Don’t Make Fun of Brian Robbins: Here’s Why Paramount’s Best Hope Is the Director of ‘Norbit’

Jim Gianopulos and Emma Watts are the best in the business, but that also can make it impossible to navigate a massive paradigm shift.
NORBIT, from left: Terry Crews, Eddie Murphy, 2007. ©DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection
Terry Crews and Eddie Murphy in "Norbit," directed by Brian Robbins in 2007.
©DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection

On September 24, two weeks after her boss Jim Gianopulos lost his job as chairman and CEO of Paramount Studios to ViacomCBS president of Kids & Family Entertainment Brian Robbins, Paramount Motion Picture Group president Emma Watts followed suit. Two deeply respected executives, the best in the business, politely kicked to the curb.

Of course, your greatest asset can just as easily be your biggest drawback; being “best in the business” can also make it impossible to succeed in the face of a massive paradigm shift like the one faced by ViacomCBS as it tries to create a competitive streaming platform at the 11th hour. IndieWire Editor-in-Chief Dana Harris-Bridson and film reporter Chris Lindahl break it down, along with an argument for why former “Head of the Class” star Robbins might represent the best hope for Paramount+.

DANA HARRIS-BRIDSON: You’ve been covering Hollywood for a couple of years now, which means you got here just as the streaming revolution really started to take hold. Does this departure strike you as radical, or just one of so many?

CHRIS LINDAHL: There’s nothing radical to me about Watts’ departure; it’s almost expected. Hollywood is in chaos as legacy studios throw everything at the wall in their desperate bid to catch up to Netflix. And Watts, with two decades of experience getting theatrical movies like “Gone Girl” and “Ford v Ferrari” made at 20th Century Fox, has been repeatedly caught in the crossfire of the streaming wars and consolidation since the Disney-Fox merger, like so many other respected executives (just look at how WarnerMedia’s ranks have changed).

Disney was smart to keep her on, recognizing her development skills and talent relationships. But then came a big question: What even is 20th Century under Disney? Watts lost two of her most important franchises, “X-Men” and “Deadpool,” to Kevin Feige, leaving her to focus on original theatrical projects like “Free Guy.” That gamble proved to be a pandemic success story, but what’s a studio executive without their signature IP?

So on to Paramount, where she reunited with a mentor from her Fox days, Jim Gianopulos. The writing was on the wall when Gianopulos was pushed out of his job earlier this month, branded as an excision of the old guard from a streaming-first Hollywood. It’s not that Watts couldn’t have been valuable for the ViacomCBS Paramount+ push, but it’s another instance of a talented executive being caught in the shuffle. The steadiness and success with which Disney has moved into streaming is singular: Can anyone really say whether Paramount+ will fare better under Nickelodeon veteran Brian Robbins than Gianopulos and Watts?

Well, define “better.” There was a great quote in Matt Belloni’s Puck column this week about Robbins, from an anonymous source (of course): “He has the taste of an 11-year-old girl.” I don’t know Robbins beyond the movies he’s made as a director, but they suggest reason to believe that assessment is not entirely wrong: “Varsity Blues,” which launched the career of James Van Der Beek. “Norbit,” which killed Eddie Murphy’s Oscar chances for “Dreamgirls.” “The Shaggy Dog.”

But here’s the thing: That may be a feature, not a bug. Robbins’ track record also led him to oversee Nickelodeon, and all kids and family entertainment at ViacomCBS, which I’d say is a better comp for running Paramount+ compared to running Paramount Pictures. Gianopulos and Watts are both deeply respected executives, responsible for an extraordinary number of films that earned billions in theaters and a lot of awards — but what does any of that mean when an executive must face the gaping maw of a streaming platform?

The talent to create billions in revenue from movies — each of which demands years to develop, produce, and distribute, even when the results aren’t great — doesn’t necessarily translate to an enterprise that requires the generation of a never-ending content tsunami. And as for the quality of those movies, Emma Watts is a Tiffany-level producer. Anyone who’s spent time with an algorithm knows that streaming is more like HomeGoods. How old were you when “Top Gun” came out?

That came out a whole six years before I was born and two years before my parents married! On that note, Nickelodeon was a big part of my early media diet. It’s astonishing to see how “SpongeBob” (which premiered when I was seven) has maintained so much cultural relevancy with people in my generation and younger. The memes, the casual references, the reboots, and spinoffs — all are strong metrics of success in the streaming era. ViacomCBS might just be onto something with Robbins, though I don’t know anyone who rushed to subscribe to Paramount+ for the “iCarly” revival.

TOP GUN, Tom Cruise, 1986. ph: ©Paramount / courtesy Everett Collection
“Top Gun”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Granted. The reason I asked was “Top Gun,” and “Mission: Impossible,” and hell, maybe even Tom Cruise himself represent aging IP. It was a big deal when those movies’ release dates moved, again, to next year — but the best hope for the franchises’ long-term health doesn’t lie with more movies when the more-desirable audience — that would be you — doesn’t have a deep history with them in that format. I’d wager Robbins wants to turn Paramount’s prime properties into must-see Paramount+ TV, and that’s something that neither Gianopulos nor Watts would do. Or if they did, it would be under great duress. One more question before we wrap this up: What made you subscribe to your most recent streaming platform, and why?

“Mission: Impossible” movies have much more relevance to my generation; I quite literally can’t remember a time without them. But it’s true, for people without a sense of “Top Gun” nostalgia, Paramount has to bank on Cruise’s star power to get people to theaters to see him as Maverick, a bet straight out of 1986.

Back in 2020 when he was president of Nickelodeon, Robbins called “SpongeBob” “our Marvel Universe.” That’s the kind of thinking that helped him land the top Paramount job, but he’s got his work cut out for him. ViacomCBS was smart to move one of its appointment-viewing staples, “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” from VH1 to Paramount+ for its most recent season, but it’s no Marvel: The most popular episode from the last VH1 season was watched by just over 600,000 people. At launch, Paramount+ put its best foot forward with niche content – like “Star Trek” and “The Good Fight” — but nothing that’s broken through like, say, “WandaVision.” I’m struggling to think of underexploited IP Robbins could work his magic on. “A Quiet Place” reality competition show? A “Sonic the Hedgehog” series?

Last year, I eagerly upgraded my HBO Now account to HBO Max. I spent the early part of the pandemic rewatching “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” so WarnerMedia’s pitch for HBO prestige plus a lot more was an easy sell. It’s now my go-to platform: There’s a huge library of movies to supplement the seemingly endless output of watercooler shows like “Mare of Easttown” and “The Other Two.” For what it’s worth, I would never dream of insulting David Chase by watching “The Many Saints of Newark” on HBO Max: I’ll be buying a ticket to see it in a theater!

It’s hard to imagine what a must-see Paramount+ might look like. All IP issues aside, it’s like trying to make a grand entrance to a party that’s already overcrowded to the point of chaos. It’s Hollywood, so all things are possible! — but it’s much more likely that Paramount will find success when it’s led by someone who is much less vested in the history and nostalgia that created this century-old studio. From that perspective, the depth of industry experience that Gianopulos and Watts bring to their roles looks like a deficit. Robbins also has a lot of experience, all over the place: He was a soap-opera and sitcom actor, a producer, a prolific director of films (however critically reviled), founder of a YouTube channel that sold to a studio, and finally a studio executive. In another time, he might have been viewed as a dilettante, or Jack of all trades/master of none. Today; he’s an entrepreneur with his head on a swivel. In a job that demands its executives pivot like ballerinas, that’s the sort of CV that seems much more attractive.

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