Milken Panel: Leslie Moonves Dings Netflix's "Overrated" Creative Freedom, Jeff Shell Talks DreamWorks Deal

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Leaders from DreamWorks, Universal, CAA and CBS took the stage at the Milken Institute's event in Beverly Hills.

When someone puts Leslie Moonves and Richard Lovett on the same stage to talk about changes in the entertainment industry, it's a good idea to listen. 

The respective presidents of CBS and CAA were joined by Mellody Hobson, chairman of DreamWorks Animation, and Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, on Wednesday afternoon for a Milken Institute panel called "Entertainment: Riding the Global Wave" in Beverly Hill.

Fresh off NBCUniversal's recent $3.8 billion acquisition of DreamWorks, Hobson and Shell discussed the mutual benefits of leveraging an animation icon with a promotional powerhouse. 

"I like to say both stocks went up when we did the deal," said Shell. “It’s hard to find good talent and good stories, and sometimes it’s better to acquire them.”

Said Hobson, "We actually don’t know what this will completely look like in the next decade. We just said, at the end of the day, going it alone probably isn’t smart."

Moonves said the deal made a lot of sense. When moderator Julia Boorstin asked him if CBS would be following suit and making an offer on Starz or Lionsgate, Moonves laughed, saying, "Not this week."

He continued: "It's got to be the right asset at the right price for us. The price and the quality [of Lionsgate] may not be the same as DreamWorks."

After the DreamWorks deal, the group turned its attention to growth in China. 

Lovett said CAA has been in China for more than a decade and represents "arguably the five most important Asian filmmakers." But it's sports, not film, that's driving the agency's growth overseas. “It’s now the largest revenue stream in the company,” he said. 

Growth isn't limited to the Asian markets, though. Moonves used Germany as an example, saying there are now 18 buyers for content in the European nation. Eight years ago, he said, his company's global revenue was about $500 million. Now it's $1.6 billion and he attributes that to both competition and the world growing. "In a digital marketplace, the sky's the limit," said Moonves. 

With growth across the globe comes an increasing need for diversity in the industry. 

Lovett said the recent outpouring of attention to diversity in Hollywood is a reason to be optimistic about the kinds of stories that can be told when varying voices are given a platform to tell them. 

DreamWorks' Home was an important step for diversity, Hobson said, because it featured a mixed-race animated character. She says the studio got a tremendous amount of positive feedback from mothers who were thrilled to see a character who looked like their children. 

It all boils down to speaking to your audience, Moonves said. "When you see the amount of Hispanics growing in the U.S., not to speak to them not only is wrong, but is stupid as a business plan," he said. 

Obviously no conversation about growth and change in the entertainment industry is complete without mentioning Netflix. Hobson said while the streaming service's economics are non-traditional, its business model is clearly working. 

"As they grow around the world, it gives them the ability to take more risks," she said. "The world is thirsty, hungry for this content."

Filmmakers behind the upcoming Bright, starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, opted for Netflix because the digital giant offered more autonomy and a global day-and-date release online and in theaters removed box-office pressure, Lovett said. 

Moonves argued that "autonomy is overrated" and network and studio executives play an important role in the creative process. "I helped cast Friends," he said. 

That led to some teasing back and forth between Moonves and Lovett about whether projects from CAA's clients will be picked up by CBS for the fall. 

Joking aside, Lovett said storytelling is a collaborative art. "Autonomy is not a tiebreaker if you have great input," he said. 

The panelists agreed Netflix isn't the end of the theatrical film business, by any means, but an additional way for consumers to access content. However, that doesn't mean Hollywood should maintain the status quo in terms of theatrical windows and cable bundles. 

Moonves said CBS is addressing the trend by offering content three ways: through hundred-plus-channel cable bundles, newer "skinny" bundles and a la carte. "It’s a different way to reach our consumers," he said. "Any way you want us, we’re there." 

On the film side, Shell said the ecosystem behind theatrical windowing is complicated, but one simple thing is true — more buyers are good. 

"I give AMC a lot of credit for trying something with Screening Room," he said, explaining that each consumer is no longer faced with a decision of going out to dinner or going to the movies, but rather staying in and watching Netflix or going out to the movies. "If we’re not careful in the movie business … we’re going to lose that consumer," warned Shell.

Hobson said she and her husband, George Lucas, find that watching a film with a crowd is a very different experience. "People need things to do," she said. "Going out and having something to do is not insignificant."

Unsurprisingly, Moonves disagreed. 

"No," he said, laughing. "Staying home and watching television is a very good thing."