Can Paramount+ Succeed? A Producer Hopes To Do This.


Like many other writers-directors, Alex Kurtzman grew up adoring film.

But it’s adaptable – and in the age of streaming it’s a very lucrative feature.

Mr. Kurtzman, once the writer of the “Transformers” movies and the director of the 2017 movie “The Mummy.” He recently renegotiated his deal at CBS Studios as one of the richest out there. Under the $160 million, five-and-a-half-year deal, Viacom will continue to lead the growing “Star Trek” television universe for CBS’ Paramount+ broadcasting platform.

He will also direct for Showtime, a limited series based on “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & & Clay.” This limited series is likely to be sold to an outside streaming service.

Mr. Kurtzman’s deal is the latest in a series that aims to give prolific producers such as Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy for Netflix and Amazon Studios and Jordan Peele free rein on content creation that can feed insatiable consumer appetites and hopefully increase subscriptions for streaming. This puts the will of CBS Studios, the production arm for networks and channels under the ViacomCBS umbrella, fully in the hands of 47-year-old Mr. Kurtzman.

“From my first meeting with Alex, it was clear to me that he was our future,” George Cheeks, president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group, said in an interview. “The man can thrive for broadcast. Premium streaming can enhance for wide streaming. He gets the job done. He has great empathy. Creatively agile.

“When you make these investments,” Mr. Cheeks continued, “you should know that this capability can actually deliver multiple projects simultaneously across multiple platforms.”

The road ahead will not be easy for ViacomCBS. The upstart Paramount+ was a late entry to streaming and is essentially a rebranded and expanded version of CBS All Access. The company is promoting the service’s news and live sports, including National Football League games, and “a series of movies.” (“A Quiet Place 2” debuted on July 13.) However, Paramount+ is back with a smaller Showtime streaming offer. 36 million subscribers as of May.

While it hopes to reach 65 million to 75 million global subscribers by 2024, that’s still far from Netflix’s total of around 210 million worldwide and nearly 104 million for Disney+. Even NBCUniversal announced on Thursday it has 54 million subscribers for its Peacock streaming service, thanks to its Olympic push.

And as the consolidation frenzy has consumed Hollywood, many analysts are unsure if ViacomCBS can continue to compete with larger companies on its own.

“I think it’s hard to imagine any of these companies running this alone; “I think it’s all too small,” said LightShed Partners analyst Richard Greenfield. “The point is that all these companies, whether it’s Peacock, Paramount+, Disney+ or Hulu, are still conflicted about what to put on linear TV, what to put on cinema and what to stream.

“Netflix, Amazon and Apple don’t have this discussion every day,” he added. “All their assets go to one thing. They have to balance here, and that renders all streaming services inefficient.”

These corporate considerations do not seem to bother Mr. Kurtzman. Rather than complaining about the declining status of movies or suffering a lack of live buyers as the market shrinks, he said he sees the current climate as being creatively refreshing and remarkably fluid.

“I believe the line between movies and television has now disappeared and this is a tremendous opportunity for me,” he said in an interview. “For me and for entertainers like me, we can tell stories in a new way. We are not limited to the narrow definition of how to tell a story – something must be told in 10 hours or told in two hours. ”

Mr. Kurtzman began working with CBS in 2009 when he developed the reboot of “Hawaii Five-0” with his former writing partner, Roberto Orci. In 2017, he began re-imagining the “Star Trek” universe for the company, building on his familiarity with the series after co-writing two “Star Trek” movies directed by JJ Abrams a few years ago.

Since then, he’s done five shows in the universe imagined by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s, and they’ll all be on Paramount+. These are “Star Trek: Discovery”; “Star Trek: Picard”; “Star Trek: Lower Deck”; “Star Trek: Prodigy,” due to be released in the fall; and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” which will hit theaters in 2022. ViacomCBS says “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard” are among the most-watched original series on Paramount+.

Also in the works are “Chapter 31” starring Michelle Yeoh and a show built around “Starfleet Academy” aimed at a younger audience.

But how much “Star Trek” does a planet need?

“I think we’re just getting started,” said Mr. Kurtzman. “There is so much more to take.”

He recently shot four months in London for the first half of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” a 10-episode series based on the 1976 David Bowie film. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a new alien character who comes to Earth at a turning point in human evolution.

Mr. Kurtzman said he loved the experience of working on the series, which was buoyant as the pandemic gave him and his writing partner Jenny Lumet the opportunity to complete all episodes before production began.

“If we were doing this as a movie, I definitely wouldn’t have done anything different,” he said. “I work with movie stars in three different countries, I shoot shows that are definitely not typical TV shows, and I can do all of that purely because of my experience in movies.”

Lumet Hanım, who met Ms. Kurtzman in 2015, wanted to get together after watching the movie “Rachel is getting married”, for which she wrote the script. Ms. Lumet said she was surprised that this “sci-fi robot guy in khakis” wanted to meet him.

“All he wanted to do was talk about little real moments in movies and little moments in TV shows, and he was very kind and willing to listen,” she said. “Often, robot men aren’t willing to listen to anything, and that’s all he wanted to do. It was really cool.”

The duo worked on everything from “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” to the short-lived “Clarice” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Next, they plan to cover the story of Lena Horne, Lumet’s grandmother, in a limited series for Showtime.

Those around Mr. Kurtzman rely on his first experience in television (“Alias,” “Fringe,” “Sleepy Hollow”) as it gave him the ability to manage multiple projects at once without looking overwhelmed. “He has an almost supernatural ability to keep separate train tracks in his head, this show, this show and this show, and he can jump from one to the next,” Lumet said. “He’s one of the few who can keep all trains running.”

His role as a screenwriter began in Michael Bay’s 2005 movie “The Island”. Soon after, he and Mr. Orci were sought after. “Hollywood’s secret weapons” for their ability to crack scripts on lucrative existing properties that others cannot (like “Transformers”). This led “Star Trek” to think of Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe in the same sweeping terms it saw. This is a strategy that CBS Studios fully endorses.

CBS Studios president David Stapf cites “Star Trek: Prodigy” as an example. One of the first animated “Star Trek” shows for kids, the animated show will debut on Paramount+ in the fall before moving to Nickelodeon.

“It’s obviously creating fans in a much younger generation, which helps consumer products,” said Mr. Stapf. “But it’s also a clever way to build an entire universe.”

For Mr. Stapf, who has run CBS Studios since 2004, the “Greatness” of “Star Trek” can mean many things.

“As long as it fits with the general idea of ​​Star Trek that inspiration, optimism, and humanity are good, anything goes,” he said. “So comedy, adult animation, children’s animation – you name the genre, and there’s probably a ‘Star Trek’ version of it.”

That’s good news for Mr Kurtzman, who is looking to get even weirder with the franchise, which will celebrate its 55th birthday this year. From Graham Wagner (“Portlandia,” “Silicon Valley”), he marks a move that focuses on the character Worf, which he calls “incredibly funny, poignant and poignant.”

“If it were just up to me, I would have pushed the limits a lot more than I thought most people would want to,” he said. “I think we can get there. Marvel has proven you can actually do it. But to get there you have to lay a certain foundation, and we’re still building our foundation.”


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