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On Jan. 26, a gaggle of Viacom staff gathered for the unveiling of the company’s West Coast headquarters on the corner of Hollywood’s Sunset and Gower. The very corporate CEO Bob Bakish and vice chairman Shari Redstone rubbed shoulders with the very un-corporate Flo Rida and Snoop Dogg, while an advance guy poured tequila down thirsty throats. It was fun for almost everybody — except the executive who stood notably to the side: Paramount chairman and CEO Brad Grey.
Now the industry knows why. Twelve years after Grey joined the studio, his run is at an end following a year in which Paramount lost almost $450 million thanks to flops including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Zoolander 2. While many industry observers long had predicted Grey’s demise, he outlasted his deputy, Rob Moore, and even his patron, Philippe Dauman.
Grey’s exit follows a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between him and Viacom CFO Wade Davis, who until recently had been spending “about half of his time” in Los Angeles, Bakish said in December. Any chance Grey, 59, had of bonding with Davis — one of the many non-film executives now making decisions about the 104-year-old studio — quickly soured, sources say, and Davis’ L.A. trips ended at Christmas.
Rumors are swirling about who will replace Grey, with a coffee klatch of familiar faces, including former Fox film chairman Jim Gianopulos, who’s vacationing in Greece while being courted to run Legendary Entertainment. An interim step will be the formation of an operating committee led by president of Paramount TV and digital entertainment Amy Powell, COO Andrew Gumpert, movie division president Marc Evans and marketing/distribution chief Megan Colligan.
Davis, who was hired by Dauman, will be “very involved” with overseeing Paramount, says one source, but will not be part of the operating committee. Instead, he’s said to be angling to become Viacom’s chief operating officer, for which he’s in contention with Scott Mills, its chief administrative officer.
The operating committee at best would be a Band-Aid as Bakish begins the unenviable task of finding Grey’s successor, knowing that greenlight committees tend to increase infighting. (Warner Bros. tried that approach but appears to have scuttled it with the recent promotion of Toby Emmerich.)
It’s unclear who’d want to run Paramount, given the level of scrutiny likely to come from the higher-ups, a situation analogous to Fox, where both James and Lachlan Murdoch are closely involved with the studio. Grey’s replacement won’t just have Bakish to please, but possibly Redstone, too, though she has denied interest in involving herself in studio decision-making.
Bakish’s desire to better integrate Paramount with the other Viacom brands also could limit a new CEO’s freedom. He’s enamored of what he calls Viacom’s “flagship six” — the cable channels BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Spike (being rebranded as Paramount Network, a vague concept so far) — and wants the studio to make one or two co-branded movies with each per year. “These films may easily account for half the slate,” predicts Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible.
Harnessing the labels’ power won’t be easy. “MTV and Nickelodeon are far less relevant than they were at their height,” says one producer who has worked closely with Grey. “Viacom has to both rebrand them and figure out what these brands mean on the movie side.”
The studio’s recent history doesn’t bode well. Paramount has made just one movie from Comedy Central’s longest-running hit, South Park, and that was back in 1999 (South Park — Bigger, Longer and Uncut), and only two features based on Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants. And while MTV Films has served as a production label on more than 40 films, those haven’t been based on MTV properties since the Jackass movies of 2002 to 2010.
Building a feature slate from these labels comes as Viacom is trying to steer MTV away from scripted programming, while redefining Spike/Paramount. And yet Bakish has promised four features from Nickelodeon through 2020, starting with the animated Amusement Park, out in 2018.
Within Paramount proper, Transformers remains its biggest franchise; the latest installment is scheduled for a June 23 release. Two years ago, the studio established a writers room to map out a Transformers “cinematic universe,” but it has yet to name a director for a spinoff.
A sixth Mission: Impossible movie is about to go into production, also for summer 2018, but that franchise’s mission proved almost impossible last year when preproduction was suspended while the studio ironed out a pay dispute with Tom Cruise. Lagging behind is Paramount’s long-in-the-tooth Star Trek series. The 13th installment, Star Trek Beyond, released last summer, attracted just $343 million worldwide. Paramount only has seven movies slated for release this year, less than half the norm. They range from the anime-inspired Ghost in the Shell (March 31) to a movie version of Baywatch (May 26) to Alexander Payne’s satire Downsizing (Dec. 22).
If and when the pace of production picks up, it’s unclear who will reap the benefits, following a co-financing deal announced in January, with China’s Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group investing $1 billion in the studio’s slate. Bakish, as of press time, is said to be planning a meeting with those companies in late February, after flying to L.A. to announce Grey’s departure and the interim reporting structure.
Insiders can only hope this will mark the beginning of a genuine turnaround. “I promise you one thing,” Redstone told employees at the headquarters unveiling. “The best is yet to come.”
Additional reporting by Gregg Kilday and Pamela McClintock.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Sterling K. Brown