At 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, hours before presenting a rousing reel of his movie highlights for Oscar season and beyond, Paramount Pictures chairman/CEO Brad Grey huddled at a table in the bar of New York’s Carlyle Hotel. Upstairs was his grand, 26th floor apartment, on the market since last year for $22 million or so, but still unsold. On the sofa beneath him were pictures of blood sport–embroidered hounds running leopards and wild boars to the ground. Grey, diminutive and trim, spoke softly, but with surprising resolve for an executive who has been just one step ahead of the hounds in both Hollywood and New York for months. He is in the unfamiliar position of underdog, if you believe the chorus of rumors about what might happen if Shari Redstone gets her wish to merge Viacom with CBS and place Les Moonves to run it. It is clear, though, that Grey, who has shown remarkable survival skills since he transitioned from preeminent talent manager to studio head, believes he will be around to mastermind a turnaround of Paramount’s fortunes, and believes that he is squarely up to the task.
“This place is going to be formidable,” Grey insisted, speaking of his Los Angeles-based film studio, which has tumbled deep into the red after eking out at least modest profits through most of Grey’s 11-year tenure. Clearly, he’s heard the talk about his pending demise. But he has decided to make a fight for his corporate survival. And like the hunt stitched into that hotel sofa, Grey’s stand has already become a spectacle.
Rarely has a contemporary movie studio weathered as much turmoil as Grey’s Paramount. The controlling shareholder, 93-year-old Sumner Redstone, struggled in court to prove his mental competence. Paramount’s parent, Viacom Inc., then dumped its chief executive, Philippe Dauman, and is now under orders from Redstone and his daughter Shari to explore a merger with their other grand enterprise, CBS Inc. More, Grey’s chief lieutenant, vice-chairman Rob Moore, was fired over his advocacy of an abortive plan to sell almost half the studio to China’s Dalian Wanda Group.
Then again, Paramount—which has gone bust or close to it a couple of times–has only rarely been less troubled in its 104-year history. In the early days, co-founder Samuel Goldwyn fought with partners Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky (his brother-in-law), and was pushed out. In the 1980s, studio chief Barry Diller and then-corporate parent Gulf + Western’s Martin Davis did most of the fighting; and Diller later fought with Redstone for control of the studio. By the time Brad Grey showed up in March of 2005, mass layoffs–he fired a third of his 3,000 employees–and rumors that he, too, would soon be gone, were as routine as Redstone’s decision to bounce star-producer Tom Cruise, then take him back for another round of action-thrillers. Those include a sixth installment of Mission: Impossible that is back on a fast track after being stalled over the star/producer’s deal, and a Jack Reacher: Never Go Back that opened last weekend to okay grosses.
Grey made a point of his hopes to put the turbulence behind him as he took the stage in New York tonight to introduce a next round of films from a studio that has never not been nervous. “I know our company has been in the news quite a bit lately, mostly not for movies and television,” Grey told three dozen gathered writers and editors. But, he added, “I believe there is great reason to be optimistic about our next chapter.”
Many of the clips were impressive, given the disruption of recent months. Denzel Washington’s Fences looked very much like what everyone has been calling it: A leading contender for acting, directing, and best picture Oscars, now that another leader, Fox Searchlight’s The Birth Of A Nation, has been swept aside by scandal and box-office rejection. Washington, gloriously battered in his role as a working man chasing lost dreams, could almost be a one-man show if Viola Davis weren’t just as wonderfully roughed up in the scenes that screened on Thursday. Word has it that the film will be finished in days, as will Martin Scorsese’s Silence, another of Paramount’s late-season awards bets. Privately, people briefed on the independently-financed film say Scorsese is under pressure to cut about thirty minutes from an early three-hour version. But it remains on track for an awards qualifying run on Dec. 23, and the scenes shown on Thursday, which put a horrifying new twist on the business of crucifixion, seemed to match the toughest in Casino or Goodfellas, but with Jesuits. Extended footage from Robert Zemeckis’ Allied, with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, were also displayed. They showed enough promise to push Paramount’s awards slate to an unusually robust five films, when the Meryl Streep-starrer Florence Foster Jenkins is counted in.
There was a bit of news hidden in the presentation. Darren Aronofsky’s hitherto untitled Paramount thriller, with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead, is now called Mother!. A new CGI animated family film, Amusement Park, flashed by, on the schedule for 2019. Scarlett Johansson was sexy-scary as a killer cyborg in Rupert Sanders’s Ghost In The Shell from DreamWorks SKG, set for release in March.
Grey knows that it will take more than tantalizing snippets from a cluster of awards contenders to restore Hollywood confidence in a studio that lost luster at the box-office, and the prospects of a chief executive who cannot even be sure to whom he will report in the very near future.
Speaking to Deadline at the Carlyle in advance of the sizzle reel, Grey avoided direct discussion of the possible CBS-Viacom merger, and its possible consequences for Paramount. But he made it clear that he would strongly favor any arrangement that found him reporting to the current CBS chief executive Moonves. “He’s wildly talented and successful, he’s a friend, and I would really love to work with him,” Grey said of Moonves.
A CBS spokesman declined to discuss the possible combination, and queries to Viacom drew no response. But people briefed on the possible combination said key decisions were likely by early December, as a battery of investment bankers and lawyers for each company execute the review requested by the Redstone clan through their National Amusements, which controls both Viacom and CBS. According to those people, Grey last week met jointly with bankers from both companies. At a personal level, these people said, Grey–a former talent manager who is known for cultivating long relationships with the likes of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston–is hoping his long history with Moonves would buy him needed time to revamp a studio whose bank of projects and goodwill dwindled as financial resources declined. The Grey-Moonves relationship, indeed, is a long one. Grey, when he was a young manager signing stand up comedians, met Moonves when he was an aspiring actor and tending bar at the Improv. The two wound up as tennis partners after Grey’s then-boss Bernie Brillstein sold his production company to Lorimar, where Moonves was getting established as an executive. They’ve vacationed together in Napa and Moonves was a guest at the bris ceremony of Grey’s newborn son. But several people who know them both say they became more distant through the years, and that Moonves’ willingness to rely on Grey in a merged company is far from certain.
More certain is that a CBS-Viacom combination would yield what has been sorely lacking at Paramount under Viacom under Dauman–that is, financial resources to do more than keep the studio on simmer. Before Dauman took charge of Viacom in 2006, the company backed Paramount in a $1.6 billion (and ultimately unsuccessful) acquisition of DreamWorks, and supported a Marvel deal that gave birth to one of Grey’s greater successes, the Iron Man franchise. In the Dauman years, however, the studio was expected to operate on a tight financial leash. While rivals like Disney were buying assets like Marvel and Lucasfilm, Dauman drained the corporate coffers on stock buy-backs and, sometimes, large executive bonuses. That unwillingness to keep pace with rivals backfired as the Viacom stock fell precipitously, and as one informed critic put it, “they spent $16 billion buying shares that lost half their value, because they would not invest in their core businesses.” Grey, who made his bones and a considerable fortune in the television business, was restrained until recently from investing in television production, which, according to people briefed on his posture, he believed had revenue potential at least equal to that of the Paramount feature operation.
A television division was finally established in 2013 under Amy Powell, until then a Paramount digital executive. But internal tensions over care and feeding of the division remained high. Last year, when Dauman’s compensation, including salary and bonus awards, was reported to have exceeded $54 million (though estimates vary, depending on what is counted, and how), Paramount was blocked from paying bonuses to its television team, so Grey paid them personally. If the sale of a 49 percent stake in the studio to Wanda had been completed, as Dauman planned, most of the roughly $4.9 billion in proceeds were earmarked for use by Viacom, in its ongoing effort to support declining shares, and only a small amount was to be invested in Paramount, which has been widely tagged as being parsimonious in its business dealings, and perennially underfunded.
With or without a CBS merger, Grey clearly now sees the door open for grander, more expensive studio ventures, provided they meet the approval of Shari Redstone, a strong-willed heir and board member who seems squarely in favor of dedicating the funds required to make Paramount a contender once again. “What’s so great about Shari being there is that she is smart, ambitious and has a vision like Sumner,” Grey said on Thursday.
Still, the challenges are immense.