Picking Paramount's chief: Viacom and talent wars in the digital age

Robert Bakish, chief executive officer of Viacom
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Viacom is on the hunt for a new chief for Paramount with CEO Bob Bakish implying at a Deutsche Bank conference this week that a decision "should come together in the very near future."

After meeting with a range of Hollywood veterans the front-runner is Jim Gianopulos, formerly CEO of 20th Century Fox. Former Sony Pictures President of Production Mike De Luca, who now has a production deal at Universal, has also been discussed as potentially joining Gianopulos, but it's unclear if he would take the role. Viacom had no comment.

The expected appointment of Gianopulos comes on the heels of Bakish laying out a new strategy to turn around Viacom, which hinges on breaking out of the fact that operations have been run "as a set of silos," as Bakish said at this week's investor conference. Now Bakish, who took on the role in November, aims to integrate content across its TV networks, such as MTV and Nickelodeon, and its studio, Paramount. The idea is that if a star is created at Comedy Central, such as Amy Schumer or Jordan Peele, Paramount, not one of its rivals, should be the one to profit from that star's success when they move on to film.

Paramount's hope for a turnaround

Bakish said, "We felt it was appropriate to change leadership," after ousting Brad Grey, who had run the studio for 12 years, a period that ended with a number of high-cost flops.

After Paramount drove the largest percent of the U.S. box office in 2011 of any of the studios, it fell from the top spot to sixth or seventh position every year since then. Now, experts say the most important thing is finding winning content. "Jim [Gianopolus] is one of the most respected and well-liked execs in film today," says the CEO of REDEF, Jason Hirschhorn. "He is a perfect candidate to put the studio back on track, attract creative and exec talent and set them up for the digital realities of content."

FBR analyst Barton Crockett points to Disney, whose studio is run by Alan Horn, as the gold standard. "Ultimately you need both a content guy and a digital guy, but the content side is harder," says Crockett. "Digital distribution can't save a bad movie. Sometimes you put a new chief in a new seat and you can capture lighting in a bottle like Horn has at Disney."

Gianopulos would "afford immediate and necessary credibility after years of Paramount being adrift," says Wunderlich analyst Matt Harrigan. "The cupboard is so bare on the franchise and development side, with not great execution even on a franchise like the last 'Star Trek' globally, that [content development] has to take top priority."

Harrigan says that the company suffered during the corporate drama, including lawsuits, talk of selling Paramount, and the exploration of recombining Viacom and CBS. "I think that talent and scripts avoided Paramount during the Redstone-Dauman infighting period and it is vital that someone with a broad network of talent relationships be plugged in immediately if Paramount is to inspire any confidence on extricating itself from its bottom-dweller position," Harrigan said.

Media giants In transition

Viacom isn't the only media company looking for a leader for its next decade: Sony Entertainment needs to replace outgoing CEO Michael Lynton. China's Dalian Wanda, which bought Legendary for $3.5 billion last year and is releasing "Kong: Skull Island" this weekend through Warner Bros., has a hole at the top of that company. In January, Legendary's founder and CEO, Thomas Tull, announced his resignation under pressure from Wanda.

And then there's Disney and Time Warner. Disney CEO Bob Iger's contract is set to expire in June of next year. While he's likely to extend for a few years, there's still pressure for the board to line up a replacement. And Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes is not expected to stick around the company for too long after the AT&T deal is completed and the two companies integrated.

So what'll it take to lead the media conglomerates and their studios into this next decade of the digital age? Hirschhorn says that they "must understand the direct-to-consumer relationship and the reality of upsetting current business model constituencies to set themselves up for the future." Hirschhorn, previously co-president of MySpace and MTV's chief digital officer, says being tech-savvy is more important than ever.

"They must use the technology the audiences are using and understand that there is mass media but also lots of fragmented personalized media," he said. "They must invest and not retreat in disruptive times or they will end up a small division inside of a tech platform."

And as these media giants compete for talent, they're not just going up against each other, but also Netflix and Amazon, which are doubling down on investment in original content. Case in point: Scott Stuber, previously co-president of Universal Pictures, was reportedly approached about the Paramount job, but is now in talks to be head of Netflix's film business.