Jeff Shell, chief executive of NBCUniversal, said the film business had “stayed stuck in the mud” and was “leaving a lot of money on the table” even as the rest of the entertainment industry has rapidly evolved.
Speaking at a UBS conference on the topic that’s currently roiling Hollywood, he described “a whole segment of people who love movies” but don’t go as often as they could for a host of reasons, even pre-pandemic. “And we do not serve those customers.”
“I think theatrical is a critical part of the movie business… Movies are events… You can get in your car and go watch them on a big screen with great sound the way directors and filmmakers had meant for you to see the property. But there is also going to be a growing segment of the population… that wants to watch movies in a non-premium, way, which is at home. I think that theatrical will continue to thrive and I think the more windows can collapse so there are other ways to see things at home in a less premium fashion, the more money is going to be made by everyone involved in the movie business,” Shell said.
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Universal itself may have launched the pandemic-fueled, heated and ongoing debate on windows back in April when it released Trolls World Tour on PVOD, raising the ire of exhibitors, followed by a deals with AMC Entertainment and Cinemark for shorter theatrical windows. That flurry seems almost quaint now after AT&T’s Warner Bros. announced last week that its entire 2021 film slate will debut on streaming service HBO Max day-and-date with cinemas domestically.
Shell said Universal has a different model that AT&T and goes for a “transactional event,” like PVOD, because it makes the movie feel “a little more premium than just turning on your TV and watching something somewhere.”
“AT&T is taking a different strategy… But anything, in my opinion, that collapses windows is going to ad value to the business,” he said.
Shell also noted that NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock passed 26 million signups as of yesterday even without star content like The Office, which hits in January, and the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July. That’s up 4 million from the company’s latest update in October.
In a broad ranging Q&A, he also discussed NBCUni’s corporate restructuring and prospects for theme parks, sports and advertising.
The company as others in media, has aggressively realigned its business starting last summer creating a new NBCUniversal’s Television & Streaming unit run by Mark Lazarus that brought the broadcast network, cable portfolio and streaming service Peacock under one umbrella. There have been several waves of layoffs. Teams led by Susan Rovner and Frances Berwick both report in to Lazarus.
News was also reshuffled and, in a high-profile change announced yesterday, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde named Rashida Jones president of MSNBC as Phil Griffin steps down after 25 years at the cable news channel.
Shell said the restructuring reflects shifts in the TV viewing as much as Covid-19 as it moved NBCUniversal from a horizontal structure by network to a vertical one covering everything including Peacock. “It’s like when you ask Ted Sarandos at Netflix can he can say yes to content. Than so can Susan. You have one person looking at the whole canvas.”
On production, he touted filmed entertainment chief Donna Langley and her team with completing the first major motion picture under Covid – Jurassic World: Dominion set for release in 2022. He said the 2021 slate is mostly complete, with maybe one or two productions finishing up post. The film studio is pausing production for a few months now given the current surge in the virus.
He said Universal television has 31 shows currently in production, including in Los Angeles where the lockdown hasn’t stopped work for now. “Our production people are essential employees and our testing protocols are working,” he said.
Covid compliance has added a 10-20% premium to production budgets, which will come down when there’s a vaccine available, he said. But he predicted content spending rise as it ramps up production, including to fuel Peacock.
He’s particularly upbeat about the summer Olympic games, noting that NBCUni has “more revenue in the door right now for the Olympics in 2021 than it had for the Olympics in 2020.”
The Games and the NFL are its premiere sports properties. On football: “We are in discussions like everyone else… We hope and expect to continue to be partners with the NFL for a long time.” He noted that the winter Olympics will feature a Super Bowl in Los Angeles smack in the middle.
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