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Barry Diller: Movie Studios Are Not a Great Business Proposition

Variety logo Variety 1/5/2017 Todd Spangler
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Barry Diller, who famously lost a bidding war for Paramount Pictures two decades ago, says the movie business has unattractive economics that have been crimped by internet’s disruption of the media ecosystem.

“Movie companies rarely make a lot of money,” Diller said during a keynote session Thursday at the 2017 CES trade show in Las Vegas Thursday. “A standalone movie studio today is a hardly a great business proposition,” he said, allowing that Disney is an exception in the industry.

Movie studios today are centered around “huge, blockbuster movies that have to do $500 million to break even — I mean, that is not a creative enterprise,” said the septuagenarian media mogul, who is founder and chairman of IAC and chairman of Expedia. “The fact we get any good movies is almost a miracle.”

Diller’s comments come after the movie industry notched a record $11.4 billion in North American box office revenue in 2016.

What’s changed for the movie business in the last few years, according to Diller, is that internet streaming and over-the-top video services have weakened the powerful hold media conglomerates used to enjoy with respect to downstream distribution. In the past, media congloms “could be a highwayman taking the toll from anyone who wants to cross the media road,” said Diller.

After Diller lost out to Viacom in 1994 for Paramount after a six-month battle, he issued a terse statement saying: “They won. We lost. Next.”

As for pay TV, a business in which Diller was once himself a notable player as owner of USA Networks, he predicted that the internet is poised to bring further disruption. The advent of “skinny bundles” from the likes of Hulu, DirecTV, Sling TV and others will reach its ultimate conclusion with consumers picking and choosing which networks and services they want rather than purchasing a bundle, he suggested.

“I think mostly, you will curate (TV content) yourself. You will decide: I like Netflix, Amazon, ESPN, whatever,” Diller said. “Why would you let someone else warehouse those for you?”

Diller also address the issue of fake news, which became a hot-button issue after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He said one of the biggest problems is programmatic advertising – because that lets marketers blindly buy ads without knowing where they’ll appear. “Unless you put some human barricades, barriers so to speak, in front of it, this is going to proliferate,” he said.

Diller, who has criticized Donald Trump as a “bad clown” and “huckster” in the past, tangentially addressed the incoming president in his remarks Thursday.

“I’m only marking this new presidency in one-year increments,” he said during the keynote session, moderated by Michael Kassan, CEO of consulting firm MediaLink. Last fall Diller claimed he would either leave the U.S. or “join the resistance” if Trump were elected president. (He evidently has not emigrated at this point.)

Commenting on his approach to acquisitions — wearing both his IAC and Expedia hats — Diller said his companies do not merely stick to their knitting.

“We’re open field,” he said. “We actually truly have no blinders on. We don’t want to. We would have never gotten as far as we have in internet life if we had.”

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