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Why Warner Bros. Discovery's Interest in Paramount Feels Like a Defensive Maneuver From David Zaslav

Plus, the real buzz on Dwayne Johnson's 'Red One' and my thoughts on the trailer for Nicole Kidman's new Amazon series 'Expats.'

It was a wild Wednesday, folks! If it wasn’t already clear, this business is going to look a hell of a lot different over the next few years, as consolidation is coming for everyone.

Last night, I stopped by Teddy’s Cafe in West L.A. for a grilled cheese with bacon and then rewatched The Family Stone because I was in the mood for a Christmas movie. I must have completely forgotten what that movie was about because, by the end of it, I was shocked that a studio actually greenlit a rom-com in which the central couple breaks up and each one ends up falling for their ex’s sibling. Weird movie!

Anyway, in tonight’s edition, you’ll read about David Zaslav, Shari Redstone, Donna Langley, Ben Stiller, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Evans, Kenya Barris, and Nicole Kidman, for whom we come to this place. Read on for more…

Why Warner Bros. Discovery's Interest in Paramount Feels Like a Defensive Manuever From David Zaslav

I’m getting pretty tired of all the name changes, so whatever happens, keep it simple!

It dropped on Hollywood like a bomb on an otherwise sleepy Wednesday — one last Christmas present that no one asked for from Grandma (in this case, Shari Redstone).

But this time, it wasn’t an itchy sweater featuring a giraffe, it was a report from Axios — later confirmed by every outlet from Puck to the New York Times — that Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav held merger talks this week with Redstone and Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish, even flying to Paramount’s New York headquarters to meet with the latter exec after discussing the framework of a deal with Shari.

From the outside looking in, Redstone seems to be the one driving these leaks, as she wants it known that the studio is on the block and that now is the time to step up and make an offer. I believe Paramount was behind the leak that David Ellison’s Skydance and Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird Capital were kicking the tires at National Amusements, which has a controlling stake in Paramount Global. That report sent Paramount’s stock up 14 percent and brought out more buyers — i.e. Zaslav — as well as reports that Byron Allen upped his bid for BET from $2.7 billion to $3.5 billion. And do I think that the leak of these WBD talks is meant to draw an even bigger buyer out of the shadows — like, say, Apple? Yes, yes I do.

I still think it would behoove Shari to hold out as long as possible — her patience has already resulted in Allen upping his BET bid by $800 million — but I understand the pressure that the market is putting on her to sell before it’s “too late,” whatever that means. So that’s what Paramount is up to here.

Shari has hit the red button. But what is Zaslav’s angle?

Well, I see this move as a defensive one. Word around town has Warner Bros. Discovery as one of Comcast’s acquisition targets if Zaslav doesn’t make a move on Paramount. If Universal and Warner Bros. ever did find themselves sharing a corporate roof, I’m willing to bet that Donna Langley would be put in charge of the new entity, not Zaslav — though he would likely get to stay in power if WBD merges with Paramount.

Of course, it’s possible that Zaslav and Langley could figure out a way to work together, but I suspect that only one would stay on, and the only way that wouldn’t be Langley would be if she exited Universal for another gig entirely, For example, I could easily see her as Bob Iger’s successor as the CEO of Disney since that company could use an outsider with a fresh perspective to guide it into its next era.

But let’s leave Universal out of it for now. Besides saving his own job running WBD, what else might Zaslav see in Paramount?

For starters, he’s probably salivating over Nickelodeon. Here’s a quote from Zaslav regarding the performance of kids’ programming at Max:

“We haven’t really been able to crack the kids [space]. We have a huge amount of kids content. We’re going to attack that. We think that really differentiates us and we’re going to have to really promote it. We haven’t been.”

Indeed, what’s the point in making more Looney Tunes content without an audience in place for it? If all the kids are watching Cocomelon on Netflix, or PAW Patrol on Nickelodeon, then Max is an afterthought for kids. But if Nickelodeon is part of Max, or whatever they end up calling a combined streaming service, then WBD has a young audience tuning in and hungry for more content, such as Looney Tunes.

And what other corporate synergies might we examine under a WBD-Paramount merger?

Well, one of the funniest responses I saw in the immediate wake of Axios’ report came from Variety’s Brian Steinberg, who quickly noted that Gayle King would no longer have to choose between CBS Mornings and King Charles, which is the sign of a beat reporter who could use a vacation.

But Steinberg’s line of thinking triggers a raft of other questions. For example, could The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher find a way to coexist, or would one be fated for the chopping block? And where would J.J. Abrams go? Warner Bros. Discovery gave him $500 million for… what, exactly? I would’ve assumed that Abrams would return to his old home at Paramount once his WBD deal expires, but if the two studios are effectively the same then Abrams could be forced to take Bad Robot elsewhere — like Apple, for example, where he’d be a great fit.

A merger would, obviously, be terrible for this town — the last thing the industry needs after a double strike that lasted six months. It would mean one less buyer, which would be bad for creatives, and give each studio even more power — the last thing they need.

But you have to give it up for Zaslav — this is a bold play, which is why he was hired in the first place. Sure, WBD still has $40 billion in debt hanging over its head, and yeah, Zaslav would have to wait until April for any deal to go through— two years after the WB-Discovery merger — but this would be his legacy play, akin to Iger buying Marvel and 20th Century Fox.

Naturally, if this merger does end up happening, it won’t happen for a while, as these kinds of talks often take months… maybe even a year.

But as soon as that Puck dropped that report about Skydance sniffing Paramount’s butt, it was “Game On!” for Shari, who controls what everyone wants — top-tier I.P. such as Star Trek, Transformers, Top Gun, Mission: Impossible, and The Godfather, plus PAW Patrol, Dora the Explorer, Yellowstone, NCIS, and 60 Minutes.

Shari also has a growing streaming service, as Paramount+ is up to something like 63 million subscribers. However, not only will it be difficult to sustain that growth due to high levels of churn, it’ll be all but impossible for Paramount+ to ever become large enough to take on Netflix, Amazon, and Apple — not with the $4 billion it currently spends on content per year (Netflix spends $17 billion, by comparison). A merger with WBD and its Max streamer would help it compete, but I’m not sure a merger with Universal/Peacock does much to change Paramount’s fortunes.

Thus, Redstone is left forced to decide whether to sell the company for parts (its TV group, led by CBS, is its most valuable thanks to NFL rights), or merge with one of the big boys. As noted elsewhere, Comcast would be challenging, as government regulators wouldn’t allow NBC and CBS to share an owner, so if Comcast persisted, the company would have to sell off NBC. Of course, government regulators could also shoot down a Comcast-WBD deal, seeing as how they were the two highest-grossing studios this past year (a rare down year for Disney due to the performance of Indiana Jones 5 and certain Marvel titles).

Of course, Zaslav could’ve been the one to leak these Paramount talks to spur Comcast into action, hoping that, rather than compete with a larger WBD (post-Paramount merger), Comcast would rather take over Warners as is, and then put the NBA on whichever streaming service (Peacock or Max) prevailed in the ensuing scrum.

So Warner Bros. finds itself in an enviable position — David Zaslav could dance with Shari Redstone at Paramount and take the lead, or dance with Universal, in which case Donna Langley would likely take the lead. Either way, he’s looking like the belle of the ball right now. He may not be holding all the cards, but he’s holding enough, and everyone else is waiting with bated breath to see how he plays his cards.

Universal is sitting pretty no matter what in this scenario, but what’s clear is that both Warner Bros. and Paramount are fighting for their survival… and two legacy studios are better than one when it comes to fending off the streaming barbarians outside of the Hollywood gates.

Bits and Bobs (A Daily News Roundup)

2024 will mark seven years since Ben Stiller’s last movie, but at least the wait is over!

  • Uncle Ben - I love Ben Stiller and have ever since I saw his maniacal turn as Tony Perkis in 1995’s Heavyweights. But it feels like I haven’t seen Ben Stiller in ages. I know it’s because he’s segued behind the camera for Severance and Escape at Dannemora, but I miss the guy… which is why it’s a relief to hear that he’s returning to the big screen to star in a new film from David Gordon Green titled Nutcrackers. Leland Douglas wrote the script, which finds Stiller playing a work-obsessed uncle who finds himself forced to take care of his four rambunctious nephews in rural Ohio when their parents are killed in a tragic car accident. Now this sounds like the kind of project that David Gordon Green should be directing, not remakes of horror classics for Blumhouse. Stiller is producing via his Red Hour banner along with John Lesher. He hasn’t starred in a movie since Brad’s Status and The Meyerowitz Stories in 2017. Unacceptable, I say!

  • JFK Was Swedish? - Scooper Daniel Richtman claims that James Gray has cast Bill Skarsgård as future president John F. Kennedy in his next film Mayday, which explores JFK’s time in the Navy during WWII, as well as the turbulent relationship he had with his father. Samuel Franco and Evan Kilgore wrote the script, and Gray has now written his own draft. I was a big fan of his recent effort, Armageddon Time, and Mayday sounds like a different take on JFK than we usually see, so I look forward to seeing how this one comes together. Skarsgård is actually an interesting choice for JFK, as I can see a slight resemblance, even if their eyes are way off. Meanwhile, Skarsgård is still waiting for someone to buy Boy Kills World, which premiered at TIFF as part of the festival’s Midnight Madness lineup.

  • Red One Is on Red Notice - I wasn’t going to run this item, but I couldn’t resist after Deadline claimed that Dwayne Johnson’s Amazon movie Red One has tested twice and that scores were “through the roof.” That may be so, but someone who attended one of those recent test screenings wrote me this week and called Red One “an unmitigated disaster,” comparing it to M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water and describing it as “what ChatGPT’s idea of what a commercial, four-quadrant film should be.” “They’re trying to create a new Lord of the Rings-type mythology, just like Lady in the Water attempted a new mythology, but it just doesn’t work,” said the source, who noted a “lack of chemistry between the two leads.” That’s an allusion to Chris Evans, who co-stars. The source added that the film was all but done and that it was clear that Amazon anticipated having it ready in time for this Christmas, as it was always intended to be a big holiday release, but it turned out to be “a big lump of coal” instead. “I’m totally shocked at how bad this film is, and the damage is too deep to do reshoots.” We’ll see about that, as Amazon has plenty of time to tweak this one and get it right, given that it won’t hit theaters until Nov. 15, 2024. That means that Red One will be available on Prime Video in time for Christmas next year. Let’s hope it doesn’t leave audiences saying “Bah humbug.”

  • Godzilla Returns… Again - Godzilla Minus One director Takashi Yamazaki has unveiled plans to release a black-and-white monochrome version titled Godzilla-1.0/C that will hit Japanese theaters on Jan. 12 and could hit U.S. theaters early next year as well. I liked all of the Godzilla sequences in Minus One, but the family story at its center didn’t do much for me, and I don’t plan to pay for this new version, even though I’m sure it’ll look great — certainly better than the film’s modest $15 million budget would imply.

  • WME-ish - Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish and Grown-ish, has exited CAA and signed with WME, which will also represent his Khalabo Ink Society banner. Barris is a busy boy, having recently written and produced the White Men Can’t Jump remake in addition to writing, directing, and producing the Netflix movie You People starring Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill. Barris also produced Snoop Dogg’s upcoming sports comedy The Underdoggs for Amazon MGM and The Vince Staples Show for Netflix, plus he also has a deal with Audible, so he’s sitting pretty right now. Barris remains repped by Artists First, too.

  • Starz Comes to Its Senses - The cable network has canceled its horror-comedy Shining Vale after two seasons, the last of which premiered in October. Courteney Cox starred as a woman who begins seeing and communicating with ghosts, and she was joined by Oscar winners such as Greg Kinnear and Mira Sorvino. That’s a lot of talent, but unfortunately, they didn’t bring in enough viewers, and now, not only is the show axed, but Starz is also removing it from its streaming library at the end of the month. I doubt that Shining Vale would’ve stood in the way of Cox returning for Scream 7, but perhaps its cancellation opens the door for her return to Woodsboro, or wherever the next installment of the hit horror franchise takes place.

Trailer Time: Nicole Kidman’s New Series Expats Marks the Return of The Farewell’s Lulu Wang

Yesterday, Amazon released the trailer for Lulu Wang’s new series Expats starring Nicole Kidman. It’s the kind of series I could easily see falling through the cracks for me next year, but I’m going to do my very best to make time for it, as I loved what Wang did with The Farewell.

Expats is based on Janice Y. K. Lee’s 2016 novel The Expatriates, and it’s described as a six-episode limited series that follows an international community in Hong Kong, where people find themselves drawn together by fate following a sudden family tragedy. It looks heavy, but it also looks quality, which goes a long way in my book.

The show co-stars Sarayu Blue, Ji-young Yoo, and Jack Huston, and it will debut on Prime Video on Jan. 26. Kidman has been on a roll on TV of late, and while Expats doesn’t have the same juicy hook as Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers, or even The Undoing, I hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle early next year when HBO and Apple TV+ begin rolling out big guns like True Detective: Night Country and Masters of the Air, respectively.

That’ll do it for me, folks! Follow TheInSneider on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.

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