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Paramount Plus Movie Strategy Yet Another Approach To Hollywood’s Thorniest Problem

Much of ViacomCBS’ strategy for its beefed-up relaunch this week of CBS All Access as Paramount Plus counts on reboots and revivals of much-loved franchises, from Star Trek and Frasier on down.

But what’s much less familiar to Hollywood is ViacomCBS’ halfway-forward-thinking strategy for its movies, some of its most valuable content. Like other major studios, ViacomCBS is experimenting with how best to both maximize the reach of its traditional content distribution while building up the value of its streaming future.

It’s a near-existential issue for a smaller pure-play media company such as Viacom, which with a market capitalization around $40 billion is hardly inconsequential, but is dwarfed by Disney, Apple, Amazon, Comcast, and AT&T, parents of its service’s competitors.

As outlined in last week’s investor day for ViacomCBS’ streaming strategy, the company will put its biggest movies, such as the next Mission: Impossible installment starring Tom Cruise, on Paramount Plus 45 days after the movie hits theaters. That’s half the traditional 90-day traditional window that big theater chains used to demand pre-pandemic, when they still had leverage.

ViacomCBS’ approach splits the baby, an approach that may satisfy no one but at least gives the company some chance to rush the highest-profile offerings it has to online customers.

In the case of that seventh M:I exercise, it debuts right before Thanksgiving, and on Paramount Plus early next year, by which time we can only hope everything’s back to whatever passes as Future Normal. Perhaps a Solomonic approach will work out.

Lesser ViacomCBS movie projects may arrive on streaming even earlier, though it’s clear the company is doing what it can to protect most of the traditional distribution window for movies, while trying to boost the appeal of Paramount Plus against a string of competitors with high-profile projects on their digital slates.

All of that represents a change from recent Paramount Pictures practice, which has been to largely sell off pandemic-delayed projects to big streamers such as Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV+ rather than sitting for months on expensive projects with no physical distribution option.

ViacomCBS’ approach to its most valuable content represents yet another variant on studios’ efforts to solve their most difficult issue: how to make money from traditional rainmakers while also building consumer interest in their streaming services. That approach contrasts significantly with other major Hollywood studios’ strategies, all of which seem to differ from each other:

  • WarnerMedia is debuting all 17 of its 2021 films simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters. After 30 days, the films cycle off HBO Max and into traditional distribution windows. Already, 2020’s Christmas Day release of Wonder Woman 1984, plus thriller The Little Things and Oscar contender Judas and the Black Messiah (star Daniel Kaluuya picked up a well-deserved Golden Globe on Sunday night), have gotten the day-and-date treatment.
  • Disney will debut 80 percent of its next 100 or so series and films on streaming first, with the rest getting a theatrical release with a premium VOD window as well, at prices up to $30 for those who want at-home early access. You’ll have to already be a Disney+ subscriber for the privilege of paying extra.
  • After a controversy-stirring spring premium VOD run of Trolls: World Tour, Comcast’s NBCUniversal cut a revenue-sharing deal with two of the three biggest theater chains in the United States. In exchange, the company has the right to pull films from theaters as soon as 17 days after their theatrical debut, and put them on its flavor of PVOD and then streaming.

Smaller studios such as Sony, bereft of their own streaming services, are trying to make their traditional theatrical releases a feature, not a bug, in pitching themselves as a home for the grumpy Christopher Nolans of the world who pine for a theater-first world of yore.

Paramount Plus will feature some 36 new (well, sort of new, given the many reboots and brand extensions) series and movies. On that, a $15 billion content budget, and some loved brands much will rely.

It’s far too soon to tell if Paramount Plus’ rather conservative approach to the new world of streaming will help it catch up to the many major services already in the market, already figuring out how to connect and keep large audiences.

But ViacomCBS better hope its approach makes a difference. Recent studies suggest that movies and beloved franchises are attracting subscribers to Disney+ and HBO Max, and their more immediate and splashy approaches. ViacomCBS and Paramount Plus don’t have the wiggle room to be wrong for long.