Where ViacomCBS’s Top Gun Should Aim His M&A Crosshairs

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Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish’s biggest priority for 2020 is creating a supercharged version of CBS All Access. The upgraded offering will include content from key Viacom properties such as MTV, Comedy Central and BET (with Nickelodeon content already available on CBS All Access since November), as well as access to the film libraries of Paramount Pictures and Miramax.

To fund the expansion of CBS All Access, Bakish is looking to build up a war chest by selling both Black Rock, the New York City headquarters of CBS, and exploring the sale of CBS’s publishing arm, Simon & Schuster. Those funds could also conceivably go toward financing an acquisition like the one his company was reportedly interested in last year when talks were held to acquire Starz from Lionsgate

ViacomCBS will have a lot of M&A possibilities to act on in the years ahead, but if Bakish wants to get serious about bolstering his entry into the streaming wars, he should be targeting properties that can strengthen his movie library. 

The importance of a strong library is apparent when looking at exclusive data provided by insights company Trailer Park Group. Streaming subscribers were asked what the most important impetus to continue subscribing, with movies the most popular option for all services other than Disney+. Disney+’s leading element was franchises, which includes the cinematic Marvel universe and the Star Wars series of films.

Yes, ViacomCBS already helped this effort along by snapping up a 49% stake in Miramax (the other 51% is owned by BeIN Media Group). The deal closed in early April and gives ViacomCBS exclusive distribution rights to their library, as well as allowing Paramount Pictures first look at creating new content based upon Miramax IP. But more is needed. As can be seen from VIP’s analysis of the libraries for both studios, there are very few recent box office hits available to the service, save for the “Star Trek” and “Mission:Impossible” franchises, and, with a little luck, the “Top Gun” sequel, now delayed until December 2020 owing to the coronavirus outbreak.

What the Paramount and Miramax libraries offer are a number of Academy Best Picture-winning titles, the first five movies from acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, and a number of name-brand franchises such as “Indiana Jones,” “Bridget Jones” (no relation), “Transformers,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “The Godfather.” It’s worth noting that Paramount holds the distribution rights to “Indiana Jones,” with the LucasFilm franchise the only Disney-owned intellectual property not available at all on Disney+.

With that said, an analysis of the combined Paramount and Miramax libraries doesn’t yield many recent big hits. Only one title in the top 10 worldwide box office titles for Paramount, “Mission: Impossible-Fallout,” was released in the last five years.

There are two possible avenues forward, assuming Paramount will not create hit movies exclusively for the new service à la Netflix or Disney+. One is to focus on complementing the existing library with similar content. A deal to gain access to Miramax’s successor studio, The Weinstein Co., would complement ViacomCBS’s current film holdings. In addition to securing key titles within the Tarantino archives, this deal would gain several Best Picture-nominated or winning titles to add prestige to the available library.

The Weinstein Co. also includes the film library of Dimension Films post 2005. Prior to that, it was part of Miramax, with the library of movies released before October 2005 already included in the stake that ViacomCBS acquired. Key Dimension titles ViacomCBS already has rights to are the earlier parts to the “Spy Kids” and “Scary Movies” franchises, as well as the earlier movies from horror series such as “Hellraiser,” “Children of the Corn” and “Halloween.” 

Licensing The Weinstein Co. library would allow for the entirety of these franchises to be included in the new offering, as well as adding Tarantino’s sixth movie, “Death Proof,” to the collection. 

The second available avenue to ViacomCBS is to acquire libraries with established franchises and hits. Such an acquisition of MGM Studios, reported to be for sale earlier this year, would do just that. While MGM itself has had little success with standalone films, it has seen several recent hits emerge from franchises “Rocky/Creed” and James Bond. It also offers new sequels from both Bond and “Legally Blonde” in 2020. It should also be noted that ViacomCBS has an ongoing relationship with MGM, licensing classic Bond movies for its free Pluto TV linear streaming service. 

Another aspect of a potential MGM Studios acquisition is that MGM has been scaling up its premium cable channel Epix in recent years, bolstering its scripted shows with titles “Godfather of Harlem” and “Pennyworth.” If ViacomCBS is pursuing the strategy of bolstering its premium library, gaining access to Epix as part of a larger acquisition won’t hurt.

Lionsgate presents an interesting opportunity for any burgeoning movie library. The studio has franchises including mega-hits The “Hunger Games” and “Twilight,” as well as appealing to  sizable audiences who have enjoyed the “Tyler Perry’s Madea,” “Saw” and “John Wick” movies. It also has the distribution rights to a number of recent Best Picture-winning or nominated titles such as “Sicario,” “The Big Sick” and “Wonder,” which would add relevancy to the available ViacomCBS offering.

The acquisition of Lionsgate could also see ViacomCBS finally acquiring Starz, which would further complement ViacomCBS’s long-term plans to compete in the new SVOD-dominated world. With Coronavirus panic currently impacting the stock market, Lionsgate shares are currently down 50% from the start of 2020. This may mean an acquisition could be had for less than the peak of the market last year.

If ViacomCBS wants to seriously compete in the SVOD arena with a substantial movie library, acquisitions need to continue. Pursuing a strategy to unite a number of popular franchises can be successful, as demonstrated by Disney+, as can having a number of high quality titles. Without either, its current film library is barely a value-add to subscribers.