At Par, bottom line’s a winner

Studio's B.O. quadruples with 2010 pic mix

A wards season is over, the party circuit has shut down and, over at the majors, everyone is staring at the bottom line once again.

In today’s corporate Hollywood, kudos are still coveted, but the real accolades (and bonuses) are triggered by revenues, not statuettes. Visit a studio and you find the Oscars clustered in a hallway cabinet, not on the desk of the production chief.

Oscars didn’t exactly rain down on Paramount this year, but the company’s bottom line cast a golden glow — one that is rare in an industry that is cutting output and facing the prospect of further consolidation. The spotlight was last focused on Paramount six years ago when the studio had dim profits and a slim slate and Brad Grey was being hammered by blogdom on spurious rumors that soon melted away. Last year, though, box office revenues increased fourfold to $416 million based on a mix of mini-budget surprises like “Paranormal Activity 2” and big-bucks distribution deals on films like “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Iron Man 2.”

Then, late in the year when rivals were coping with misfires like “How Do You Know” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” Paramount released a $38 million sleeper, “True Grit,” and a $25 million sleeper, “The Fighter,” and even managed to climb aboard the Justin Bieber bandwagon with “Never Say Never.”

To be sure, most of the Paramount winners reflected complex co-production and co-financing deals (“The Fighter” with Relativity, which bailed out the movie). But Paramount, based on its solid year, will likely fully finance somewhat more of its future product. While other studios are trimming their sails, Paramount seems comfortable with its upcoming franchises like the next “Mission: Impossible” and a third “Transformers,” not to mention “Super 8” from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg and Par’s venture into animation, “Rango.”

In addition to its tentpole forays, the studio continues to nurture its microbudget entries in the hope of replicating a “Paranormal Activity” or even a “Jackass 3D.”

Like every studio, Paramount has had its share of turkeys, but they weren’t tentpole turkeys. “Morning Glory” was a faux pas produced by Abrams, “Dinner for Schmucks” was as funny as the Last Supper or “The Last Airbender” (which was still a hit). On the other hand, “Shrek Forever After” from DreamWorks Animation rolled to $743 million worldwide and “Iron Man 2” from Marvel hit $623 million.

To be sure, Paramount’s Marvel deal has now moved on, as has the bumpy marriage to DreamWorks. The deal with DreamWorks Animation seems to be working for both sides, despite occasional outbreaks of small-arms fire, and has two more years to run. (A good share of the Paramount distribution and marketing infrastructure was Katzenbergian in origin.)

But all in all the Paramount record stands as a success story at a time when the industry needs success. Wall Street’s analysts still fret that the volume of business overall is not sufficient to support either the size of the majors or the magnitude of the output.

Movie ticket sales dropped 7% last year, they note, while DVD volume is down 42% since the 2006 peak. The upshot: forecasts of further mergers or consolidations.

No one is willing to predict where Comcast will take Universal once it recovers its indigestion from swallowing NBC. Bob Iger is still deconstructing Disney, and Fox is trying to figure out why its tentpoles became tent-twigs.

Over the past few weeks, Hollywood demonstrated that it still knew how to party. Now it’s time to address the fiscal hangovers.

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