Media Lesson From Paramount Pictures: Behavior Means Business

The movie business, like the TV business, is always about equal amounts of commerce and conduct. And then there's Tom Cruise.

Apparently, for Sumner Redstone, chairman of both CBS and Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures and up until yesterday a prosperous 14-year long arrangement with Tom Cruise's production company, the formula is weighted to one side.

"His recent conduct has not been acceptable," Redstone told The Wall Street Journal.

Unacceptable?  He was only found stomping on furniture on a talk show (Oprah Winfrey's--a Viacom-owned CBS Corp. talk show, by the way), chastising Brooke Shields for taking prescription drugs to treat postpartum depression, speaking out against psychiatry and, of course, for his religion, Scientology.

Not too controversial. Surely, no ill will about Viacom executives.

There are changes for Paramount beyond just Cruise. The day before, the studio had looked to take under its wing two somewhat lowly and perhaps more cost-effective movie labels, MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies. Some weeks before, Walt Disney Co. had looked to change its expensive production schedule and decided to scale back to about a dozen releases from as many as 30 in some seasons.



All this seems to follow a TV model in holding down costs--whether that comes from doing cheaper reality shows, producing fewer pilots, or green-lighting fewer episodes per season.

Now one wonders if Viacom's or CBS's attitude will rub off on other divisions like television, with its top talent and producers. Would Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of the "CSI" franchise, get the same treatment if he were to jump up and down on a chair while being interviewed by Charlie Rose? 

Or are TV performers and producers tamed already?  Some public blow-ups happen every season or so. Prime-time stars like Brad Garrett can put up a fuss to get more money on "Everybody Loves Raymond." Surely he deserves it. But all that had nothing to do with his off-screen behavior.

It's true that Tom Cruise may be in a different category. Cruise and his partner Paula Wagner claimed that their company's films have accounted for 15 percent of Paramount's theatrical revenue in the last 10 years and 32 percent for the past six years, with film like the "Mission: Impossible" franchise, "Vanilla Sky" and "War of the Worlds."

A Viacom spokesman tries to clear things up a bit by saying: "It's a business decision, and it's based on his behavior." But those box office business numbers can't be the deal breaker. It must be something else--perhaps Cruise/Wagner wanted to substantially raise its small $10 million in overhead costs per year. Maybe they wanted an even bigger backend of revenues from DVD sales.

Whatever it is, Viacom will need to offer shareholders a good business on why it let go of its franchise star--the biggest film-revenue-grossing actor in the U.S.--and what kind of effect this move will have on its other media and TV-related businesses.

One studio executive told The New York Times  that this is all related to  'tude. "These companies are sick of being pushed around. The press has become the weapon of choice for these people."

Anyone else? Sumner, my lines are open.

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