With Brian Robbins, ViacomCBS Bets a Kids’ TV Veteran Can Bring Paramount Into a Streaming Future

·8-min read

At first glance, Brian Robbins doesn’t seem like the typical Hollywood movie mogul. But he might just have the qualities and experience the modern role of film impresario demands.

ViacomCBS’ decision to elevate Robbins, an entrepreneur who is as well-versed in the language of social media as he is in backlot politics, to the head of its Paramount unit is a new sign of the generational shift taking place across the entertainment landscape. It comes as traditional media companies turn to a new lineup of executives to help them make sense of the streaming revolution that has upended their businesses. Simply put, many of the most venerable Hollywood players are desperate to get younger and more digitally savvy as they struggle to compete in a new world order. Robbins is set to replace Jim Gianopulos, who has held top roles at 20th Century Fox as well as Paramount.

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“It’s a reflection of streaming’s rising importance,” says Hal Vogel, a media analyst. “They need to attract a broader audience of family and teenage viewers, and they clearly feel that Robbins has a better grasp on that market.”

Robbins, who returned to the ViacomCBS fold in the fall of 2018, has logged time both in a traditional media company and a start-up. He founded Awesomeness TV, which gave him entrée into the digital world at a time when companies like Disney, Comcast and Time Warner were still working to manage traditional assets like TV networks as their main connection to consumers.

Gianopulos, who joined the studio in 2017 after decades at Fox, had some notable successes at Paramount. He helped establish new franchises such as “A Quiet Place” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.” He returned the studio to profitability after years of financial mismanagement, and he hired a strong core of executives, such as motion picture group chief Emma Watts, and distribution guru Chris Aronson, many of whom he’d known from his days at Fox. Gianopulos also helped to secure lucrative deals for films such as “Coming 2 America” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” when he sold them to streamers like Netflix and Amazon during the darkest days of the pandemic. That he was forced to do that instead of turning to Paramount’s own streaming service is a sign of how much catching up the studio has to do. Paramount Plus, ViacomCBS’s newly rebranded Netflix challenger, didn’t launch until March 2021, months after WarnerMedia, Comcast, and Disney had all unveiled their own streaming platforms.

But Gianopulos was also part of a very different Hollywood, coming of age when movies were king and Netflix had yet to to start shipping DVDs, let alone making its own streaming content. His primary expertise is in global theatrical distribution, something that is less important in the move to all things digital. Even though he played a key role in nurturing decades of hit films and forged relationships with stars and directors that continue to be invaluable, it’s impossible not to see Gianopulos’ departure as part of a broader Hollywood transition. Alan Horn is set to retire at Disney this year, Ron Meyer is out at Universal in the wake of a sex scandal, Stacey Snider left Fox when Disney bought the company and entered the startup world as co-head of Sister, and Jeffrey Katzenberg is looking for his next act after Quibi failed spectacularly. These talented executives aren’t all contemporaries in terms of age, but they all took the reins of power at a time when the movie business was king, only to see it supplanted by “content” — shows, movies, and user-generated stuff that can be binged, streamed, and meme’d. Some, like Snider, seem ready to reinvent themselves for the new age. For others, like the much older Horn, a well-deserved retirement beckons.

Robbins’ resume could position him opportunely for this era. His work in content aimed at kids and younger viewers has exposed him early to new video consumption habits. Even media executives steering assets watched primarily by older viewers are now grappling with the rise of streaming video and on-demand viewing. “There are definitely headwinds, and for all of linear television. In many ways, the kids’ business has been more affected by it,’” Robbins told Variety in 2019. Still, he noted, “if you make content and shows that kids want to watch, they will show up for it.”

At Nickelodeon, he has pressed executives to break down old rules and processes. Under his aegis, Nickelodeon has started to expand its content related to SpongeBob SquarePants, the animated kid favorite, and launched a new series focused on a different character, Patrick Star. “That’s our Marvel Universe,” Robbins told Variety in the past interview. “You have this amazing show that’s run for almost 20 years.” He has also helped put together a new relationship between the NFL and his kids’ outlet. Earlier this year, Nickelodeon broadcast an NFL Wild Card game, and made it fun for younger viewers with clever animated graphics and commentary delivered by some of its better known series stars. The event ended up being the most watched program on Nickelodeon in the past four years, and on Friday, the network announced it would run a new weekly half-hour program aimed at making the NFL a bigger part of its young charges’ entertainment menu.

He has also tinkered with longstanding ways of doing work. “The cable model was a rinse-and-repeat model. Today we live in a binge-viewing world. Give me a fresh show. Give me another fresh show. I want to watch it, eat it up and go on to the next show,” Robbins said in 2019. “What used to be OK was having one or two hits, then making a zillion episodes of them, and then repeating them. That was enough to satisfy the kid audience because they didn’t have choice. I think today we need to make a volume of quality franchises, but not necessarily feed a million episodes of those shows. We need to keep a constant number of new shows coming, and not necessarily make one show with 80 episodes.”

The knock on Robbins is that he’s more of a salesman than a business visionary. Awesomeness TV attracted several major investors over the years, initially selling to DreamWorks Animation and later selling equity stakes to the likes of Verizon and Hearst. However, when Viacom bought the company in 2018 for $50 million, that was a fraction of the $650 million valuation that it had achieved in 2016. But through it all, Robbins has impressed seasoned executives with his grasp of the youth market and his willingness to get scrappy.

“He’s been effective at focusing on the next new thing and in making that part of his pitch for adding value to a company as exemplified by what he did with Awesomeness,” says Peter Newman, the head of the MBA/MFA program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “The only issue is when you’re dealing with the next shiny new thing, the verdict is always out about how well it will work out.”

Even if Robbins has a mandate to shake things up at Paramount, he may find himself in conflict with a business that’s stubbornly resistant to change. Jason Kilar, who took over at WarnerMedia with an eye toward bolstering HBO Max, found himself dealing with a revolt when he opted to premiere the studio’s entire slate on the streaming service at the same time the movies debuted in cinemas. It was billed as a concession to the pandemic, but Kilar nevertheless found himself having to minister to bruised egos. Warner Bros. ultimately paid hundreds of millions in back-end payments to appease talent. And Disney film chief Alan Bergman and the company’s CEO Bob Chapek are locked in a bitter breach-of-contract standoff with Scarlett Johansson after it opted to release “Black Widow” on Disney Plus at the same time it opened in cinemas. A-list stars and their agents may talk about the need to adapt to changing times, but they’d like to be paid accordingly.

Robbins may be better able to speak talent’s language, since at one point he was in their shows. The media executive got his start as a child star on the ABC sitcom “Head of the Class” before moving into producing, directing, and, ultimately, entrepreneurship.

At Paramount, however, he will have to do more than kids’ stuff. The movie business has moved toward a reliance on tentpole releases based on superheroes or sci-fi stalwarts. But there are still Oscar-bait dramas, small indie films and other genres that help build a business.

And then there are questions about ViacomCBS’s own future in the firmament of media companies. Shari Redstone has said that the company her family built has the resources it needs to compete with the entertainment leviathans that cast a shadow over the entertainment world. However, many observers believe that she’ll have no choice to sell the company to an Apple, Amazon or another tech giant upending the way that movies are made and distributed.

“I don’t think she’ll have much choice but to sell in two or three years,” says Vogel. “There’s tremendous competition out there and with Netflix and Disney and Apple and Amazon out there, it’s hard to find a niche.”

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