DOJ Files Motion to End Paramount Consent Decrees

As expected, the Department of Justice formally filed a motion in the District Court for the Southern District of New York to terminate the Paramount Consent Decrees, which for more than 70 years regulated how certain movie studios distribute films to movie theatres.

As part of the DOJ’s review of nearly 1,300 legacy antitrust judgments, the antitrust division Nov. 22 announced that after a thorough review, including a 60-day public comment period, it had determined that the Paramount decrees have served their original remedial purposes and no longer serve to promote or protect competition and innovation.

“The Paramount decrees long ago ended the horizontal conspiracy among movie companies in the 1930s and ‘40s and undid the effects of that conspiracy on the marketplace,” Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a statement.

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The Justice Department’s motion to end the Paramount decrees would allow a two-year transition period for block-booking and circuit dealing to allow the theatre and motion picture industry to have an orderly transition to the new licensing changes.

The bulk of domestic exhibition business is currently controlled by AMC Theatres, Regal Entertainment and Cinemark Holdings.

In 1938, the federal government filed an antitrust lawsuit against several major motion picture companies alleging that those companies had engaged in an industry-wide conspiracy to control the motion picture distribution and exhibition markets.

After several years of litigation, including a 1948 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount, the government and the defendants entered into a series of consent decrees, collectively called the Paramount decrees.

These decrees required the movie studios to separate their distribution operations from their exhibition businesses. They also banned various motion picture distribution practices, including block booking (bundling multiple films into one theatre license), circuit dealing (entering into one license that covered all theatres in a theatre circuit), resale price maintenance (setting minimum prices on movie tickets), and granting overbroad clearances (exclusive film licenses for specific geographic areas).

The Paramount decrees, like other legacy antitrust judgments, have no sunset provisions or termination dates. They continue to govern how the film industry conducts its business, despite significant changes to the industry, including technological innovations, new movie platforms, new competitors and business models, and shifting consumer demand.

Unlike 70 years ago, the first-run movie palaces of the 1930s and ‘40s that had one screen and showed one movie at a time have been replaced by multiplex theatres that have multiple screens showing movies from many different distributors at the same time. New technology has created many different movie platforms that did not exist when the decrees were entered into, including cable and broadcast television, DVDs, and the Internet through movie streaming and download services.

“The [government] has concluded that these decrees have served their purpose, and their continued existence may actually harm American consumers by standing in the way of innovative business models for the exhibition of America’s great creative films,” Delrahim said.

 

DOJ Looking to End 1940s-Era Theatrical Movie Distribution Rules

The Department of Justice’s antitrust division is considering ending 1940s-era legislation that prohibits studios from owning movie theaters and controlling the exhibitor release slate, among other provisions.

Known as the Paramount decrees, antitrust efforts at the time led to the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Paramount Pictures and other major studios that ended studio ownership of theaters and made it illegal for studios to mandate theaters screen all or none of their new releases, a practice known as “block booking.”

“As the movie industry goes through more changes with technological innovation, with new streaming businesses and new business models, it is our hope that the termination of the Paramount decrees clears the way for consumer-friendly innovation,” Makan Delrahim, the DOJ’s antitrust boss, Nov. 18 told the American Bar Association confab in Washington, D.C.

Delrahim led the Justice Department’s unsuccessful appeal of AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, which led to the creation of WarnerMedia.

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The DOJ, which would have to file a legal court motion to reverse the law, is seeking a two-year sunset period on several elements of the decrees, including block booking and select license agreements, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the government move.

Observers contend the move could expedite consolidation among the three largest theatrical chains: AMC Theatres, Regal Entertainment and Landmark Holdings, while likely putting smaller exhibitors out of business.

The theatrical business remains under siege by over-the-top video and market domination by Disney, which continues to rule the box office through its Marvel Studios, Pixar Animation and Lucasfilm releases.

Trade group the National Association of Theater Operators suggested a reversal of existing theatrical distribution rules would enable major studios to dominate exhibitor release slates.

“If exhibitors were forced to book out the vast majority of their screens on major studio films for most of the year, this would leave little to no room for important films from smaller studios,” NATO said in a statement.

DOJ Drawn Into Comcast, Starz Carriage Dispute

With legacy pay-TV under siege from cord-cutting subscribers and high-profile alternatives such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and now Apple TV+, the status quo for traditional carriage agreements has gone out the window.

And so it was that Comcast last month quietly announced it would soon end Xfinity subscriber access to Starz, the premium movie and TV service it acquired in 2016 for $4.4 billion.

The news was significant since Comcast represents about a third of Starz’ 24.4 million subscribers. Starz, which operates its own branded $8.99 monthly subscription streaming service, has been a profit vehicle for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Lionsgate.

Comcast reported it will replace Starz on Dec. 10  with Epix, the premium service owned by MGM and formerly Lionsgate, unless a new agreement can be reached. The news has contributed to a 9% drop in Lionsgate’s stock valuation — which is already down nearly 50% in the fiscal year.

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The negotiation impasse has reportedly caught the attention of the Department of Justice, which continues to have Comcast in its crosshairs ever since its acquisition of NBC Universal in 2009. Back then, regulators forced the cable giant to relinquish management input on its stake in Hulu, citing antitrust issues.

Earlier this year Comcast sold its Hulu stake to Disney after acquiring Sky satellite TV operator in the United Kingdom.

Comcast’s NBC Universal unit is readying its own SVOD service, Peacock, early next year.

The situation prompted Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to contact Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim to investigate the situation. Delrahim played a significant role in the DOJ’s failed attempt to stop AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner.

“These changes could lessen competition in the video programming market and limit choices for many thousands of consumers in Maine and millions more across the nation,” Collins wrote in a letter to Delrahim as reported by CNBC.

“I encourage both of you to seek a win-win solution and consider all options to keep Starz programming on the air,” Feinstein wrote in a separate letter.

Comcast is employing strategy out of Dish Networks’ playbook, which typically includes threats to halt access to third-party content distribution for more favorable distribution terms. Indeed, Dish currently has HBO blacked out to it subscribers.

Comcast, like Dish, contends its subs can access services such as Starz and HBO independently, thus negating what it considers to be excessive carriage fees.

“At the end of the day, this is a routine commercial negotiation that raises no conceivable antitrust concerns,” Comcast said in a statement.

Starz countered that Comcast is forcing its subs to pay more for its service.

“By unilaterally taking Starz out of its packages with no refund … Comcast is unfairly depriving them of relatable programming that reflects their cultural experience,” read a Starz statement.

Lionsgate reports third-quarter (ended Sept. 30) financial results Nov. 7.

 

DOJ Antitrust Boss: ‘You Learn More From Losing’

Following legal rebuke at the lower federal court and subsequent appeals court level regarding efforts to block AT&T’s $84 billion acquisition of Time Warner, the Department of Justice’s Makan Delrahim, head of the agency’s antitrust unit, said more was learned in defeat than in winning the litigation.

Speaking March 20 at the American Communications Association’s confab in Washington, D.C., Delrahim said legal challenges to future corporate vertical mergers — such as Sprint’s pending merger with T-Mobile — were empowered following the AT&T/Time Warner challenge.

“There are many lessons to be learned from the U.S. v. AT&T,” Delrahim said, according to a recording released by the ACA and reported by Deadline.com. “Given the standard of review that we were facing, [the outcome] wasn’t a surprise. You learn more from losing than from winning.”

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Specifically, the executive contends future legal challenges by the DOJ will be based more on structural changes rather than behavior.

Delrahim said the government’s approval of Comcast’s $30 billion acquisition of NBC Universal in 2009 revolved around behavior/consent remedies the cable giant was beholden to follow for a number of years — including silent partnership in Hulu.

Similar regulatory approach to AT&T/Time Warner wouldn’t have been worth the compromise, according to Delrahim.

“The AT&T offer will expire in less than seven years,” he said. “The new market structure [i.e. WarnerMedia] created by the transaction will remain indefinitely. If there’s harm that the arbitration offer is necessary to solve, then there’s likely to be harm in the future that will remain after the arbitration offer expires.”

Delrahim said the silver lining from the appeals court ruling was that some vertical mergers can be harmful to consumers — provided the government proves its case.

“The [appeals court] corrected many of the District Court’s misstatements and articulated a standard that is valuable,” he said.

House Democrats Investigating Whether Trump Personally Sought to Block AT&T/Time Warner Merger

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives continues to ratchet up scrutiny of President Trump and his administration — now focusing on whether the President personally attempted to block AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

The merger, which created WarnerMedia, was officially confirmed last month by a federal appeals court denying an objection by the Department of Justice.

Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) sent letters to Makan Delrahim, chief of the Justice Dept.’s antitrust division, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, seeking documentation regarding possible interference by Trump.

Jerry Nadler

The inquiry is in response to a New Yorker story that claimed Trump personally wanted to kill the merger largely due to his dislike for Turner-owned CNN and its reporting of his administration.

“Even the appearance of White House interference in antitrust law matters undermines public trust in the Department of Justice’s integrity and tarnishes meritorious enforcement by the antitrust division,” Nadler and Cicilline wrote. “The fact of actual interference would constitute a serious abuse of power.”

David Cicilline

Delrahim has said he was never pressured by Trump to pursue antitrust litigation.

“I have never been instructed by the White House on this or any other transaction under review by the antitrust division,” Delrahim said on Nov. 8, 2017, prior to filing the lawsuit.

AT&T originally sought to investigate Trump’s influence — a request denied by federal judge Richard Leon in the original antitrust trial. CEO Randall Stephenson called Trump’s possible interference the “elephant in the room.”

Makan Delrahim

DOJ Upping Comcast Scrutiny Over Hulu

When Comcast acquired NBC Universal in 2011, federal regulators required the Philadelphia-based media conglomerate to step away from management issues regarding Hulu — the subscription streaming video service it co-owns with the Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox and AT&T’s WarnerMedia.

With those and other regulatory restrictions lifted this year, Comcast, which owns 30% of Hulu, now has more of input into how Hulu — and online TV service Hulu Live — operate. The cable operator announced last month the appointment of three members to Hulu’s board of directors, who include NBC Universal executives Jeff Shell, Linda Yaccarino and Matt Bond.

Now the U.S. Depart of Justice’s antitrust unit plans to up its oversight into how Comcast its renewed leverage on how Hulu operates in the pay-TV ecosystem, according to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim.

Speaking Oct. 3 to Senators in Washington, D.C., Delrahim was asked if Comcast increased oversight of Hulu posed a threat to consumers.

“Certainly, Hulu could be a competitor to the cable business,” Delrahim told Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), according to Bloomberg. “And it’s one that we will examine carefully to see if they might take any conduct that would harm its ability to compete.”

Indeed, in a letter to Comcast prior to restrictions being lifted, Delrahim reminded the company that government oversight was not in the past tense.

“The department retains jurisdiction to enforce the antitrust laws and takes its obligations seriously,” he wrote on Aug. 14.“We would appreciate your cooperation in keeping us informed by providing the department with any plans you may have to change your policies or practices involving video programming and distribution.”

Interestingly, the DOJ could forward the letter to Disney, which will own 60% Hulu following its $71 billion acquisition of select Fox assets, including Hulu. That deal, whose price tag was significantly reduced following Comcast’s separate purchase of British satellite TV operator Sky, is still under regulatory approval.

Disney plans to launch a branded OTT video service next year – as it did this year with ESPN+.

 

AT&T May Put DOJ Antitrust Boss on Witness Stand

AT&T reportedly plans to put Makan Delrahim, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, on the witness stand in next month’s federal trial regarding the telecom’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The DOJ filed suit against the merger, claiming the deal would negatively affect consumers and the market.

In a twist, AT&T seeks to question – under oath – the government official responsible for the lawsuit.

Iranian-born Delrahim, who was nominated to the antitrust division by President Trump, and infamously gifted a baseball cap with the slogan, “Makan Antitrust Great Again,” upon his arrival, previously served in the position under President George W. Bush.

Why AT&T seeks to grill Delrahim – a corporate lawyer – revolves around his time as a lobbyist for Comcast, Google, Blue Cross Blue Shield and other major corporations.

Indeed, when the AT&T – Time Warner merger was first announced, Delrahim told a TV interview he didn’t think the merger posed a significant antitrust issue.

Of course, that was before he was appointed by Trump, who many observers believe stepped into the merger at the last minute for largely personal – not regulatory – reasons.

Trump has repeatedly called out CNN, which is owned by Time Warner unit Turner, as a facilitator of false news about him and his administration.

Scuttlebutt suggests the government could okay the deal if CNN and other properties were spun off — a scenario AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said he wouldn’t agree to.

With AT&T on the hook to Time Warner for $500 million should the merger fail, expect to see Delrahim’s TV interview presented to him in court.