Bob Bakish on Content Deals, SAG-AFTRA Strike and Paramount’s Health

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CANNES – Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish delivered a testimonial to the power of “new age” local and regional content licensing partnerships during a wide-ranging Q&A held Tuesday after the Viacom veteran was feted as Mipcom’s Personality of the Year.

During a wide-ranging Q&A that followed the award presentation, Bakish batted down industry speculation about Paramount’s financial health (“To say we were saved by the strikes is totally an overstatement”) and his hope that the SAG-AFTRA strike will soon be in Hollywood’s rear-view mirror (“We’ll get there”).

Paramount Global unveiled a multi-year pact with Greek pay TV service Cosmote TV just before Bakish sat for a Q&A with Variety co-editor in chief Cynthia Littleton. As Bakish detailed, that deal is symbolic of a boomerang in the marketplace. The largest Hollywood studios in recent years sought to hold back the sale of movies and TV shows in key territories outside the U.S. in an effort to stock fledgling streaming platforms with high-wattage exclusive content.

Paramount Global kept its sales pipeline open much more than its larger rivals. This year, as he was feted at the annual conference and market for global content buyers, Bakish was quick to use the freshly signed Cosmote TV pact (which is a small amount of business in the scheme of things for Paramount) as a sign of the company’s commitment to a bespoke approach to international content sales and distribution.

“We think this is an important development in the arc of the content licensing business,” Bakish said. “This is the first of many markets that we want to unlock this way. The first of many more to come.”

Much of the conversation revolved around how Paramount is adjusting to the economic transition from linear cable to operating its own subscription streamng and free ad-supported platforms, with Paramount+ with Showtime and Pluto TV, respectively. Bakish argued that Wall Street’s (and Variety’s) focus on whether Paramount does better overall with earnings that come in the door from linear or digital platforms was the wrong way to evaluate the future of the company’s profit engines. Whether Paramount cuts a traditional output deal in a market such as Greece or initiates a deeper streaming distribution partnership as it did for Paramount+ with a local streamer in South Korea, the end goal is the same.

“Both are positioning Paramount as essentially a global collection of content to ride on top of a local streaming platform,” he said.

Paramount Global is a core member company of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining agent for Hollywood’s major studios and streamers. Bakish didn’t offer much about the state of the SAG-AFTRA strike, which hit another speedbump last week when the AMPTP surprised the union by suspending talks after five bargaining sessions. The actors work stoppage passed the three-month mark on Oct. 14. Nonetheless, Bakish offered some optimism about reaching a resolution.

“Yes, things broke down a bit last week, but they want to get back to the table. And we’ll get there because ultimately we all want to get back to work,” he said. “We were talking to licensing partners all day on CBS shows like ‘Elsbeth’ and ‘Matlock’ whose delivery is affected by the strike. We very much want to deliver those shows to the world’s consumers and to our partners. We want people to get back to work. And I’m optimistic we’ll get there as an industry in the near term.”

Paramount is in the midst of what Bakish called “peak investment” year for the Paramount+ streamer. The company’s performance today remains in line with earlier projections that the parent company will return to earnings growth in 2024, after 2023 is dragged down by hundreds of millions of dollars in streaming losses. That has led to speculation in the industry that the 148-day WGA strike and ongoing SAG-AFTRA strikes had a big silver lining for Paramount Global because it paused the studio’s obligation to shell out payments to writers, directors, actors and some producers. The short-term strike savings are a welcome factor for every studio, Bakish observed, but he bristled at the suggestion that the company would be in dire straits from a cash flow perspective if not for the work stoppage.

“I’ve said publicly that the strike is accretive to our cash in 2023. That is true and it’s true for the industry writ large. But to say we were saved by the strike is totally an overstatement,” Bakish said. “We’re playing the hand we were dealt. We didn’t want to be in a strike.”

He acknowledged that the AMPTP made the last move to suspend talks on Oct. 11, catching the union by surprise after five bargaining sessions were held earlier this month.

“We would very much like this strike to be over so everyone get back to work,” Bakish said. “The notion that it saved the company is wildly overstated.”

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