ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group’s Dan Cohen

Dan Cohen, the president of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group, talks to World Screen about offering something for everyone and something for all platforms.

As president of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group, Dan Cohen oversees a library of 4,000 movies and 140,000 episodes of television, culled from the CBS Television Network, The CW, CBS All Access, Showtime, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Television, Paramount Players, Paramount Animation, CBS Studios, CBS News, Miramax and the Viacom brands. As Cohen tells World Screen, ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group has something for everyone and something for all platforms. Indeed, Cohen and his teams have always been willing to experiment with distribution models. They’ve found new ways of windowing and made co-exclusive deals, especially during the pandemic when viewing increased and linear and nonlinear platforms needed product as COVID-19 delayed productions. Particularly hard hit during the pandemic were movie theaters. Cohen and his sales executives have been finding innovative strategies to get movies in front of audiences, in person, online or a combination of both. Cohen is also quick to point out that while his group will be feeding content to the soon-to-launch streaming service Paramount+ (the rebranded version of CBS All Access), he remains open for business to international clients. 

WS: Tell us about the work of integrating the two libraries and sales teams.
COHEN: As you know, these companies were combined once before. There is a lot of benefit to having the great CBS television library combined with the great Paramount movie library. It’s one plus one equals more than two. It’s given us arguably the biggest library of Hollywood content. You add Miramax in—thanks to that joint venture, we now have 4,000 movies. We have 140,000 episodes of television. I feel like we have content for every client, every business model. There are clients that were doing a lot of business with CBS and a lot of business with Paramount. It’s just more efficient that we can put it all together. It’s more efficient for them and gives us a little bit more leverage when we need it.

In putting the sales teams together, I’m proud of where we landed. I have to start by acknowledging that Armando Nuñez led the group through this integration. He and I knew upfront that he did not intend to stay long-term. So I have the utmost appreciation and respect that he said, “I want to get it right. I want to know that I left this in good hands, not only you but the whole team.” We made many decisions; those aren’t easy because part of a merger is that not everybody stays. We tried to put personal relationships, egos, legacy companies aside and build what we thought was the best organization. We also decided we wanted to do it quickly. We felt we had a huge task ahead of us, and we wanted the people on the ground to know that they were the team and not have confusion or have them looking over their shoulders. So we prioritized the whole integration. We had a sales meeting in Amsterdam in February, and in retrospect, I’m so grateful we did that. Again, it was Armando who said, “We’ve got to get this going. I don’t want to wait till after the May Screenings in L.A. to say we’ve seen everybody in action. Dan, we trust each other.”

We ended up with a great group. Both teams were skilled, but we landed on a team that is passionate and works well together. Now, if you are from the CBS side, you’ve got all these movies, and on the Paramount side, you’ve got all these great series. I’m very proud of the integration, which isn’t to say it wasn’t at times very painful to have conversations with people about whom we couldn’t keep.

WS: With such an extensive and rich library, how do you manage to give the gems the attention and exposure they deserve?
COHEN: The gems tend to stand out. In this era of lower ratings, lots of competition, lots of content, lots of clutter, the harder part is sometimes monetizing the mid-range content that is pretty good but not extraordinary.

I’ll start with movies. We have a franchise management approach to our iconic films. When I joined Paramount, I was running television licensing, not home entertainment. I became in charge of both along the way. The first thing Jim Gianopulos [the chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures], said to me was, “Dan, what I can’t have is you doing a deal for one of our movies, Mission Impossible or Top Gun, and making $100 to then turn around and have the home-entertainment people say you cost them $110. You have to work together; we have to have a franchise plan.”

We’ve spent a lot of time on that, including anniversaries. The Godfather came out in 1972. Its 50th anniversary is in 2022. We have been working on the windowing and the plans for over a year. There will be a black period [during which] we can re-release the movie theatrically because we think it deserves to be seen in that form. Then we have a home-entertainment window. Then we will have a Paramount+ release. It will also be on the Paramount cable networks. It will also be licensed from time to time to third parties. Right now, The Godfather is under license to AMC. We use the term “strike a balance” when we license. We want and need to support the company’s initiatives, but we also need to monetize the content. We try to manage the windowing. Among the trends you’ve seen in recent years is less reliance on exclusive deals and more non-exclusive or co-exclusive. Yes, you can have Billions, but it’s not going to leave Showtime. The Affair right now is on Peacock, but it’s still available on Showtime. We’re also doing shorter deals. The world is evolving too quickly; I don’t know if I want to tie a title up for 12 months.

Clients tend to chase us for the franchise movies, so we try to manage the windowing to maximize the revenue but also keep some utility for our own needs. We have a very clear focus also on the future. Top Gun: Maverick comes out [this] summer. The original Top Gun will have a window, so if we choose to put it into theaters, we have it available. There will be a home-entertainment re-release. We’re looking at how we can use television in support of the new movie. But it’s not hard to get people to focus on it because when we offer title lists to Sky, Amazon, ProSieben, you name it, they go right for those. It’s often the mid-level ones that are trickier.

On the series front, I think it’s largely business as usual with the caveat that there are so many great locally produced series, it’s a little harder for us to show up with ten new series at an L.A. Screenings or a MIPCOM and get clients to say, We’ll take all ten.

We’re more selective in what we produce. But the gems we already have, the CSIs, the NCISes, have been sold for years and clients have been very happy. That hasn’t changed much. Also, George Cheeks, who runs CBS, is very focused on the overall business. He will say to me, if you can’t distribute the show internationally, maybe I shouldn’t make it, because my economics don’t allow me to say it’s good for CBS, so we don’t need to worry. We do need to worry, and I know it’s gotten tougher out there. We have more of those discussions now than we did two or three years ago.

WS: Are linear and nonlinear platforms willing to share rights?
COHEN: The short answer is, Yes. Every deal we do is different, and it evolves quickly. What somebody does today, they may not do tomorrow. One of the things I’ve counseled our teams on is don’t get locked into rigid thinking that it has to be exclusive. Or that if it’s on a streaming service, you’ll never be able to license it to linear or vice versa. We are seeing more willingness to share. We’re seeing more willingness certainly to do co-exclusive deals where we keep rights for ourselves. Our clients have realized that big media companies have streaming services, and that’s more attractive than us saying I’m not going to do business with you.

I also think it becomes a negotiation: what is it worth if it’s not exclusive? Well, it has value; it might be a different value. We have those discussions.

WS: Is linear still a good part of your business?
COHEN: Linear is still an incredibly important part of our business. There is so much focus on streaming in the media and on Wall Street, whether our services or our licensing to streaming services. But we still have local salespeople in international offices all over the world. The business remains heavily weighted to boots on the ground, licensing to clients in territories. Whether that’s a premium service like Sky or Canal+ or a broadcaster like Channel 4, Channel 5, Network 10, ProSieben, that is still the lion’s share of the business.

WS: What strategy have you followed in distributing films?
COHEN: We’ve tried to find the right answer film by film. We have licensed some to streaming services. The Lovebirds was the first one; we licensed it to Netflix. There are two coming to Amazon: Without Remorse and Coming 2 America. We had the U.S. rights to The Trial of the Chicago 7; the producers licensed it to Netflix. For The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, we’re going to do PVOD followed by the new Paramount+ in the U.S.

We have other movies, Top Gun: Maverick and A Quiet Place Part II, that we feel should be seen in theaters. They are such big cinematic experiences that we’ve moved the release dates, and we’re waiting for theaters to reopen. We’ve also done some smaller releases because my clients need content, whether it’s iTunes, Amazon transactional, EPIX or Sky, and because theaters are struggling. In December, on iTunes, among the top ten movies, there were four that we distribute. Paramount didn’t make them, but they were opportunistic things that I was able to pick up and distribute. Buddy Games was the highest-ranking and was in 100 theaters. We’ll make a profit, and the film found an audience. We took two films that we did make, Love and Monsters and Spell, and we released those in PVOD prior to them going to EPIX, which is our pay-TV output deal client.

[Before the pandemic] we had Sonic the Hedgehog in theaters doing quite well. Theaters closed, so we moved it to home entertainment right away. It ended up being a 45-day window, not a 75-day window. Sonic became our biggest home-entertainment release ever by a large margin.

We continue to evaluate. I spend more time in meetings discussing what we think is going to be possible and when. In the meantime, we’ve just tried to figure out the right way to handle the films, but as you can see, it hasn’t been a one size fits all.

WS: Will you continue to sell to third parties, even though you will be providing product to Paramount+?
COHEN: Yes, we are open for business. The majority of my business is still traditional linear clients. We need the revenue; we like the relationships.

We don’t need 140,000 episodes of television or 4,000 movies on our streaming service for it to be successful. We don’t want to program it that way. In October, CBS All Access had a great basket of horror films from Miramax. They don’t need to be there 365 days out of the year; they tend to lose some value if they are always there. We definitely will continue licensing. We’re just going to evolve how we do it.