Thursday, November 14, 2013

Studio Analysis Part Two: Paramount's Present Trek

Paramount SoundStages
If you look at the current market-share standings of the Big Six so far in 2013, you’ll notice that Paramount comes in sixth, dead last. So, one might jump to the conclusion that Paramount is having one heck of a lousy year. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
The last time we were here, discussing Warner Bros., we pointed out that the biggest studio in town consistently releases the most movies. That means it’s posterior tends to be covered when it doesn’t soar as high as expected. With Paramount, one of the smaller of the bunch, there isn’t so much cover. And even when things are going smoothly, the smaller number of releases tend to put it behind the eight ball.
This doesn’t mean the studio skimps on its budgets or its marketing campaigns. It just means there aren’t as many films on which to avoid skimping. After releasing 13 pictures in both 2009 and 2010, the studio had a high water mark of 15 in 2011 before a slight decline last year. In what was one of the weakest years Paramount’s had in a while, only 12 pictures saw the inside of theaters in 2012. This year, only 10 are scheduled (actually, 11 if you include the 3D reissue of Top Gun, which, for our purposes, we do not). Its fifth release this year, World War Z, came in the middle of June and its sixth, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, came out on October 25 and won its opening weekend. That’s almost four months between releases. Not exactly a prolific slate, but not unprofitable either.
It’s also worth pointing out that in its previous years, there were any number of Marvel Entertainment, DreamWorks and DreamWorks Animation films on the docket. But since those distribution agreements have all expired (as discussed yesterday, Marvel and DreamWorks are now both at Disney, DWA is at Fox), Paramount is now putting out roughly the same number of its own movies it always did. Without Marvel, DreamWorks and DWA, Paramount lacks the market share cover from those other operations.
So our opening market-share snapshot was deceiving. Six major releases so far in 2013 and not a flop among them. Four major releases (a fifth has been bumped into January, but more about that later) to go in the final two-plus months of the year. None of them have a prohibitive budget—and all have reasonably good box office and awards-season prospects. It might not be the most profitable year in recent memory, but it could be a prestigious one.
Films Released
You have to hand it to a studio that faced two potential disasters and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat both times. In the last couple of years, there have been plenty of examples of movies that prompted bad press during production or before the movie was released, and fell correspondingly flat at the box office. Think John Carter and The Lone Ranger, both drew flak for their exorbitant price tags months before the films ever saw the light of a multiplex projector. Sometimes, moving a release date invites bad press and, thereby, lousy box office returns. For Exhibit A, see Jack The Giant Slayer. And, now and again, both the price tag and release-date switch-ups cause a perfect storm of outrage as was the case with The Wolfman.
Paramount 2012 v2Paramount, on the other hand, pulled off a miracle not once but twice this year. The early word on Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was so bad, the movie was moved from summer of 2012 to the end of January, 2013, not the most auspicious time for a non-horror film (unless, of course, it stars Liam Neeson or if there are extenuating circumstances completely separate from the film itself—see below). So, the studio relegated its reshot, overhauled and recut $50 million Hansel and Gretel into the dead of winter where it could die a quiet death.
But someone forgot to tell moviegoers. Hansel and Gretel netted more than $19 million (and the top spot) at the box office its opening weekend on its way to a solid $56 million domestic—and a mind-blowing additional $170 million overseas. A movie that scored a truly awful 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes did so well there is actually a sequel in development. It also proved, again, how important foreign box office has become to a studio’s bottom line.
Another project whose troubles had tongues wagging was Brad Pitt’s baby, World War Z, which he produced and starred in. In 2012, news came that the producers were unhappy with the ending and, as they pondered weeks of reshoots, they enlisted Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard to pen a whole new third act. Paramount was asked to spend even more to prevent a monumental horror show. The budget touched upwards of $200 million, the interwebs went bananas speculating about how Pitt and his team were surely screwing up a great book. Rumors swirled over how Pitt and director Marc Forster weren’t even speaking to each other. Disaster is not strong enough a word to describe the meltdown that seemed to be unfolding.
Then the June 21 release happened and … surprise! World War Z got good reviews and people flocked to it to the tune of $66 million in its opening weekend—a number two finish (behind Monsters University)—with $202 million domestic and an additional $337 million overseas. A combined $539 million take worldwide is a success by any definition. And, to bring home that fact, Pitt and company are  negotiating a sequel—which is, you got it, already in development.
One could argue that Paramount simply got extraordinarily lucky not once but twice, salavaging what could’ve been a horrific year. But that doesn’t give the studio nearly enough credit. More accurate is that the studio saw two different projects—one of which was medium-sized and the other fairly enormous—riding out stormy seas that could easily have capsized both of them (the latter especially). But rather than cut and run, the studio trusted producer Pitt and agreed to gamble even more money to save World War Z, even if inflated budget fed the already-negative buzz swarming around the project. If good luck is the product of smart decisions, good preparation and the taking of calculated risks, then sure, Paramount Pictures got exceedingly lucky. But it was luck born of shrewd decision-making.
In between those two victories came another trio of pictures, each a success in its own right. The first was a project that was originally scheduled for the previous summer but found its way to March, the G.I. Joe sequel, Retaliation. Unlike Hansel and Gretel, the reasoning for G.I. Joe’s move to March wasn’t lack of confidence in the product but because its special effects needed more time to complete. Furthermore, it’s been proven that slotting a big-budget action or fantasy picture in the March frame is often a recipe for success (see: Alice in Wonderland, The Hunger Games and Oz: The Great and Powerful). So it made sense for Paramount to follow that precendent with Retaliation, which opened March 28.
The film didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze, but nor did it usher in a cold snap: The $130 million flick ended up with a not-terrible $122 million domestically and another $253 million elsewhere. A worldwide total of $375 million is more than successful enough to get a third movie in the series into active development. So what if it didn’t quite recoup its budget at the domestic box office? It’s the overall that counts.
Paramount 2013In fact, of the five movies released thus far, the smallest of the bunch carries a fair bit of irony. Michael Bay’s passion project, Pain and Gain, starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, was made for just $26 million—a pittance in Bay’s world—and brought in around $50 million domestically and another $36 million globally. When it comes to Michael Bay films, those numbers aren’t on the scale one is accustomed to, but that’s part of the point. Bay had been trying to get the project made for years, and he got the studio to sign off on it if he agreed to—wait for it—make a fourth Transformers movie. And Wahlberg took less money to play Pain and Gain’s hardluck bodybuilder if it meant he’d be cast as the lead in that fourth installment, scheduled to hit theaters next June (more about that on Thursday).
Pain and Gain’s modest numbers aside, any time a movie grosses at least three times its budget, you don’t label it a failure. It was, admittedly, a tougher sell than other Bay films and difficult to pigeonhole: Was it a comedy? A drama? A heist film? All the above? Those factors are what contributed to its lukewarm performance. Additionally, the fact that it came out the last week of April, right before a certain Robert Downey Jr. superhero bonanza, did nothing to help its chances.
That leaves a little movie called Star Trek Into Darkness, which hit theaters May 17 against no other major new releases. It topped the box office its opening weekend with $70 million, finishing out with more than $228 million domestically (less than the first film) and more than $460 million worldwide (more than the first film). The J.J. Abrams-directed opus did more than enough business to guarantee a third installment in the series (and probably more) but was still viewed as something of a disappointment. Perhaps that’s because of the roughly $190 million price tag or because the domestic take didn’t equal that of Abrams’ first Trek film or because it set no records or it didn’t have nearly the hype of many other projects released between the first weekend of May and the end of August. But no matter how you slice it, its numbers ensured that the health of the rebooted franchise remained strong and represented another of several quality series in the studio’s arsenal.
Speaking of series, the latest in the Jackass series, i.e., Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, has done exactly the kind of business Paramount has expected and keeps the company’s streak of winners alive.
What’s Still to Come
Reviewing the studio’s release schedule for the year, it might seem odd that Paramount released no new films between June 21 and October 25. It might also seem odd that there were only five original features released in the first six months of the year and another five released in the final nine-and-a-half weeks. But it’s true.
wolf of wall street 1Admittedly, most of the studio’s money has already been spent. Only the Martin Scorsese-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey-starring The Wolf of Wall Street approaches the $100 million budget range, but Wolf got outside financing from Red Granite Pictures, mitigating the studio’s risk even further. Now that editing troubles pushed its release to Christmas Day (thus bumping Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit—another attempt to reboot a franchise—to January, in the process), Wolf is no longer in competition with another of Paramount’s scheduled flicks, Alexander Payne’s $13 million Descendants follow-up Nebraska. Another awards season hopeful, Nebraska sees a limited release this weekend, prior to platforming toward the end of the year and into January.
The big guns come out again in December. First, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the long-awaited sequel to the 2004 cult smash, hits screens on December 20, before Scorsese’s Wolf, which Paramount hopes will be a lovely holiday present for the studio. The expectations for the first film are fairly high, considering the talent involved and the wave of public anticipation, while the latter film is a wild card, as many in the industry are wondering whether Wolf will be another Scorsese triumph or a mess that needed more time in the editing suite.
There is actually a second Paramount film coming out on Christmas Day: Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. But that’s also a limited release timed for awards season and won’t see a wider release until January.
What does all this mean? For starters, it means that the studio currently in sixth place will probably end the year there despite having promising films yet to be released on its docket. But in Paramount’s case, sixth place is not the failure it might immediately seem. The bigger picture tells a much different tale, one that is far more upbeat.
TOMORROW: A look at the people who make the movies, and how a stable executive culture has led to a mostly successful stretch.

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