the elements of a major studio, and this is one of them. You want to see it achieve its full potential. There's no reason why it shouldn't be more successful than it's been recently.
Film has become a business of haves and have-nots. Some studios have reliable franchises, some don't. How do you turn this studio into a "have" with what you've got?
We have people, money, resources, global distribution and the reach of almost 4 billion people that Viacom touches around the world. If you can't make that work, something's not right. There is a great executive team here and a lot of very talented and dedicated people who want to win and who, despite disappointments at the box office, have a great sense of purpose, direction and talent. You harness that and look at areas where it can be improved or augmented or expanded. I don't make any prejudgments. I'm just getting to know everybody.
But you don't have many franchises.
Yes and no. There's Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Transformers. The last Mission was one of the most successful and critically acclaimed of all the films. And we're now making the next one, which has every appearance of being even bigger. There are plenty of opportunities to mine the library and to mine the relationship with our ongoing partner Hasbro. There's a lot of IP here.
How many franchises does a major studio need these days?
As many as you can get! But we're also seeing fatigue.
Producer Matt Tolmach recently said moviegoers want something familiar that doesn't feel too familiar. How do you accomplish that?
That's a good way to put it. We are working on that with the Top Gun sequel — taking the best of what people loved about the original film and refreshing it and making it original and new.
Would you consider casting a woman as the younger pilot opposite Tom Cruise?
Many believe the previous Viacom regime was focused only on quarterly results and really looted the company. Will the capital investment increase?
["Looting" is] your word, not mine. (Laughs.) There's a clear recognition of the need to invest in Paramount. You hear it from Bob, from Wade Davis and Shari. It's their mandate.
How many films does a major studio need to release a year?
You really should be doing between 12 and 16 films. At the same time, quotas are very difficult. If you don't have the movies, you shouldn't be making them. But to be able to amortize the global reach and overhead of a major studio, you need to be somewhere in that range.
What's your ideal mix of movies?
It's not so much the size of the movies. If you look at our fall schedule, we have Darren Aronofsky's Mother! [with Jennifer Lawrence], which is a completely original film. Alex Garland's Annihilation is finishing now, and there's George Clooney's Suburbicon and J.J. Abrams' production of the new Cloverfield film. We also have Alexander Payne's Downsizing.
But those aren't the bigger films that pay the bills.
No, no, of course. We have Daddy's Home 2. [The first film] was really successful. And now we brought in new elements with John Lithgow and Mel Gibson. That's a big, commercial holiday film.
What's the status of the World War Z sequel?
We're in advanced development.
With David Fincher directing?
Yes. And Brad Pitt.
In your first major move, you named AwesomenessTV founder Brian Robbins to run Paramount Players, a new division focused on turning Viacom television properties into movies. Why did you hire Robbins?
Brian and I met previously because I was intrigued by the success of AwesomenessTV, how well he built it and how well he understood millennials, social media and digital media. We got to be friends. Even while I was out, we met and discussed some ideas together. When I got here and started focusing on how best to harness the resources of the Viacom brands, Brian was first on my list, both because of Awesomeness and his history at MTV Films. Some of the [Viacom] brands are in transition now and being reconfigured, but from a programming point of view, they have very distinct demographic and psychographic audiences. When you look at MTV, Comedy Central, BET or Nickelodeon, they have a tremendous reach, certainly with kids and families. There's a natural synergy there.
Some are skeptical of this idea of turning TV properties into film franchises. What's Robbins' mandate?
Well, it's less about the [specific] content than the direction. It's doing things in a way that is somewhat disruptive, speaking to an audience that doesn't respond well to conventional marketing. And then tailoring content to that audience. The reason [Robbins] liked the idea of calling it Paramount Players is it's an homage to Famous Players, which was how the studio started, but it also reflects doing things in a different way both creatively and in marketing.
Did you meet with Sumner Redstone before taking the job?
No, but I've met briefly since with him and Shari. He came to the lot. He's very proud of this place. It is part of his great legacy.
Paramount has a long history of legendary leaders, including Robert Evans and Sherry Lansing. Have you consulted with them?
I haven’t seen Bob but we just had a reception for Sherry’s book and many of the colleagues over many, many years came. It was really wonderful, especially for me because I’d been here so many years ago.
Paramount was outspoken that Baywatch was hurt by a terrible Rotten Tomatoes score. How do you combat review aggregators when bad buzz travels so fast?
What's interesting is that there's often a great disparity between the critical reaction and what the audience reaction is. And there's very little attention paid to what the audience thought. The audience enjoyed Baywatch because it was exactly what they were expecting — a fun summer movie that was never intended to win the Academy Award.
Would you consider not screening popcorn movies for critics?
That tends to create a backlash. Everybody wants to know what critics thought of the movie.
Do you plan to rebuild Paramount's stable of on-the-lot producers?
There is great talent here. J.J. Abrams is here, [Jerry] Bruckheimer is here, and we have a great ongoing relationship with Hasbro. Paramount also has had great success with David Ellison's Skydance. Leonardo DiCaprio's here. Marty Scorsese is here.
Are you meeting with everybody personally, including Leo?
Yes, I've spoken to Leo. We're developing a number of projects with him. Obviously, he's always in demand.
Brad Grey's death in May was shocking and devastating for many people. Did you know he was sick?
I didn't know. He was a friend and a great executive. He was a lovely guy that went too soon.
What have you done to build morale at Paramount?
I want to be supportive of people and help them achieve the best version they can be in terms of their potential and talent, and to encourage them when things get weird and when they have tough decisions to make. But otherwise, I let people do their jobs. I've made my thoughts about it clear in our various staff meetings, and we had a reception here when I first joined and the whole lot was invited. There's a commitment to an ongoing series of town hall sessions, which are a way to connect to people that you don't see every day. Good morale comes when people experience a consistency of management style over a period of time, because everybody can give a Kumbaya speech, but do you really believe it?
You traveled to China with Wade Davis in May to salvage a $1 billion slate financing deal with Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media. Is the money now in the bank?
The deal is in place. What's been due has been paid, and the rest is on its way. They needed to hear a strategy and a vision for the studio and to know that someone was in charge.
Do you think we'll see theatrical windows shortened this year?
There will be some shortening of windows, but I don't know that all of the pieces are in place yet.
You're a big Democrat. What have you learned from Trump's election, and has it influenced your job?
I try to keep my politics and my work separate. We're not making movies that I want, we're making movies that an audience wants. Having said that, I'm really proud of the fact that one of the films we're about to release next month is the sequel to An Inconvenient Truth. I've had the opportunity recently to get to know Vice President Gore, and it has been very gratifying in light of recent developments politically. It's no secret that I've had a long commitment to the Democratic Party. But we're in the movie business, and we have to be cognizant of social changes and the way people are thinking out there.
Will that influence, then, the kind of movies you’ll make?
Yes. But having said that, they would not be reflecting my politics. They would be reflecting the audiences’ thinking.
How much of An Inconvenient Sequel was changed following Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord?
I don't want to get into specifics, but there have been some editorial changes.
Three years from now, what will be the barometer of success for you?
An empowered executive team, profitability and creative and commercial success.
How involved are you on the Paramount Television side?
Amy Powell is doing a fantastic job. She's got seven shows on the air, including [Netflix's] 13 Reasons Why, which is the most talked-about show on television. Amy is very self-sufficient, but we meet several times a week, and she keeps me fully apprised.
Do you believe Apple or Google will buy a studio?
It wouldn't surprise me. These big entities have had the benefit of monetizing and distributing all the content that everyone else makes. There may come a point at which having exclusive content will be a differentiator. That may lead them down the path of creating or buying a creative entity.
The job of movie studio chief isn't what it once was. Has Hollywood lost its luster?
I have a lot of friends in the Valley and in the tech community. And they're still enthralled by big movies. They really want to know everything about what's going on in Hollywood. Marc Andreessen, for example, is one of the most voracious consumers of content I have ever seen. Everything's always more interesting on the other side of the fence.
Why do this? Why not just retire to Greece, where you have a home?
I felt that there was another chapter. Plus, my wife would probably kill me for being around the house all the time and taking on projects like redecorating.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.