The soon-to-combine Viacom and CBS will be opportunistic about selling content to third parties even as it looks for synergies throughout the enlarged companies. That’s the word from Paramount Pictures chief Jim Gianopulos, who spoke Wednesday at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media Communications and Entertainment conference in Los Angeles.
In a wide-ranging Q&A with veteran analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich, Gianopulos touched on hot-button issues ranging from the prospect of changes to theatrical windows to the slow pace of U.S. trade negotiations with China to the upside for movies studios from the growth of exhibitor loyalty and subscription programs.
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Gianopulos echoed the view shared by ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish that the enlarged company will play the field in terms of selling to outside buyers in addition to seeking cross-divisional opportunities when possible. Disney, Comcast and WarnerMedia are in the midst of launching ambitious streaming platforms that will soak up a lot of internal production activity. Not so for Paramount.
“Our content is more desirable, more unique and certainly more available than others,” Gianopulos said. “That puts us in a very good position, especially given the continuing growth in demand.”
The Paramount chief talked up the studio’s bustling Paramount Television operation and noted that the company has three shows in development with WarnerMedia’s nascent HBO Max streamer.
Gianopulos is also looking ahead a few years to the end of Paramount’s pay TV output deal with Epix, the premium cabler that had been a joint venture of Viacom, MGM and Lionsgate until MGM bought out the partners in 2017. With Disney, Fox and presumably some Universal titles being out of the marketplace, Paramount is ready to be the belle of the ball when its Epix deal ends in 2022.
“That’s a party that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Gianopulos said. “Because of the scarcity and uniqueness of our output, we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”
Naturally, ViacomCBS will look for synergies between Paramount and CBS’ Showtime pay cabler. But fundamentally, ViacomCBS “will do what’s in the best interest of the company as a whole, but recognizing that (Paramount) films deserve a certain value,” he said.
On the perennial question of shortening the exhibition window for new release films, Gianopulos said the industry should not hold its breath for big changes. “I would not say these discussions are dead but they are certainly stagnant,” he said.
Disney, which is now by far the dominant film distributor, has shown “no interest” in using its clout to push for change. And exhibitors are digging in their heels to fight efforts to shorten the traditional 90-day period of theatrical exclusivity for new releases.
“There’s no industry consensus and there’s also a retrenchment on the part of exhibition against a very early window,” Gianopulos said. “Nobody wants to go to war with their synergistic theatrical partner.”
Reif Ehrlich pressed the Paramount boss about the domestic box office being down for the year so far. Gianopulos said the decline stands at about 6.7% over 2018, which he notes was a record year. He said there are indications that a strong fall and winter will allow biz will end the year down about 2% to 3% from 2018. “If that’s the case, we’ll take it,” he said.
Among other highlights:
Paramount’s turnaround-in-progress: Gianopulos, who formerly was co-head of 20th Century Fox, noted that the studio will turn a profit for the first time in four years when Viacom’s fiscal year ends this month. When Gianopulos signed on in 2017 the studio operation lost $280 million, on the heels of a mammoth $450 million loss in 2016. “That was about as dark as it gets,” he said. He credits the change in part to better management of Paramount’s vast library. Since 2016, library revenue is up 28% and operating income from the library is up 30%, he said. “Library exploitation is the internal revenue engine of any studio,” he said. “Paramount wasn’t at its full optimal performance.
Studio volume: Gianopulos cited 16 to 20 films a year as the “sweet spot” that Paramount aims to get to in the next few years. Paramount Television has 26 series either on air or ordered to production. “We feel we can go above that,” he said. Television production “is not particularly capital intensive,” he said. “It’s really about finding the right project.”
China: Gianopulos said there remains some frustration in doing business in China. Both the MPA, the international arm of the MPAA, and the U.S. Trade Representative are engaged in slow-going negotiations to improve split terms and the volume of movie imports that China allows. There’s been a “slow down,” Gianopulos said, given the strained state of overall U.S.-China relations, but the “MPA is hoping to make progress over time.”
Loyalty/subscription programs: The industry veteran sees the growth of movie ticket subscription services owned by exhibition chains as good for the industry overall because it has the potential to provide data about movie-goers and marketing advantages. “The more that we can benefit from using those data analytics and outreach to that audience, the better,” he said. He also thinks loyalty and subscription programs encourage more frequent movie-going. “It continues to broaden the market and deepen the market and expand frequency,” he said. “The key is for us to get our fair share. So far, exhibition has recognized that.”