Viacom’s KCA Ticket Winner on Her Experience, Instagram-able Pets and Viacom Pride

Alexandra Neri, who works as a dubbing manager for Paramount’s Worldwide Distribution group, is the latest lucky Viacom employee to score free tickets to a tentpole awards show.

Below, she tells us what it’s like to win an employee sweepstakes, how impressed she was by the Nickelodeon’s “top notch” production, and why she’s proud to work for a company that let’s its employees engage in the magic of live events.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Facebook post courtesy of Alexandra Neri.

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“That I Can Actually Call That My Job Is Awesome” – Living Viacommunity at Paramount

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

A Chicken Dinner Served Hot

When lunchtime arrived at the Jamaica orphanage, a knife-wielding worker snatched a chicken from the yard and lopped its head off, shocking the cluster of California volunteers who had stopped off at this hilltop enclave en route to Kingston from Ocho Rios.

Erin Jordan was shocked.

“That’s what they do before they get to the grocery store,” the man said. “I don’t understand why ya’ll don’t get that. But this will be the best chicken you’ll ever have.”

They roasted it over coals on the side of the road. “And you know what?” Jordan said. “It was the best chicken I ever had.”

Jordan is a manager on Paramount Picture’s corporate social responsibility team, a board member of the Sickle Cell Disease Foundation of California, and a veteran of volunteer efforts all over the world, from the inner cities of New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Phoenix to the favelas climbing Brazilian hillsides. It is these volunteer efforts, she says, that frame her life perspective and ground her sense of place in the world.

“Most of us have so much, and you don’t realize it until you meet people or communities who don’t have that,” Jordan says. “And if I have the time or resources to spare, I’m willing to do that.”

Erin Jordan on a 2002 mission to Bahia, Brazil, to deliver supplies to those in need.

Spreading the Lot’s Influence Beyond the Gates

Like all Viacom brands, Paramount Pictures throws its full weight behind the company’s annual Viacommunity Day (which is coming up this Friday, April 20), when thousands of employees turn their energies over to good causes all over the world.

But long before the trees are planted and the meals are served, the prep begins. For Paramount, that starts with Jordan and the rest of the studio’s corporate social responsibility team. For Viacommunity Day, the small but highly effective team coordinates up to a dozen sites around Los Angeles and supports the international teams as they develop projects. They wrangle supplies and secure permits, and organize an on-site petting zoo and a wrap party, which last year featured Keith Urban joining Paramount staff for game night.

The city-wide events disperse 600 to 800 volunteers around Los Angeles, but once the party raps up and Keith Urban goes home, the studio’s social responsibility team continues their year-round focus on education, HIV/AIDS, and sustainability through Paramount’s Green Team.

They don’t have to travel far. Santa Monica Boulevard Charter sits right across the street from the Paramount lot, in a neighborhood designated a White House Promise Zone under President Barack Obama, and it is a beneficiary of the studio’s Kindergarten to Cap & Gown mentoring program. Jordan helps organize one-to-one student-mentor literacy matches that stretch through most of the school year and in some cases across many years, following the students to junior high.

These immersive long-term engagements can profoundly impact both student and mentor. “When you have more frequent contact with a student as part of an overall plan, I feel that they see you want the best for them and you’re concerned with their success,” Jordan says. “That I can actually do that and call that my job is awesome.”

Classroom reading, kindergarten yoga, dance classes, science labs and playground games – all organized by Jordan and attended by Paramount volunteers on Viacommunity Day – further fuse these powerful student-mentor relationships with the studio’s neighbor.

Building a Better Place to Live

Los Angeles, with its 4 million people sprawled over a vast basin between mountain and ocean, is an easy place to lose yourself. Peppered among the endless tracts tucked within the spider web of freeways are oases for those who need a little help tracking themselves down again. Jordan’s work draws her to these places.

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Viacom’s Creative Renaissance Ignites With “Jersey Shore Family Vacation” and “A Quiet Place”

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

In the last week, Paramount Pictures’ A Quiet Place won the domestic box office and MTV’s Jersey Shore Family Vacation rolled to the strongest unscripted cable debut in six years. The efforts provide commercial evidence of Viacom’s ongoing transformation – fueled by wide-ranging creative investments in talent, programming, and marketing.

The chart-topping numbers are especially encouraging in a media environment of ever-more-elusive audiences. The divergent paths to success of these two properties – A Quiet Place delivering something novel by elevating a horror story to a genre-busting blockbuster that appeals to all audiences, Jersey Shore Family Vacation building on MTV’s deep well of intellectual property to connect with its core demographic – underscore the way in which a creative renaissance is driving Viacom’s growth.

Marketing a near-silent film in an era of loud

Making a bet on the film’s potential playability, Paramount unveiled A Quiet Place at SXSW to great response. The highly original film immediately started compiling incredibly strong reviews. A clever marketing campaign then helped launch A Quiet Place to a $50.3 million opening weekend, good for the second-best domestic opening of 2018 (behind Black Panther). With a $17 million budget, the Platinum Dunes-produced and John Krasinski-directed film is a validation of Paramount’s reoriented slate and refreshed marketing approach under CEO Jim Gianopulos, who joined the studio last year.

“An innovative concept, with great talent both behind the camera and in front, and a savvy distribution and marketing plan led to Paramount’s biggest opening since 2016,” wrote Viacom CEO Bob Bakish in a staff memo about the film’s success.

Building strong relationships with talent has become a particular focus for Viacom under Bakish, and Krasinski, who will produce and star in the Paramount Television-produced Jack Ryan for Amazon and co-created Paramount Network’s hit show Lip Sync Battle, demonstrates the enormous cross-brand potential that forming such deep relationships can yield.  

A Quiet Place’s unique storyline – featuring a family tiptoeing through a post-apocalyptic world infested with insectoid monsters that will devour anyone who makes a sound – created an opportunity for Paramount to execute an equally original pre-release marketing plan. They delivered: moviegoers in nearly 100 theater chains caught the sonically attuned monsters devouring noisy spectators in pre-show spots, with the stern warning that “the movie theater should be A Quiet Place.” A pre-Super Bowl ad, a launch of the second trailer on Ellen, and a kick-off spot and accompanying stunts at the SXSW Film Festival primed diverse audiences for the film’s release.

“Paramount’s reconstituted management team is focused on allowing great filmmakers to make great movies, and then doing everything we can to support those movies,” said Paramount Pictures Chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos. “In A Quiet Place, we did exactly that: We gave a talented young director license to put together something unlike anything else out there, and then threw our marketing and distribution expertise behind the project.”

Tapping an iconic property to connect with a core audience

Jersey Shore Family Vacation had less work to do in the name-recognition department, as its iconic predecessor, Jersey Shore, had long ago etched its cast into the cultural conversation. The unknown was whether this fist-pumping bunch, six years older and reunited in the beaches and bars of Miami, would still connect with audiences.

It did. The show’s nearly 10 million total viewers and 4.2 average rating in the core 18-34 demo on live-plus-three-days metrics made Jersey Shore Family Vacation the most-watched unscripted debut on U.S. cable since 2012. The original Jersey Shore had ignited a global franchise – with spin-offs in the UK, Spain, Poland and Mexico, plus the recently launched hit Floribama Shore in the U.S – and the cast’s return resonated globally, with the premiere airing in nearly 180 countries and territories.

The strong ratings complemented a seven-hour trending run on Twitter and acted as an emphatic endorsement of MTV’s revamped creative direction under President Chris McCarthy. Under his leadership, the network has grown ratings for three consecutive quarters for the first time in seven years behind a blend of revitalized franchises, returning classics and original programs.  

“MTV is about celebrating youth culture and music where talent and creativity unite to produce content that resonates across generations,” said McCarthy, who also oversees VH1 and Logo. “Jersey Shore Family Vacation and the new Floribama Shore demonstrate how MTV can harness our heritage to create programming that appeals to a mass audience while serving as a great launching pad for our new series.”

Paramount’s Downsizing Demonstrates Outsized Impact With an Environmental Media Award Nomination

*spoilers below*

In addition to Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe nominations, Paramount’s Downsizing has earned a nod from the Environmental Media Association (EMA) in its feature film category. The annual EMAs honor the most environmentally conscious works in film and television.

Downsizing posits what would happen if scientists took a drastic step to conserve the Earth’s resources. Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, a regular guy living a near-future version of the American Midwest with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and struggling to pay the bills. To maximize their finances, the Safraneks decide to shrink themselves to five inches tall. Paul’s life in the lap of Lilliputian luxury sours once he finds out his wife has changed her mind and will not be downsizing, and subsequently divorces him.

Paramount’s film tackles heavy themes: economic disparity, political and racial inequality, and what has attracted attention from the EMA board—environmental sustainability.

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Lifting Up Those Left Behind in L.A.’s Forgotten ZIP Codes

Watts is a Los Angeles neighborhood with a legacy of poverty, racial tension and violence. It’s notorious for the Watts Riots, a nightmarish five-day 1965 clash set off by police brutality and intensified by poor race relations. Today, residents of Watts’ low-income housing projects are still hindered by the city’s lack of interest in rehabilitating and modernizing their neighborhood. Children growing up in the area have more options to pick a gang than a college, and their tap water is potentially contaminated with lead or arsenic.

The 2017 Viacommunity Award winner, Flora Huang, was recognized for her efforts to help stop this cycle of hopelessness. Huang is Paramount’s vice president of Financial Planning, and she embodies the Viacommunity spirit of giving back year-round. Huang volunteers as a youth mentor for Red Eye, a Los Angeles based nonprofit organization focused on creating a network to connect the “the up and in” with the “down and out.”

Flora Huang helps a young mentee decorate for Halloween. Photo courtesy of Flora Huang.

“My goal is to provide consistency to kids who otherwise don’t have access to positive role models,” said Huang, who learned about Red Eye in 2016. “I let them know that there are alternatives beyond joining a gang and that they can be champions for their own success.”

As a mentor, Huang spends her Saturdays with Red Eye at the Imperial Courts Housing Projects in Watts.

“This is a part of the city most people choose never to venture,” said Huang. “This ZIP code is often forgotten; these kids are left behind. I choose to come here for the kids.”

On Huang’s first day at Red Eye, she spent the afternoon coloring and painting nails with a little girl named Kenayla. “She looked me in the eyes and asked if I would return next week,” Huang said. “She had pure joy in her eyes just from the hope that I’d be coming back.”

And so, she did.

The children who attend Red Eye’s Saturday mentoring sessions pose for a group picture. Photo courtesy of Flora Huang.

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Viacommunity Hosts a Screening of Selma in Honor of Black History Month

On Feb. 21, 40 high school students from New York City and neighboring public schools made their way to Viacom’s Times Square headquarters to celebrate Black History Month with a screening of Paramount’s critically acclaimed Selma, a crucial film about the African-American experience.

Viacommunity hosted the event, which featured members of The BEAT, Viacom’s employee resource group focused on the African-American experience, on a post-screening panel. To coordinate this celebration in honor of Black History Month, Viacom worked with nonprofit organizations The Opportunity Network and Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation (SASF), which provide academic support to students from underserved communities.

Selma depicts Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for equal voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement, a momentous part of American history. Paramount’s re-telling of this visceral moment encapsulates the spirit of Black History Month.

Students and Viacom employees at a screening of Paramount Pictures’ Selma in honor of Black History Month – Photo by Esthefania Rodriguez

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Critics Rave Over Paramount’s Annihilation, “The Finest Sci-Fi in Years”

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

Anchored by a visually stunning fantasyland setting, a cerebral cocktail of plot and theme, and a fierce cast of women warrior-scientists, Paramount Pictures’ Annihilation hits U.S. theaters today to a flood of positive critical reaction.

“In just about every respect, it’s the finest cinematic sci-fi in years—or, at least, since [director Alex] Garland’s prior Ex Machina,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager, echoing the popular sentiment for this adaptation of  Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name.

The premise is simple enough: a meteorite crashes into a Florida lighthouse, unleashing a mysterious rippling force field dubbed the Shimmer. This dancing wall of color and motion slowly expands, and the zone within changes, like a puncture in reality, filling with enormous genetically mutated animals, overgrown plants sized and shaped like humans, and other oddities alternately novel and terrifying. Eleven expeditions have entered – only one person has returned: Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of ex-soldier/biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). He is diseased and dying and has been reduced to a sub-human state of mumbling and fear.

Partly in hopes of saving him, Lena joins an all-woman expeditionary force – led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and also including another doctor, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) – on an exploration and recovery mission. Within the Shimmer, they lose communication with the outside world. Their compasses and other instruments fail. As they trek through the increasingly wild landscape, the DNA mutations transforming the forest creatures infest their bodies, their memories fail, they lose their sense of space and time.

What happens between there and the final wrenching scenes has critics elated. “Annihilation is a ferocious, feral, female-centric update of fearsome monster classics like The Thing and Alien,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter.

Here’s a deeper look at what the critics love most about Annihilation:

It’s smart

“This is a serious, considered film,” writes Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair.

And it is. At once a thriller, a science fiction thought piece, a horror flick, and a tale of environmental catastrophe – while hinting at humanity’s ultimate helplessness against a huge and ruthless universe – Annihilation manages to accomplish many things at once with an expansive and intricate plot.

“For those willing to put in the effort, Annihilation achieves that rare feat of great genre cinema, where audiences are not merely thrilled … but also feel as if their minds have been expanded along the way,” writes Peter Debruge in Variety.

It’s beautiful

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Wandering this other-Earth burbling dreamlike within the Shimmer, the explorers amble over a landscape that resembles some videogame fantasy world, where predators roar with the screams of past victims and the intensifying light elides the distinction between illusion and reality.

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Paramount Viacommunity Film Vies for Top Spot at Boston College Festival

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

​Each year, thousands of Viacom employees around the world unite for Viacommunity Day, helping to rebuild and revitalize their local communities with a series of service projects. At Paramount Pictures – which for the past two years has had the highest percentage of employees from any Viacom company division participating in projects – the day has special resonance.

To commemorate the titanic efforts of their employees at last year’s event, Paramount’s social responsibility team put together A Day for Unity, a rousing video recap of the landscaping, painting, organizing, and volunteering at zoos, community centers, soup kitchens and food distribution centers that took place across the Los Angeles area on Viacommunity Day 2017.

Paramount Viacommunity 2017 Video from Viacom on Vimeo.

This video testament to Paramount’s efforts is now part of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship International Corporate Citizenship Film Festival, an annual event that honors the best in corporate social responsibility. Click here by Feb. 19 to vote for Paramount’s submission.

The Best of 2017: Looking Back on a Year of Leadership, Innovation, Social Responsibility and Arresting Architecture

Viacom is off to a sensational start for 2018: we soared across our brands (especially CMT and Comedy Central).

But as we move into the new year, it’s worth looking back at the most popular blog posts of 2017, each of which highlighted a different part of Viacom’s business. Many touch upon themes that Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, includes in his vision for success: leading the industry in diverse, innovative storytelling; focusing on our “Flagship Six” core brands; creating a socially responsible company culture housed in a visually progressive workspace.

Check out the top 10 blog posts below, which highlight some of Viacom’s best content, the talent that brought it to life, and the remarkable spaces they created it in.

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Paramount’s “Downsizing” Delivers “a Big Movie for Big People” in Miniaturized Future World

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

“You know how Hollywood doesn’t make original movies anymore?” asks Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post. “Well, Downsizing is here to fix that.”

The movie indeed presents as a highly original concept: an everyone-wins-the-lotto fantasia, a hypothetical near-future where every middle-class worker drone with fifty thousand in the bank can shrink themselves and relocate to a miniaturized consumerist paradise where everything is cheap and easy. And the shrunken crowds, with their shrunken environmental footprint, get to save the world in the process.

That’s what gets our attention, but what keeps it is a vividly accurate parable on class struggle and the inherent unfairness of global imbalances in rights and status. This turn happens when hero Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) – left behind by his wife (Kristen Wiig), discontented with his new world’s opulence – stumbles into a miniature tenement outside the walls of diminutive mansion-dotted Leisureland and discovers an underclass of refugees who have been downsized against their will.

Galvanized, Safranek sets off to find the meaning that financially amping up his lifestyle could not deliver. Cue the critics:

Downsizing … is the rarest thing in today’s movie industry: a big movie for big people — adults, you could call them,” writes Jake Coyle in the The Associated Press.

He’s not the only one who was impressed. Here are some highlights:

Director Alexander Payne continues his record of excellence

“It’s hard to say what’s better about the first half of Alexander Payne’s wonderfully weird – or is it weirdly wonderful? – Downsizing: the audacity of its premise, or the delicious skill with which Payne executes that premise, detail by comically ingenious detail,” Jocelyn Noveck writes for The Associated Press.

Payne has directed six previous feature films, including Paramount’s Academy Award-nominated Election and Nebraska, as well as the Academy Award-winning Sideways and The Descendants (both won for Best Adapted Screenplay).

Matt Damon and Director Alexander Payne on the set of Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.

“Alexander Payne is one of those rare filmmakers who’s never made a bad movie, and he’s not about to start now,” writes Micah Mertes in the Omaha World-Herald. “…in its sense of place, in its existential dread, in its deadpan comedy and late-inning optimism, Downsizing is an on-brand continuation of a career still running strong more than two decades in.”

Supporting actress Hong Chau is remarkable

Chau, who plays a Vietnamese refugee shrunken against her will and forced to labor as a Leisureland maid after losing a leg to gangrene, delivers a Golden Globe-nominated performance as a supporting actress.

“Hong Chau, best known from Inherent Vice and HBO’s Treme, achieves nothing less than an acting triumph,” writes Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. “Her Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild are just the start of the honors coming her way.”

Hong Chau plays Ngoc Lan Tran and Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.

One thing that drew Chau to the role was a high-concept framework that acted as an approachable vector for important issues.

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