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New Paramount Players Chief Brian Robbins Talks Strategy for the Digital Age

AwesomenessTV founder Brian Robbins thinks he has the secret formula for pumping new life into Paramount Pictures by drawing on content from Viacom brands like MTV and Nickelodeon. The veteran director-producer is taking a page from the YouTube-centric digital empire he helped to build. “There are a lot of underserved audiences out there,” Robbins told Variety in his first sit-down interview since being named head of Paramount Players on June 7.

Robbins says he has a plan. He wants to apply the lessons learned over five years as chief executive of Awesomeness to his new job heading the just launched production division, aimed at beefing up film offerings for young audiences. The move marks one of the first big deals orchestrated by new Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, and it gels with the studio chief’s mandate to cross-promote brands and work more closely with the parent company’s cable channels.

Robbins, the 53-year-old father of biracial children — two teenage boys and a 3-year-old daughter — says he plans to focus on producing theatrical films targeted at youth and minority audiences. This marks a homecoming of sorts for the filmmaker. Robbins’ first movies included “Good Burger,” based on a Nickelodeon show, and “Varsity Blues,” which was aimed at an MTV audience. The Paramount venture, Robbins says, marks an opportunity to redefine the filmmaking business as it tries to fend off digital competitors like Netflix and Amazon. Digital streaming and the disruption it has wrought on studios might terrify some executives. Not Robbins.

What are your main responsibilities as head of the new Paramount Players unit?

The idea is a couple of things: It’s take the Viacom brands — Nickelodeon, MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, BET — and make movies for those labels. In addition to that, look for other opportunities to do other interesting projects, whether they are big movies, small movies or genre movies. But the first responsibility out of the gate is the branded films. I have a lot of good memories and good feelings for those brands.

Do you feel pressure to help Paramount regain its footing at the box office?

I see the opportunity to redefine the process, redefine how you go about making movies. I had an education over the last five years building AwesomenessTV in [learning] a whole new way of building audience. We didn’t have a lot of marketing money. We didn’t have a lot of production money. But in five short years we built a business from zero to almost $1 billion. Digital distribution has so disrupted the status quo. It’s disrupted the way content is made and distributed, so I want to take what I’ve learned from that experience and apply it to this new endeavor.

What lessons did you learn that might translate into the new venture?

Awesomeness is very focused on Gen Z, 12- to 21-year-olds and even young millennials. That audience is so different, the way they consume content, what they want to see, how they want to see it. How we engage them is completely different than it was 10 years ago, or even five years ago. These devices [motions to smartphone in hand] really have changed everything. In the film business, you used to be competing with other movies. Today, you’re competing with people’s thumbs, in a scrolling economy, especially with this young audience.

There are two types of movies today. There are movies for everybody — the big tentpoles — and movies for individual segments. It’s important to do both. If you engage those segments in the right way with the content that they’re interested in, you can win. Awesomeness was built on my experience making film and television for teens. Whether it was “Smallville” or “One Tree Hill” or movies like “Varsity Blues,” I’ve always made a lot of content for teens. When I started Awesomeness, those audiences were being underserved by the television networks and studios. Marketing costs are exorbitant, so the bets are so big. Even if the movie doesn’t cost a lot to make, the marketing costs are still high.

Do you think digital stars can successfully cross over to film?

Absolutely. Stars are stars. One thing I know from Awesomeness is some digital stars are way bigger than movie stars to kids. Your own publication did a survey two years ago that asked Gen Z who their favorite stars were, and eight of the top 10 were digital stars. You didn’t get to a traditional movie star until much lower down. Does that mean that any of those kids can open a movie? Maybe, maybe not, but I believe that some of them … could potentially be movie stars of tomorrow.

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