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How Viacom's power struggle trickled down to Paramount Pictures

The "Ben-Hur" box office flop marks the latest in a series of disappointing releases from Paramount Pictures.
Flickr/CC/Loren Javier

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If you went to the movies this weekend, you probably didn’t see “Ben-Hur,” Paramount Pictures' big-budget remake of the 1959 sandal-and-sword epic.

Many are calling the film one of the summer’s biggest flops: it cost $100 million to make, but opened to just $11.4 million at the box office.

Even though MGM bore the brunt of the budget for the film, it’s still not good news for fellow distributor Paramount, which has had a string of duds this year, including "Zoolander 2," "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2."

To better understand the studio’s woes, we called on Brent Lang, senior film and media reporter at Variety, and asked him what has gone wrong at Paramount and its parent company, Viacom. He began by summarizing the studio's recent struggles.

Interview Highlights:

Paramount has a real content problem, and at some level, you can say it starts at the top. It’s, in some ways, an indictment of the leadership of Philippe Dauman at Viacom, Paramount’s parent company, which seemed to be more interested in short-term profitability and not growing for the long term [by] buying things like Marvel or exciting new forms of intellectual property that really could’ve elevated it to the top ranks of the movie studios. Instead, what you have is one misfire after another … so it’s been a very bad summer for Paramount. They’re nowhere close to say a Disney or even a Warner Brothers in terms of their ability to tap into the zeitgeist.

Paramount's parent company, Viacom, has been embroiled in a power struggle over control of the company, and Lang says the studio has been affected by that bigger fight.

I’ve talked to people who have said that they’re hesitant to put their projects at Paramount because they’re not sure who’s even going to be in control of the studio. And so it just creates an enormous amount of uncertainty that trickles down throughout the Viacom media empire — and uncertainty is not good for creativity.

This weekend, Viacom announced that CEO Philippe Dauman has accepted a $70 million settlement and will step down from the company’s leadership. Lang says that settlement signals Shari Redstone’s control of the company and its future.

She will at some level decide: Will the Redstone family continue to have a controlling stake in the company, or will they sell Viacom to another player, be it an Amazon, a Netflix, Alibaba, or some other deep pocketed content player? And once the issue of control is permanently settled, then folks will have a clear sense of what kind of company that Viacom [will] be going forward.

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