CinemaCon 2019 Passepartout Award: Helen Moss, SVP of Int’l Distribution, Paramount Pictures

If there’s one thing Helen Moss knows, it’s international distribution. If there’s another, it’s numbers. The senior vice president of international distribution for Paramount Pictures began her career as an accountant, after all. Moss joined Paramount Pictures a little over a decade ago as vice president of film planning in the studio’s London office before joining the Los Angeles office in 2012. Moss took on her current position at the studio as senior vice president in 2014, orchestrating the release strategy of the studio’s titles across 65 markets worldwide. Boxoffice caught up with Moss ahead of CinemaCon to discuss her career and discover how the international marketplace will be a key to industry growth in the coming years.

Did you set out to work in distribution, and how did you come to find yourself in your current role?

 I certainly did not start out my career in movies. After qualifying as an accountant, my early career was on a typical finance trajectory. Looking back on my career and the roles that I’ve had prior to Paramount, they all played a vital role in preparing me for where I am today.  I joined the studio 11 years ago in London as vice president of film planning. I had very little knowledge of film when I joined Paramount, and I remember walking into the office for the interview and being completely mesmerized by the thought of working in the industry. The experience hasn’t disappointed. I moved from London to Los Angeles in 2012 when the international head office was relocated, and in 2014 I transitioned to my current role in distribution. My finance background is still so relevant today in the role that I have, as it gives me a wider lens to understanding the filmmaking process because a lot of the decisions I make on a daily basis have a financial underpinning. Whether it’s looking at where or when to release a film, how to minimize risk, or assessing the potential size of a release in each market, there’s always a thread there from a finance standpoint.

What sort of lessons did you take from your positions outside the entertainment industry?

I’ve worked in several different industries and blue chip companies, all of which provided valuable lessons that I still apply to my work today. In my early years, I worked for a company in the cosmetics industry that was entering a lot of emerging markets at the time. I took away a lot from that experience with respect to understanding how to do business in an unfamiliar country and how to navigate around the risks and hurdles associated with working in a new environment. Then I moved into the hotel industry with InterContinental hotels, and I saw firsthand the impact of global events such as terrorism and the ripple effect that seemingly unrelated events can have on hospitality, tourism, and similar industries.  On a different note, it was fascinating to see the incredible growth of online companies coming into the marketplace and forever changing the face of the industry, in a similar way that the advent of digital impacted the movie industry. 

After InterContinental hotels I moved into the internet world to work for Expedia, an early disruptor that would ultimately itself get disrupted. It’s very similar to what we’re going through now with some tech companies in this industry that affect our business. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to look back at my previous experience in other industries and understand some of the challenges and competitive trends that I’m facing in my current role. 

Was it a big shift to transition to the cinema business? What were some of the early lessons you picked up?

The first thing I was exposed to in London was that selling movies is very different from selling generic products such as hotel rooms or cosmetics. In my previous experiences, I was selling something that didn’t materially change from one year to another. In our industry, everything is a one-off that can’t be repeated. Yes, you may have a franchise movie, but each movie differs in terms of cast, release dates, and competition from other studios. No two titles are alike, so it’s hard to compare and contrast in this business. Obviously, you look at comps, but there is no true shared DNA that you can use as guidance across other films.

I remember being told in my first week that you only get one stab at a film. You have no control over it once it’s finished. That was the biggest learning curve that I had to get my head around when I first joined the business. When we moved to L.A., it was important that our team continue to be nimble and flexible with respect to the differences across distinct markets and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s vital to recognize that each market has its own nuances and variables, and we therefore need to make sure that we are constantly adjusting our own strategy accordingly.

Which release campaigns stand out for you in your career?

There are three that are particularly memorable for me. The release of Transformers: Age of Extinction is the first. Specifically, the stunning success in China, with box office receipts just shy of $320 million. At the time it was the biggest Hollywood release to-date —it was unprecedented how well that film performed. It was just thrilling to be a part of that effort. 

The second campaign that comes to mind is a recent one—that of A Quiet Place last spring. Once we screened that film, we knew we had something special on our hands. It went on to deliver over $340 million globally, which was just magnificent. It was truly something new and original. The idea was something unique, a perfect example of the power that watching a film in a movie theater can have for audiences across the globe. It simply doesn’t have the same effect when you watch it at home—you don’t get the same experience as when you’re sitting in a theater full of people, where no one dares make a sound. It was really wonderful to see that film grow globally.

Finally, last year we had continued success with the Mission: Impossible franchise with Fallout. It was the biggest in the franchise, and watching it continue to have legs and thrill audiences is incredibly gratifying. I am very much looking forward to the next two films in 2021 and 2022.

Apart from China, which other emerging markets do you think could have an impact on the industry in the coming years?

If you look at Asia, we’re seeing continued growth in several territories with exhibitors investing heavily in new theaters and focusing super-immersive sound and premium-screen solutions. Audiences—particularly young audiences who are soon to be the majority of moviegoers—have a real appetite for these enhanced theatrical experiences.

As an example of this growth, Indonesia had around 30 percent growth in box office last year and an equally impressive 17 percent increase in screens. Similar growth can be witnessed in markets like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar—all vying to become the next Vietnam. These markets are all still very much underserved in terms of screens, which provides a lot of opportunity. In other regions, you have markets such as Ukraine and the Czech Republic that continue to grow, but also totally new markets like Saudi Arabia. It’s going to be fascinating to see if it will achieve its fullest potential in the coming years.

How do you think the global market can help the industry evolve and grow?

From a distribution standpoint, there are more people than ever watching content, and there’s more available content than ever before. It’s so important for us to figure out how we can continue to be vocal and adapt to changing conditions. While it’s a challenge, there’s also a wonderful opportunity. In the next three years, nearly three billion people will be coming online. It’s going to be crucial for us to understand these new, different consumers and their tastes and viewing habits. If you capture those audiences at a young age they can become lifelong cinema lovers. Looking at the landscape as it grows helps me to understand which markets are the ones we should be focusing on right now, and which are the ones that we need to keep a closer eye on for the medium term.

Are there fellow executives you would consider mentors in your career?

I’ve been incredibly privileged across my career to have worked with some truly wonderful people. I think I’ve taken a little piece from every one of the leaders that I’ve had. The key thing that I’ve learned is understanding to prioritize and adapt to the changing landscape.

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