When Jim Gianopulos takes the reins at Paramount next week, these are among the issues he must worry about: Putting the billion-dollar funding deal with China back on track, teeing up the modest slate of pictures inherited from Brad Grey, and negotiating a modus operandi with his highly opinionated uber-boss, Shari Redstone. Oh, and there’s a final item: Gianopulos has to expect the unexpected.
Here’s why: When Grey became Paramount’s boss 12 years ago I wrote a memo to him (published in Variety) listing the challenges he’d face, but I neglected the most important of them: The man who appointed Grey, Tom Freston, was promptly fired, by Shari’s father Sumner Redstone, and CBS was split off as a separate entity. It was all a reminder that the Redstones own the playpen and they follow their own idiosyncratic rules.
To be sure, Shari’s agenda is very different from her father’s. She vigorously opposed the policies of Philippe Dauman, the nondescript tax attorney Sumner had appointed to succeed Freston. And having failed to reunite Viacom and CBS, she is now under severe pressure to revivify both Viacom’s and Paramount’s presence in the marketplace. Stockholders are studying her; the creative community is watching skeptically and so is Les Moonves, who, insiders say, covets Paramount but is appalled by the talent drain at Viacom’s once dominant cable networks (Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, etc). Moonves backed away from the prospect of running the whole show.
This much is clear: Both Viacom and Paramount desperately need of bold new leadership. It was Freston who told me a year ago that, if he were taking over a company, he would “hire a motorcycle gang of rule-breakers to re-invent the whole business.” But Freston prefers to stand aside, and Gianopulos, thoughtful and cautious, does not fit that description, nor does Bob Bakish, the Viacom lifer who Shari Redstone installed as Viacom’s CEO.
Still, major changes have to be made to revive the company. Under Dauman, Viacom spent $20 billion on stock buybacks to prop up the share price instead of investing in product. When Grey advocated important new ventures with Marvel and DreamWorks, Dauman suffocated them (Paramount had had working deals in place with both). As a result, the studio retained only limited presence in the franchise business except for Mission: Impossible, Transformers and Star Trek, all geriatric in their life cycles. Hence the studio was all the more vulnerable to film flops like Monster Trucks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Silence.
While Viacom’s bankers and its board want Paramount to re-create its tentpole business, that process takes years to build. Further, the biggest hits hatched during the Gianopulos years at Fox were projects like Deadpool, Avatar, The Life Of Pi and Hidden Figures — films which brilliantly defied the narrow rules of the Suicide Squad genre. They were triumphs of innovation, not of recycling.
Can a corporate “motorcycle gang” as Freston imagined — one that breaks all the rules of the moment — find the autonomy to build a new future at Viacom? Insiders are wary about predictions. Though the new studio regime has the right to approve projects under $100 million, Shari Redstone and her allies on the board have strong views on filmmaking, sources say, and Bakish has no background in the movie business. Insiders were daunted last week when Bakish articulated an initiative under which one or two Paramount films a year would be tied to specific Viacom cable networks – a synergistic tactic that has never worked at other companies. I doubt if Gianopulos, the man who nurtured Jim Cameron’s vision, would feast on a Nickelodeon byproduct. And Comedy Central, having lost the talents of its seminal performers (Stewart, Colbert, Oliver, et al) is not a persuasive player at this moment in its history.
It’s impossible to speculate how Viacom would have fared under Freston’s leadership (he once tried to buy Facebook at $750 million and it’s now worth perhaps $300 billion). Or imagine how an aggressive Brad Grey would have done at Paramount if Dauman had supported his acquisitions agenda – the sort that was ultimately superbly executed by Bob Iger.
A personal footnote: I was part of the process a generation ago when Paramount emerged, Phoenix-like, from near bankruptcy. The Bob Evans scenario was Freston-like: Banish the habits of the past. The result was the era of The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, etc. I also was close to Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg when they engineered yet another remarkable resurgence at the studio. They were, again, rule-breakers.
Gianopulos has been around long enough to witness all this (he was once a business affairs executive at Paramount). He is a very shrewd student of history. The question: Will he have the funding and the autonomy to bring Paramount back to life yet again? Or will the Redstone clan again do the unexpected?