Paramount Pictures is lucky to have Emma Watts as their new motion picture group president, replacing outgoing Wyck Godfrey. It’s not a huge surprise, as she is reuniting with her old boss at Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount studio chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, who took over the studio in 2017 and likes to lean on his trusted former Fox colleagues, from distribution chief Chris Aronson to press relations executive Chris Petrikin. (He also chased Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler, who went to Sony and HarperCollins.)
Things were going fine for Watts at Fox after 22 years of steady success under mentors Gianopulos and Tom Rothman (now at Sony). Watts is a moviemaker in the Rothman mold, who believes passionately in people and projects and — if it makes for better movies — is willing to take risks and piss off producers and agents along the way.
She pushed Ridley Scott’s Mars drama “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, backed Matt Reeves’ iterations of “Planet of the Apes,” helped save troubled “Bohemian Rhapsody,” launched “The Kingsman” series, and supported not only Hugh Jackman musical “The Greatest Showman” but also Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (and the upcoming “Death on the Nile”), and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story.”
Then Rupert Murdoch sold Fox to Disney and her slate (and the Fox name) was thrown into a mess of too many titles released in too little time. The mid-March lockdown came a month after Watts exited the studio, her Twentieth Century prospects dimmed by Disney’s marketing and scheduling and her trimmed future slate. Watts’ sparkling jewel, “Ford v Ferrari” ($224 million worldwide), was her latest collaboration with James Mangold (“Wolverine”) and it won two tech Oscars out of four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
While she ran Fox as a studio, she left behind a glorified Disney label. Her resignation memo stated her need to “pursue new opportunities.” Disney CEO Robert Iger left her little choice after he expressed disappointment in one earnings call at the performance of flops such as action comedy “Stuber,” “X-Men” chapter “Dark Phoenix,” and succès d’estime “Ad Astra.” Going forward, two of her signature franchises, “X-Men” and R-rated “Deadpool,” were now in the domain of another label — Kevin Feige’s Marvel.
Left behind at Disney were Scott Rudin production “The Woman in the Window” starring Amy Adams, as well as Scott’s medieval drama “The Last Duel,” starring Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck, which was on course for a December 25, 2020 awards-qualifying release (until the pandemic). Thanks to the Academy pushing back the Oscars eligibility period and awards date (April 25), Scott has more time. Also on deck are James Cameron’s four “Avatar” sequels for 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027; the director has been in quarantine in New Zealand as he resumes production.
Also left at Disney is Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller who learns he’s a character in a video game. Reynolds, who signed a producing deal at Fox in January 2018, promised to follow Watts wherever she decided to go.
That’s because Watts is a tough, opinionated executive boasting both strong development skills and talent relationships. She knows how develop commercial mid-budget movies for theaters, which is what Paramount needs. Gianopulos has nowhere to go but up as a weaker studio without its own streaming platform. Since 2011, due to a lack of investment in the studio, its market share dropped from 19.3 percent to 4.9 percent in 2019.
During the theater shutdown, Paramount opted to collect Netflix cash for both “The Lovebirds” and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which was slated for September release. And he moved the latest “Spongebob” sequel to sister company CBS All Access. Still on the 2020 release schedule are “A Quiet Place Part II” (September 4), action thriller “Snake Eyes” (October 23), and in December, two big-ticket sequels, “Coming 2 America” starring Eddie Murphy, and “Top Gun: Maverick” starring Tom Cruise. The star’s eighth “Mission: Impossible” entry, by far the strongest upcoming Paramount title, doesn’t hit until November 4, 2021.
Watts will take a look at two “Transformers” scripts in development (sans Michael Bay); that franchise has yielded $4 billion over five films. As for Paramount’s other big franchise, writer-director Noah Hawley’s take on “Star Trek” isn’t due until 2022.
Watts may prove valuable as a movie executive who knows how to rely on content volume and variety to thrive, from mid-market titles to tentpoles. Disney led the charge toward billion-dollar IP from Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm (grabbing back Paramount’s “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones” franchises). But as the pandemic grinds on, and streamers and television are burgeoning, the partnership between studios and theater chains is under duress. Weaker exhibitors could face bankruptcy, and many theaters around the world could close. And the global box office that supports costly studio tentpoles may no longer continue to exist.