The Beverly Hills Hotel and its Polo Lounge are symbols of Hollywood, the intersection of executives, celebrities and the ultimate power lunch. So it was a fitting place for a meeting between Brian Robbins, the newly anointed president and CEO of Paramount Pictures, and Emma Watts, the president of its motion pictures group.
Following the unceremonious ouster of her former boss, veteran studio chief Jim Gianopulos on Sept. 13, the future of Watts became the focus of much speculation around town. Many assumed Robbins would bide his time letting her go, given his lack of experience making big-budget studio event pics. But after his lunch with Watts at the Polo Lounge, less than two weeks after Gianopulos’ exit, she was out.
Studio culture can be brutal. Nearly all newly appointed studio heads reshape the ranks upon their arrival. That includes Gianopulos, who joined Paramount in mid-2017 after running 20th Century Fox for years. Robbins — the child actor who rose to Nickelodeon chief before his ascension to Paramount chief — is moving much more quickly. In addition to Watts, he quickly cut ties with communications chief Chris Petrikin, who, like Watts, was a Fox alum, and animation president Mireille Soria.
Robbins is lucky to have been handed a well-stocked cupboard of potentially huge 2022 and 2023 movies that largely were put together by Watts and Gianopulos. Whether Robbins — who continues to run Nick and oversee family content at ViacomCBS fledgling streaming service Paramount+ — can persuade A-list talent, filmmakers, agents and producers to work with the studio beyond that is to be determined; the big reveal will come when his regime begins announcing projects. For now, many remain skeptical; on the film side, his credits include Coach Carter, while he directed the critically panned Eddie Murphy hit Norbit, which earned nearly $170 million at the global box office in 2007. His Paramount Player years included Dora the Explorer and What Men Want.
The flight of top-level executives appears to be over for now, while sources close to Robbins discount speculation that he cares only about growing Paramount+ at the expense of theatrical. (ViacomCBS doesn’t break out Paramount+ subscribers but said in its Aug. 5 earnings disclosure that it had 42 million paid global streaming users for services including Paramount+ and Showtime.) Sources insist Robbins has no plans to release Top Gun: Maverick or other event titles simultaneously in theaters and on Paramount+ once the pandemic is over and that he believes in an exclusive cinematic window (how lengthy he thinks that window should be is unclear).
He also intends to stay in the tentpole business instead of relying solely on such small- and midsize budget family fare as PAW Patrol: The Movie, a film he made at Nick that has been a sleeper box office hit — and reportedly was one of the reasons he got the studio chief job. The movie was released day-and-date in cinemas and on Paramount+ in early August and earned more than $117 million globally against a $26 million budget. ViacomCBS said the film attracted new subscribers to Paramount+ (the company didn’t release streaming numbers).
The star-packed roster of titles Robbins inherits includes the next installments in the Mission: Impossible, Transformers, Quiet Place and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises, plus the long-delayed Top Gun: Maverick. There’s also The Lost City of D, a romantic actioner with Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum and Brad Pitt; award-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s drama Babylon, starring Pitt and Margot Robbie; and an untitled movie for late 2023 starring Ryan Reynolds and John Krasinski. And the studio is on track to make J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film for 2023. Add to the mix Dungeons and Dragons and the superhero pic Secret Headquarters, for which the studio harbors hope to launch a franchise. Robbins has been making calls daily to Tom Cruise (Top Gun, M:I) and is getting to know others, like Bullock and Krasinski.
“By far, we have one of the strongest slates of anyone rolling out in the next 12 to 24 months, and I’m looking forward to discussing how we’re going to maximize its impact and keep building for the future,” Robbins wrote in a recent companywide email. Adds an insider on giving big films an exclusive theatrical release, “These are all movies that are meant to be seen on the big screen” and Robbins is “determined to make sure people experience them that way.”
Those familiar with Robbins’ thinking say there is no plan to hire a No. 2 to replace Watts, a force in her own right. “Robbins wants to be the guy in the room and hear the pitches and make the deals,” says another source.
In past eras, a major studio such as Paramount might release 25 to 30 titles a year, making it nearly impossible for one person to do the job. But the business has changed — even before the pandemic — with most major studios scaling back. Disney, for example, only releases about 10 titles a year yet is often the town’s top box office earner. (Sources suggest 10 is a good target for Paramount once box office normalizes.)
Robbins is known for surrounding himself with executives he trusts, then fostering them. Instead of looking outside to replace Watts, he promoted her proteges Daria Cercek and Mike Ireland, whom he was impressed with, to co-heads of the motion picture group. The duo previously served as co-presidents of production under Watts. And he tapped Nick Animation chief Ramsey Naito to succeed Soira and run Paramount Animation in addition to her ongoing duties.
He likewise did immediate housecleaning when ViacomCBS chief Bob Bakish tasked him with recharging Nickelodeon in fall 2018 and hired Naito, a longtime colleague who has filled the Nick pipeline with more than 70-plus new projects.
Hollywood’s film industry has always been suspicious when a studio head comes from the television side of the aisle, although Robbins stands apart in that he has also made movies, whether as a producer or when running Paramount’s youth-centric label Paramount Players during the Gianopulos tenure and prior to Nick. The track record is mixed; Michael Eisner dazzled as Disney’s film chief after running ABC; years later, cable mogul Rich Ross flamed out at Disney.
“Brian may do a great job, but can he make the big bets, which are the most profitable for a film studio?” asks one film financier. “Paramount needs new IP. When you make a $100 million-plus movie, you’re committing to a $100 million-plus marketing budget, so you’re in it for at least $200 million or more. You can’t just just have a family studio. You never know what an executive can do until they do it.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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