‘Paw Patrol’ unleashed: Behind ViacomCBS’s plan to take on Disney

PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE from Paramount Pictures
Zuma (voiced by Shayle Simons), Rocky (voiced by Callum Shoniker), Skye (voiced by Lilly Bartlam), Chase (voiced by Iain Armitage), Marshall (voiced by Kingsley Marshall), and Rubble (voiced by Keegan Hedley) in PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE from Paramount Pictures. Spin Master/Handout via REUTERS

When “Paw Patrol: The Movie” hits theaters and the Paramount+ streaming service on Friday, it will kick off one of ViacomCBS’ most ambitious efforts to take on Disney in the streaming wars.

The release of the feature film based on the animated children’s series about a group of rescue dogs who protect their community, will be backed by an “eight figure” marketing blitz, with 1,800 TV ads across channels like Nickelodeon. It involves partnerships with almost 200 companies – from Kellogg’s cereal to Best Western hotels – on tie-ins for toys and other products, many of which will come with a free trial of Paramount+.

The strategy is the highest-profile example of a game plan ViacomCBS has developed to build out its kids’ franchises – including “SpongeBob,” “iCarly,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” – and use their success to help become a credible competitor in the war for paying streaming subscribers at a time when consolidation in the industry is leaving the company at a disadvantage.

“Disney is the gold standard in terms of really creating and monetizing franchises,” said CFRA analyst Tuna Amobi.

“ViacomCBS is looking to do the same thing, but they haven’t been as aggressive in terms of actually getting an early start and pivoting into streaming and taking some of the potentially game-changing actions that we’ve seen from other companies, especially with the way COVID affected the industry. So the ‘Paw Patrol’ film could be a litmus test in terms of going day-and-date streaming and theatrical.”

Friday will mark the first time ViacomCBS has debuted a film in theaters and on Paramount+ simultaneously, a decision the company announced in June. According to executives, it assessed the likelihood of parents bringing their unvaccinated children to theaters amid rising cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant.

In the near-term, ViacomCBS’ family films will likely debut theatrically and on Paramount+ on the same date, via a very short theatrical window followed by a Paramount+ release, or skip a theatrical release altogether, said Brian Robbins, the president of Nickelodeon, the ViacomCBS kids’ channel where “Paw Patrol” debuted as TV series in 2013.

The “Paw Patrol” film, the first theatrical spinoff of the TV show, has among the most tie-in products and global retailers of any film the company has distributed, said Pam Kaufman, President of ViacomCBS Consumer Products.

It is also the first time ViacomCBS is using the full force of its properties and partnerships to drive people to Paramount+, the streaming service it crafted from the merger of CBS and Viacom. Many of the consumer product tie-ins include a free one-month subscription to the service, which costs $5 per month with ads and $10 per month ad-free.

The marketing push around the film “is not just in service of Paramount+,” said Robbins. “This is in service of the franchise of ‘Paw Patrol’ which, in turn, as that franchise grows, so should our streaming service.”

New franchise content is crucial to Paramount+ subscriber growth, executives say, because it helps drive new subscribers, who then stay on the service so their children can watch older franchise content, like the six seasons of “Paw Patrol” currently available on the streaming service.

ViacomCBS is also betting on its “Star Trek” franchise, among others, premiering its first-ever animated “Star Trek” series for families – “Star Trek: Prodigy” – later this year on Paramount+, followed by a second viewing window on Nickelodeon.

Yet for “Paw Patrol: The Movie,” success across consumer products sales, box office tickets and new streaming subscribers is far from guaranteed. Families may prefer to stay home rather than go to movie theaters or shop at brick and mortar stores that are promoting the film in their aisles. A preschool film has a limited audience compared to multi-generational offerings from Marvel and others.

And on streaming, ViacomCBS is among the smallest of its peers, with 42 million total streaming subscribers compared to Disney’s 174 million. Even as ViacomCBS is seeking organic growth, non-Executive Chair Shari Redstone has sought partners as Discovery and Amazon bulk up through their acquisitions of AT&T’s WarnerMedia assets and MGM, respectively.

On Wednesday, ViacomCBS and Comcast announced a joint streaming service, SkyShowtime, that will launch in smaller European markets next year.

“You want to create a virtuous cycle of content creation and monetization, and I wouldn’t say that ViacomCBS is the gold standard of doing that yet, and that’s probably one of the strategic rationales of the CBS-Viacom merger: to create more scale and create more franchises,” said Amobi.