It’s been an eventful first year at Paramount Pictures for COO Andrew Gumpert, who reflected on his efforts to help steer the struggling studio back on course in a keynote Q&A on Saturday at the UCLA Law School’s annual Entertainment Symposium.
After 12 years at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Gumpert joined Paramount in January as a No. 2 to Jim Gianopulos, Paramount’s chairman and CEO, who was originally scheduled to deliver the keynote alongside interviewer Ziffren Brittenham co-founder/partner Ken Ziffren. He had to bow out of the speaking engagement at the last minute due to a “bad cold,” according to Gumpert, who stepped in for his boss.
Gumpert shed light on the unorthodox decision Paramount made to hand over to Netflix the global distribution rights “The Cloverfield Paradox,” a sequel to the J.J. Abrams-produced franchise. The streaming service released the movie without any marketing last month except for an unanticipated commercial during the Super Bowl.
“The movie was finished, we all reviewed it together with J.J. and his team,” said Gumpert. “We all decided there were things about it that made us have a pause about its commercial playability in the traditional matter.”
“Paradox” was unloaded to Netflix for a reported $40-50 million, a move that has drawn criticism. But Gumpert was resolute that Paramount made the right choice to avoid theatrical distribution.
“There was an ability for us to be fiscally prudent and monetize,” he said. “For fans of ‘Cloverfield,’ the fact is many, many more millions of people saw the movie. It’s a positive on every level.”
Gumpert also touched on the dissolution last November of a $1 billion slate financing agreement between Paramount Pictures and Huahua Media. He characterized the deal as all but done besides the signatures before it collapsed.
“But then, as we all know, the Chinese government–we think from what we can understand–started taking a more conservative position on equity outflows, especially in the entertainment sector,” said Gumpert. “The short story is Paramount in that exact moment got caught in that change. Despite best intentions, there was no slate deal.”
On the subject of premium VOD, Gumpert offered a bleak assessment matching the pervading sentiment in the film industry that the studios and exhibitors are nowhere near a plan to get theatricals into homes earlier.
“There’s clearly no consensus, unless that changed in the last half hour,” said Gumpert. “The exhibitors are nervous and scared of that because one could argue it’s disruptive to them.”
Gumpert didn’t address the circumstances regarding his departure at Sony, where he exited amid something of a rebellion among many staffers chafing at the direction of the company under a new studio chief, Tom Rothman. But he divulged that he left without a plan in mind as to what he’d do next, only to get a phone call shortly after his departure from then-Paramount CEO Brad Grey, who lured him alongside Gianopulos to join them.
“They were both saying, you need to look at this as as startup,” he told Ziffren. “It’s 100 years old, but it’s a startup. I thought it was an exciting opportunity to try to build a new foundation and kind of operate as entrepreneurs.”
Gumpert acknowledged the many challenges he faced coming in at Paramount, which he conceded had become a “last stop” for talent pitching movies. But he believes the studio has made significant progress orchestrating a turnaround by refocusing Paramount and spreading the message throughout the industry that his company has found its footing again. Key to the turnaround effort, Gumpert said, was putting in new leaders at virtually every division at Paramount.
The validation for renewed efforts to fix Paramount came from seeing the likes of Abrams’ Bad Robot Prods., Skydance Media and Hasbro extending their deals to remain at the studio. He described the trio as “very productive companies who just didn’t want to be part of Paramount any longer. We sat with these folks and every one of them stayed.”
Gumpert also hailed the success of a mandate within Viacom driven by CEO Bob Bakish to eliminate silos within the conglomerate as key to getting Paramount to work closer together with the cable networks on new titles. “There is a symbiotic relationship that is really working that I wish had been working before I got here but better late than never,” he said.
Asked by Ziffren if there was any deal he regrets Paramount letting slip through its fingers, Gumpert cited the example of Jordan Peele, who rose to fame on Viacom-owned Comedy Central but ended up making his breakout directorial debut, “Get Out,” at Universal Pictures.
Gumpert believes had Viacom been operating in a less silo-ed fashion, Peele could have been lured over to Paramount to make his movie.
“Anything outside TV, we have this whole company on Melrose–talk to Jim Gianopoulos and go make a movie,” he said. “It never happened. It’s an example of what could have happened.”
Like his previous employer, Sony, Gumpert believes Paramount is well positioned as a “pure player” that operates above the level of independents thanks to a well-stocked library of titles and a well-honed worldwide distribution system. But he also acknowledged that his parent company could soon make a decision that would take the studio to a different playing field.
“There’s clearly, obviously a conversation with CBS and Viacom right now,” he said. “Folks are thinking about bigger is better. I guess we shall see. In the meantime, our jobs every day are to improve the value of Paramount Pictures and I believe we’re on that path.”