In December, Brad Grey and his crew at Paramount Pictures were closing up a miserable quarter. Filmed entertainment revenue at the studio’s Viacom parent – which mostly reflects Paramount’s performance – was down 15 percent, to $612 million from $720 million in the year-earlier quarter. Theatrical sales, some from the late-year release of The Big Short, were off 44 percent from the year before, when Interstellar was a contributor. Domestic theatrical sales had slid even more deeply, by 51 percent, while the film sector’s pre-tax earnings fell about 9 percent, to $717 million from $790 million the year before.
Now, even after Grey faced a shaken-up Viacom board yesterday for a grilling about Paramount and his plans for its future, an obvious question is on the table: When will things get better? The short answer is probably not right away. And that means that rumors of new blood at Paramount — with outgoing Fox chief Jim Gianopulos atop the list — won’t abate anytime soon. Grey was upfront about the studio’s recent failures in his meeting with the board, and laid out a path for improvement.
Paramount’s performance in the next few months, when the awards season hits fever pitch, will have less impact on long-term strategy than on optics and Grey’s mood as he meets his bosses. What he actually can do to change the studio’s fortunes in the next three years, as he plays out an employment contract that remains in place into 2020, are questions best answered by those who know exactly what the studio is paying whom to develop movies that will or won’t play big around the world. That’s what the board is trying to figure out.
On Friday, board members Shari Redstone and Tom Dooley, who has currently replaced Philippe Dauman as CEO, expressed support for Grey. In a statement, the board said: “Shari, Tom and the Board remain fully supportive of Brad and his leadership of the studio. Under Brad’s leadership, Paramount has taken significant, successful steps to broaden and strengthen its business, and we are confident that Brad and his team have the skills, relationships and resources necessary to return Paramount to success in its movie business and continue its rapid growth in television.”
But the next wave of films already is breaking and will be on everyone’s mind as they meet. And so far, those pictures look a lot like the ones that have kept Paramount high on the prize-contender lists but stuck at the box-office bottom since 2012, when it fell to No. 7 in domestic theatrical revenue, after riding on top in 2011, fueled by Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
The release schedule for the rest of the year is sized about the same as last year’s. Right now, Paramount is prepping at least six films that should appear on commercial screens, if not in wide release, by the end of Viacom’s fiscal first quarter on December 31: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Rings, Arrival, Allied, Office Christmas Party and, finally, Fences.
In the last four months of 2015, the studio appears to have had seven releases: Daddy’s Home, The Big Short, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Captive, Anomalisa and Capture the Flag.
But Scouts Guide, Captive and Capture the Flag were nearly throw-aways; they combined for less than $7 million in domestic ticket sales, and Capture was confined to about 20 screens.
None of this year’s crop falls into that category, so the serious year-end lineup is more like six films versus four in 2015. More movies can mean more revenue. But that also can mean more marketing expense, particularly during the high-cost, heavy-promotion Oscar season.
One hallmark of Grey’s tenure, in fact, has been a pronounced hunger for prestige. This year, he might have three Oscar contenders in Arrival, a sci-fi drama directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams in lead roles; Allied, directed by Robert Zemeckis, with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in a World War II romance; and Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, with Viola Davis, in his screen version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
So the Viacom board should be attending its share of red-carpet events. But the trick will be to avoid low-yield contenders like last year’s Anomalisa, which was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar but had only about $4 million domestic ticket sales.
Another touchy point will almost certainly be a lag time between the splashy debut of those contenders and their financial return, even if they hit. The Big Short did OK, with more than $70 million at the domestic box office. But the ticket sales didn’t show up until Viacom’s January-March second quarter, when theatrical revenue grew by 6 percent, though its filmed entertainment segment tumbled into a $136 million operating loss.
The horror bets are a structural match, more or less: This year’s Rings, like last year’s Paranormal Activity sequel, covers the Halloween base. The comedies similarly line up, though Office Christmas Party set for December 9, will be in the marketplace earlier than was Daddy’s Home, which opened on Christmas Day in 2015.
Jack Reacher, with Tom Cruise, brings a bit of franchise-power to the season—though, like Paramount’s Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises, it will be watched closely for signs of slippage.
Oddly, Jack Reacher, an action film, has a certain kinship with the very different Allied. Both reflect Grey’s slightly old-fashioned loyalty to stars such as Cruise and Pitt, who have served the studio well in the past, and might do so again in the future. It is a trait he shares with Amy Pascal, a similarly old-school studio chief, who finally was edged aside as some of her mainstays — Will Smith, Adam Sandler — hit low spots, while Warner and Disney, with their comic-book superheroes, steamrollered her Sony Pictures.
So what can Grey do, other than promise to get new stars and hit film series?
Maybe he can get some dirt on Disney; it’s hard to see anyone grabbing much market share when Disney and its Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel and Walt Disney brands are continuing to swallow almost 27 percent of the domestic box office.
Or maybe he can figure out how to weaken the dollar. A strong dollar has been taking a big bite out of foreign film revenues for Viacom, and everyone else who sells pictures abroad.