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Paramount Pictures CEO says struggling studio is 'poised for a renaissance.' Inside Jim Gianopulos' first year

Paramount Pictures CEO says struggling studio is 'poised for a renaissance.' Inside Jim Gianopulos' first year
Paramount Pictures Chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos took over the studio a year ago and says the company is poised for a comeback. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The surprising box-office success of "A Quiet Place," a low-budget movie about a family under attack from creatures who hunt by sound, could hardly have come at a better time for Paramount Pictures and its chief executive, Jim Gianopulos.

A year after the veteran Hollywood executive took on the monumental task of reviving Paramount following a long period of flops and losses, the studio finally has a much-needed hit. The picture, which cost $17 million to make and has grossed $132 million domestically, has already boosted morale on the Melrose Avenue lot.

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"It was a wonderful moment across the studio," Gianopulos said over lunch at his usual corner table at Paramount's Dining Room restaurant. "I think it shows the potential of what this place can be and what it's like when you get it right."

The feeling of hope is a new one for Viacom Inc.-owned Paramount. Once known for Oscar winners and box-office kings such as "The Godfather" and "Forrest Gump," Paramount has ranked dead last among the major film companies since 2012, in terms of domestic box office.

Racked by cost-cutting, infighting at Viacom and poor leadership under the late Brad Grey, Paramount's string of misfires got so bad the studio lost $445 million in fiscal 2016. In the last year alone, the studio has weathered such bombs as "Downsizing," "Suburbicon," "Sherlock Gnomes" and "Baywatch."

"It's a pretty big hole to dig out of," Cowen & Co. media analyst Doug Creutz said of Paramount. "I think it will be better for Paramount, but the question is, will it be better enough?"

The struggles have come at a time when corporate rivals are growing bigger. Disney is buying assets from 21st Century Fox, AT&T is trying to acquire Time Warner Inc., and tech giants including Netflix are spending billions of dollars on programming. Overhanging the recovery effort are contentious merger talks between Viacom and CBS Corp., orchestrated by Shari Redstone, who controls both media companies.

Emily Blunt, left, and Millicent Simmonds in a scene from "A Quiet Place."
Emily Blunt, left, and Millicent Simmonds in a scene from "A Quiet Place." (Jonny Cournoyer / Paramount Pictures via AP)

Gianopulos, 66, who previously ran 20th Century Fox Film for 16 years, does not appear daunted by the challenge. After he was pushed aside in 2016 to make way for Stacey Snider, Gianopulos saw a chance to revive a century-old film company. His strategy has focused on repairing and building relationships with talent, working more closely with Viacom's cable TV brands and making a mix of fiscally responsible movies that target specific audiences and have global appeal.

"The studio is poised for a renaissance," Gianopulos said. "It's had a couple of difficult years structurally, organizationally and in terms of its performance. I think with a new team in place, a new direction and a new strategy, the opportunities are terrific."

It's a message he will take to Las Vegas this week. Gianopulos will introduce new Paramount film footage to movie theater owners at CinemaCon, the industry's annual gathering, after winning over fans back home.

"In the past, it was very difficult to get things done there," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who is making movies such as "Gemini Man" and a "Top Gun" sequel at Paramount. "Before, it was tough to get answers. Now it seems like the logjam has opened up."

Gianopulos' hiring was a critical decision for Bob Bakish, who took over as Viacom's CEO in 2016. The approval process for new movies was broken, and management was overestimating how risky movies would perform. The losses weighed on Viacom's stock.

"Paramount's financial performance was extremely disappointing," Bakish said. "There were a range of issues at Viacom — distribution of its TV channels and ratings performance — but we needed to get under the covers at Paramount."

Bakish tapped Gianopulos because of his successful track record at Fox — he presided over a string of hits, including "Avatar" and "Deadpool" — and his reputation as a straight shooter.

"It's a whole new day at Paramount, because this is a guy who likes to work with people," Bakish said.

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The veteran entertainment executive moved quickly to stem losses. He sold "The Cloverfield Paradox," a highly anticipated J.J. Abrams-produced sequel, to Netflix. Critics eviscerated the movie, which could've flopped in theaters. Paramount also sold Netflix the international distribution rights to Alex Garland's "Annihilation," a science-fiction mind-bender with limited global prospects.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in "The Cloverfield Paradox." After acquiring the film from Paramount, Netflix premiered it immediately following the Super Bowl.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in "The Cloverfield Paradox." After acquiring the film from Paramount, Netflix premiered it immediately following the Super Bowl. (Scott Garfield / Netflix)

Gianopulos installed a new executive team. In September, he recruited "Maze Runner" producer Wyck Godfrey, who convinced Gianopulos to make "The Fault in Our Stars" at Fox, as president of Paramount's motion picture group. Godfrey is shepherding important films such as the studio's upcoming "Terminator" reboot and the long-in-the-works "Top Gun" sequel, and has also brought in projects including a "Coming to America" sequel with Eddie Murphy.

Brian Robbins, known for co-founding online teen network AwesomenessTV, was tapped to head a new production unit dubbed Paramount Players, tasked with making films branded with Viacom networks. Former DreamWorks Animation co-president Mireille Soria is now leading Paramount's animation business.

With his team in place, Gianopulos and his executives embarked on a tour of the major talent agencies earlier this year.

"What was clear to us was that Jim was on a particular mission to become more talent-friendly and change the culture at Paramount and the relationship between Paramount and the community of artists," said Richard Lovett, president of Creative Artists Agency.

In another change, Gianopulos and his deputies have accelerated the development of projects.

Producer David Ellison, founder of Skydance Media, said he pitched "Gemini Man," an original action movie directed by Ang Lee and starring Will Smith, over lunch with Gianopulos. The studio approved the project just a week after he submitted it.

"You can feel a whole new momentum that's been building at the studio," Ellison said. "Every aspect of the process has taken a real shift."

Paramount has a mandate from its parent company to work more closely with cable network brands such as MTV, BET and Nickelodeon. At a June meeting in Barcelona, Gianopulos sat down for a presentation on Viacom's network brands. Previously, there was little collaboration between the film studio and networks, and Viacom stars, including Amy Schumer and Jordan Peele, went on to make hit movies for competing studios.

"We certainly sent people over to Paramount — but they never felt particularly welcome," said one former TV executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Paramount Players' projects include a live-action teen adaptation of Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" and an MTV horror movie titled "Eli." Paramount is working on two upcoming BET-branded films, including "What Men Want" with Taraji P. Henson.

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Gianopulos also had to lock down deals with major producers and financiers as a $1-billion film financing deal with China's Huahua Media teetered.

In May, he flew to the Pawtucket, R.I., offices of Hasbro, the toy and game company behind such Paramount franchises as "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe." Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner wanted to accelerate his company's growth in the film business and have a greater creative voice in the films based on its toy and game properties.

The companies quickly struck an exclusive five-year production and financing deal. Projects include a G.I. Joe reboot, as well as movies based on more obscure Hasbro properties such as M.A.S.K. and Micronauts. Goldner said he expects Hasbro to make two live-action movies and one animated film a year with Paramount.

"Literally, he's a database of what works and what doesn't work in movies," Goldner said. "Jim exudes a level of optimism and an understanding of the business, and a positive attitude that's very infectious."

Multiple long-awaited projects are now nearing production, including the "Terminator" reboot, directed by "Deadpool's" Tim Miller and produced by James Cameron. (Fox is co-financing the movie and releasing internationally.) Another important effort is the studio's computer-animated and live-action hybrid "Sonic the Hedgehog," produced by Neal Mortiz, which was previously set up at Sony. Gianopulos bought the Sega video game adaptation after seeing early footage that previewed the film's tone and humor.

Paramount's growing list of TV productions includes "Jack Ryan," set to debut on Amazon Prime in August, and a Hulu series based on "Catch-22."

It's still too early to evaluate Gianopulos' recovery efforts. His slate of movies won't truly be tested until next year, experts said.

For now, though, the success of "A Quiet Place" and the July launch of a new "Mission: Impossible" movie should improve the studio's 2018 financial prospects. Executives predict a return to profitability by next year.

"A Quiet Place" was conceived, developed and announced before Gianopulos arrived, but the new management earned kudos for championing the project. After the studio brass saw director John Krasinski's early cut of the movie, Paramount approved about $1 million in additional money for more effects and reshoots. The studio also ramped up the marketing as the movie started generating mainstream interest among audiences.

Despite the challenges, Gianopulos has no regrets about taking the job.

"It's one of the oldest, most storied and successful studios of all time," he said. "The chance to bring it back to its rightful place was really exciting, and the chance to do it with really talented people is a thrill in itself. So, why not?"

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