Hitting topics that are top of mind in Hollywood, ViacomCBS Bob Bakish said stalled production is a money saver now but needs to restart by mid-summer; that movies will be released in theatres as planned if they’re open and enough people are going; and that COVID-19 has spurred cost efficient work that will inform its business even after the pandemic abates.
As Bakish and ViacomCBS unveiled first-quarter financials, they were met with as much love today as they were savaged three months ago when the chief executive of the newly merged company described a vague digital concept called ‘House of Brands,’ killing the stock, which never recovered. But it surged today, up over 18% at one point, on more definitive plans for CBS All Access, gains for Pluto TV and overall numbers that beat Wall Street expectations and were up sequentially from the previous quarter.
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Currently the company’s in good shape content-wise with its shows on the air through a combination of creating some programming virtually and leveraging current and library content. It’s also saving money, Bakish said on a conference call Thursday.
He called things stable with little impact to on-air product so far — “as long as we can get back into production, albeit with modifications, by mid-summer.” He mentioned mid-summer as key several times.
As for film, he said the studio shifted its release schedule to later in the year “to preserve asset value” – meaning the big bucks flowing from theatrical release. “A Quite Place Part II we pulled at the last minute. We didn’t want to waste it. We saved it. But we are going to open them when it makes sense.”
“Our film business will depend on theaters opening in major market,” he said. Meanwhile the company saving money here as well.
A SpongeBob sequel is set to be the first release in August.
Pressed on whether theaters being open is enough – even if there’s a paucity of moviegoers that is, he said, the company will have to see.
“We will obviously look at the market and … if there is sufficient critical mass at theaters to warrant an August 7 SpongeBob release. It is too early to call if it is definitely going to be released or it is definitely not going to be released.”
Of course, he touted hit Sonic The Hedgehog, which took in more than $300 million at the box office. “We have a new franchise to build on.” Digital sales hit a company record. He said 2 million units of Sonic have been sold in the electronic sell-through window.
Bakish said Paramount had completed principal photography on eight films right before the crisis. They include Snake Eyes, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Coming to America 2, Top Gun, Infinite, The Tomorrow War and Spell. “So those are all being worked on remotely in post-production. So we will be in good shape when things open up. Likewise, Showtime is currently set and solid through Q3.”
“So it’s a bit of a fluid situation, but we spent a lot of time looking at not only return to facilities, but return to production, and we’re confident that we’ll have compelling content on in the fall.”
Back on TV, he noted: “Sitcoms is a more controllable environment. For dramas, there will be limitations. We can probably front-load production … and leave location [shooting] to later. On unscripted, we can modify to include a more controllable environment.”
Golf, which starts June 11 in Fort Worth, Texas, and football (the NFL will announce its schedule tonight) will be produced “in modified forms,” but he’s upbeat. “PGA events are staggered, in more open states, we feel very good about that and have a very specific production plan for that which we think mitigates risk,” he said.
“We’re optimistic our fall schedule won’t be materially disrupted assuming we can get back into production in mid-summer.”
But if there are gaps, he said, ViacomCBS has a deep library that it recently expanded with the acquisition of Miramax titles. It’s using library content now for a new Sunday movie night to fill in for an abbreviated season of NCIS (18 episodes instead of 22).
He said COVID-19 will accelerate the company’s cost savings as its work processes are “informed by how we have had to rethink our operations over the last six weeks. We have shown we can do more with less.”
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