ViacomCBS International Studios’ Juan “JC” Acosta

Paramount+ is looking to be available in 40-plus markets by the end of this year. Sister outfit ViacomCBS International Studios (VIS) will be critical in the platform’s plans to serve its viewers a distinctive lineup of original content developed with key creatives across the globe. As president of VIS and ViacomCBS Networks International’s Southern Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Africa operations, Juan “JC” Acosta is ensuring his teams across the globe are identifying established creatives to align with while also developing a raft of diversity initiatives to nurture a new breed of talent. He tells World Screen Weekly about VIS’s flexible approach to producing content that will resonate globally, including the Mexican original The Envoys (Los Enviados), which launches on Paramount+ in the U.S. today.

WS: How are you positioning VIS at a time when many media companies are shifting their production and distribution operations to their owned-and-operated assets?
ACOSTA: There’s a huge opportunity to scale our streaming business internationally. Bob [Bakish, president and CEO of ViacomCBS] and Raffaele [Annecchino, president and CEO of ViacomCBS Networks International] have talked about our aggressive plans to have launched Paramount+ in 45 markets by the end of 2022. This includes plans to expand Paramount+ throughout Europe, in the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. We also recently announced our first Asian market to launch in 2022 will be South Korea, with the CJ ENM deal.

At VIS, we have conversations with talent, in front of and behind the camera, to say: We are the perfect combination of providing the opportunity to create premium content and giving it the space and the global platform it needs. There is so much amazing content that is not being viewed. At VIS, not only can you work with us, but we’ll make sure that your product, as we sell it internally or to third parties, gets the proper focus, attention and awareness that it deserves. We feel we’re an incubator to create new narratives and allow talent to be as creative as they want, with the possibility that this content will have mass appeal. The mass appeal is critical. It’s important to highlight that the studio is looked at as a stand-alone business unit with a focus on profitability. Now, it’s really about being an engine for securing the best content and providing Paramount+ with a first look on anything we do internationally. We want to utilize as much capital and resources for that. That’s not to say that we don’t find creative ways to do prebuy deals or co-productions that help mitigate some of the risk, but there is a priority for Paramount+.

Take Latin America, where we planted the flag aggressively with an organic and acquisitions strategy. In 2016, we acquired Telefe, the number one broadcaster in Argentina. We were amassing a pretty significant footprint in local content for all of our pay-TV channels. We started to dabble in out-of-the-box content creators with Porta dos Fundos, acquiring that JV in Brazil in 2017. That all amassed into what is today VIS. In 2021, we acquired Chilevisión as another means to fortify the southern hub with a leadership position in FTA, and then [we acquired] Fox TeleColombia & Estudios TeleMexico in Colombia and Mexico. We feel we have the proper scale and infrastructure to support our ambitions. In 2021, we had 55 series in production, more than 20 returning. We have shifted the model and are focused on Paramount+. There will only be so much capital in the market, so we’ll continue to do creative deals, co-pros, working with other third parties, certain windows, specific markets where we don’t have Paramount+. We’ve done deals where we’ve had a streaming partner in markets where we don’t have Paramount+, and then we secure the rights for Latin America, Nordics or Australia, and soon in the new markets where Paramount+ will launch beginning in 2022.

WS: In this arms race for content, where not everyone can compete on the same financial level as a Netflix or an Amazon, how are you attracting, nurturing and retaining the best talent?
ACOSTA: We do have this ecosystem that amplifies and augments the opportunity. When you look at our footprint in Latin America or Europe, we will be across all platforms, starting with the premium space, then pay, then FTA. We’ll make sure to amplify your voice, your vision and your content across our vast ecosystem. It’s about volume and getting everyone in-house, but we’re not having the conversation about what’s the formula for success or how we measure success. We want your content to be seen, and we want it to live in our ecosystem; we want you to feel that we are promoting and giving your products priority in our markets. And we’re offering some great creative liberties. We can say, come in-house, you get a first-look deal, and it’s not 100 percent exclusive. Present your best projects; if we don’t select them, you can go to a third party. We’ve created a hybrid [model where] the most important thing is it lives within the financial parameters of where we’re operating. We’ve seen that as [platforms] come in with these very deep pockets, it unbalances the market. All of us who have been around, from free to air to pay TV to streaming, know that it resets to the realities of the economics in each of the markets. We’re making sure that we provide tangible financial and qualitative interests. It’s exciting to be in the ViacomCBS ecosystem, from Paramount+ and Pluto TV to our free-to-air channels—CBS in the U.S., Channel 5 in the U.K., Telefe and Chilevisión in Latin America, Network 10 in Australia. There’s an opportunity to say, we’re going to promote it, it’s going to be seen, we’re going to communicate to our billions of social followers across our flagship brands. I was in Mexico for the premiere of Los Enviados with Juan José Campanella, writer and director, and [stars] Luis Gerardo Méndez and Miguel Ángel Silvestre. We talked about how great it is to bring this local story from Mexico, with local crews, [to international markets]. And we’re continuing to build a sense of community and talent in Mexico City and Latin America. We want to do the same thing as we expand further into Europe.

WS: You’re producing across the globe, but Spanish-language content has been a driver for your division. What opportunities do you see in that space?
ACOSTA: Spanish language is very exciting for several reasons. In Latin America in particular, the subscriber universe is growing exponentially. It’s a market that had very low pay-TV penetration, and there were a lot of cord-nevers that just leapfrogged into [streaming] subscriptions. They’re very savvy. They want content as strong and powerful as what they’ve been receiving from the U.S. and international markets. The audience is demanding, and that’s an opportunity to continue to elevate our content.

Spanish-language content is performing globally and has no barriers. Increasingly, VIS is becoming a key content provider for Paramount+ in the U.S. Paramount+ has begun to exclusively debut several scripted premium and library Spanish-language originals produced by VIS, including Parot, Before I Forget, To Catch a Thief and 100 Days to Fall in Love. Beginning on January 20 with The Envoys (Los Enviados), additional Paramount+ originals from VIS will roll out on the service in the U.S. and internationally, followed by Cecilia and When You Least Expect It.

Having planted the flag in key creative markets like Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo and Rio, and now with Mexico and Colombia, we have the necessary infrastructure to position ViacomCBS as a leading producer of Spanish-language content globally. VIS is a key component of that.

WS: Tell us about VIS’s various diversity initiatives and how you’re identifying and fostering new talent.
ACOSTA: Last year, the initial phase was to put into place all of these initiatives to react to and address the equity gaps. We took a step back and said, How do we create an impact over a long period of time? We created VIS Social Impact, which was a natural evolution of the Content for Change initiative at ViacomCBS. VIS Social Impact is allocating resources and capital to identify creators that make content across the pillars of climate, equity and health issues, and then we’ll measure the impact of that content. We announced the first VIS Social Impact commission for Paramount+ is Protest & Progress, from world-renowned, history-making photographer and social activist Misan Harriman. We also have spearheaded a diverse writers’ room, Beyond the Binary: Fluid Voices, led by actor, writer and director Thishiwe Ziqubu. We recently announced a partnership with Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo and Spanish indie Mogambo for the docuseries Not A Bride with Penélope Cruz for Paramount+.

In addition to VIS Social Impact, we’ve upheld our commitment to elevating diverse voices in other ways. We recently announced a new first-look-deal program in the U.K., with five emerging talent writers’ rooms. We’ll select specific scripts to put forward. In Brazil, we identified the Afro-Brazilian lack of representation and initiated “Narrativas Negras” (Black Narratives), where we did a writers’ room with six writers. They started to develop ideas, and what I’m most proud of is those ideas were then presented to Paramount+, which selected one that was commissioned and went straight to series. We’re impacting not only the creators but also the audiences. It’s about how we create an impact today while also developing the talent of tomorrow.

WS: VIS is a prolific provider of global formats. What trends are you seeing in that segment, in both scripted and non-scripted?
ACOSTA: Franchise, franchise, franchise; existing IP is gold today. On the unscripted side, we’ve taken all the amazing global formats that ViacomCBS has created over the years and customized them locally, whether it’s the Shore franchise, Are You The One? or Ex on the Beach. Chris McCarthy’s leadership in unscripted at a global level [as president of entertainment and youth brands at ViacomCBS] allows us to focus on franchises and keep building them. On the scripted side, we take a lot of our novela hits and explore what we can do with those in other markets. Dear Daddies has more than ten international adaptations. We’re taking a lot of options of local stories from podcasts or IP and saying, How can we convert those? We announced with the BBC The Gold, which is based on actual events, about the Brink’s-Mat heist [in London in 1983]. Now that we have Chilevisión, Channel 5, Telefe and Network 10, can we create an incubator and say, Let’s try this format and adapt it to all of our FTAs globally?

WS: Having FTA, pay and streaming in the same family must allow you tremendous freedom in the types of stories you can tell and the models you use to finance them.
ACOSTA: You have that luxury to say, What are the windows? What are the holdbacks? What do you sell? What do you keep? What is multi-territory, and what is single territory? You have this amazing jigsaw puzzle. We’re as creative on the narrative side as the modeling side.

WS: What are your key priorities for the division in 2022?
ACOSTA: Creating global hits with very strong stories that are local, authentic and transcend borders. That’s the overarching theme. We’re expanding aggressively for those markets we’re launching Paramount+ in, whether it’s Italy, the U.K., Germany or Korea. We’ll be utilizing our great asset in Israel, Ananey Studios. It’s about bringing great content to audiences and making sure we have our pulse on the audience. What’s the next great hit? And we’re pushing our social impact content.

WS: Do you envision acquiring other producers in international territories as Paramount+ expands?
ACOSTA: At ViacomCBS, we’re always looking and exploring. It’ll come down to the best utilization of our capital to generate the returns. Some [of our acquisitions] have been opportunistic; some have come to us. The key thing is being recognized by the content community as a great organization to partner with. That’s what we strive for. The power of partnership is more critical in today’s world. It’s about utilizing your assets and making strategic alliances, as Paramount+ has done with Sky and CJ ENM. We hope through 2022, with relationships, partnerships and then obviously the machine that is VIS and content creation, we will have a great year.