For storied Paramount Pictures, more valleys than peaks of late

Paramount Pictures, the storied Melrose Avenue studio, is trying to emerge from three years in the doldrums

Paramount Pictures, the storied Melrose Avenue movie studio, is trying to emerge from three years in the doldrums.

The century-old company behind "Forrest Gump," "The Godfather" and "Transformers" has lagged behind its rivals at the box office since it last topped the U.S. charts in 2011, when its releases generated $1.95 billion in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada.

Now the studio suffers from a lack of films. It releases about eight to 12 of its own movies a year, whereas bigger rivals such as Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Entertainment often put out double that amount. Last year, Paramount landed in sixth place. It hit seventh in the two previous years.

Because of its thin slate, the studio sometimes goes months at a time without a new movie. Paramount is in the middle of a more than four-month gap between its most recent film — "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" — and its July 1 feature "Terminator: Genisys."

The Viacom film division has developed a reputation in Hollywood for aggressively managing costs. That strategy, championed by top Viacom executives and Paramount Chairman and Chief Executive Brad Grey, has bolstered margins. But the frugality has also helped make the studio less popular among Hollywood talent.

Stakes are higher for Paramount now that Viacom is under pressure because of declining TV ratings at its cable networks. Viacom is in the midst of a restructuring that has resulted in layoffs at units such as TV Land and MTV, as well as the film division. Paramount this month cut close to 40 jobs.

Paramount's low output has prompted some on Wall Street and in Hollywood to question its future. Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone is 91, and analysts have speculated about a possible sale of the company, or perhaps just the studio.

"Film's not a growing category right now," said New York media industry analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson. "At some point it may have more value in someone else's hands."

Even Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman was asked at a recent investor conference whether the company was in talks to sell the studio. Dauman shot down the speculation, saying "there's been no conversation" about selling Paramount.

Now Paramount wants to regain some of its might in Hollywood.

The studio last month ousted its motion picture group president, Adam Goodman, who had been in charge of production and development since 2009. He was replaced on Monday with Marc Evans, a popular 12-year Paramount veteran known as a more filmmaker-friendly executive.

After word of Goodman's exit got out, Paramount executives were quickly flooded with calls from managers, agents and filmmakers, who wanted to know more about the meaning of the change in the top ranks.

"One thing that became obvious was that, because we were at a lower level, people didn't know we wanted to do more," said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. "We had to say to talent and managers, 'Hey, we have capacity on our slate.'"

The company is targeting a rate of around 15 films a year, consisting of roughly 11 live-action self-produced movies, one animated picture and several acquisitions. Paramount is still trying to fill some of the void left by the loss of movies from Marvel Studios and Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation, which used to have distribution deals with the studio.

Though the "Star Trek," "Transformers" and "Mission: Impossible" franchises continue to post big numbers, they have not been enough to fill the pipeline and improve Paramount's rankings.

The studio has said its focus is on profitability, rather than market share, and Paramount has consistently contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in operating income to Viacom's earnings. But its annual profits have declined in each of the last three years. Paramount posted operating income of $205 million in fiscal 2014, down 12% from the previous year.

To turn that around, the company needs to make more hits, said Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen & Co.

"If you want to take the studio's profit higher than where it's at now, you have to take more share from other people. And that means you have to make bigger movies," Creutz said.

To build up its slate, the studio will need to add new faces to its roster of blue-chip filmmakers that boasts the likes of "Star Trek" producer J.J. Abrams, "Transformers" director Michael Bay and "Mission: Impossible" actor Tom Cruise.

And Paramount has already brought in reinforcements. In late 2013, Jerry Bruckheimer signed a deal with the studio, marking the blockbuster producer's return after a long and often lucrative relationship with the Walt Disney Co. A sequel to his 1986 Tom Cruise blockbuster "Top Gun" is in the works, with "Jungle Book" scribe Justin Marks writing the script.

Mary Parent, who produced "Noah" and "SpongeBob" for Paramount, described the studio as a talent-friendly place that takes chances on new ideas and filmmakers, while also spending responsibly.

"It makes me feel like I'm in business with smart people," Parent said. "I've never experienced them to be penny-wise and pound-foolish."

The company is aiming to near its 15-film target in 2016, with a lineup already full of well-known properties. Besides the new "Terminator," this year's slate includes "Mission: Impossible 5," "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension" and "Rings," a continuation of the "Ring" horror movie series.

Next year's titles include another "Star Trek" sequel, a remake of the Charlton Heston epic "Ben-Hur" co-produced by MGM, and Bruckheimer's new "Beverly Hills Cop" movie with Eddie Murphy in the signature role. It also plans to reboot the "Friday the 13th" slasher series. Most recently, Paramount made headlines when it announced a "Zoolander" sequel at Paris Fashion Week, with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in a publicity stunt.

But Paramount also needs to build new franchises.

Moore said the studio plans to take bets on three or four new properties and filmmakers each year. Parent is producing the animated movie "Monster Trucks," which if successful could drive toy sales as well as box-office revenue.

"We feel like this is the right balance for us," Moore said. "Because we don't put out as many movies, filmmakers know we're going to put everything we have into these movies. They're not going to get lost in the slate."

Among its recent successes, the reboot of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" scored an impressive $191 million domestically, and a sequel has been announced for the summer of 2016. But generating new hits is no easy task. Last year's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," featuring Chris Pine as the Tom Clancy hero, fell flat.

Having few films each year means the bets on untested ideas are even riskier for the studio, said Bruce Nash, who runs the box-office website The Numbers.

"You have fewer rolls of the dice," Nash said.

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