For the fourth time in 25 years, Paramount last week set about the task of re-inventing itself. This time out, the cast of characters is especially intriguing, the portents promising – but the problems formidable.

When Barry Diller took the reins in 1974 and Frank Mancuso in 1984, each inherited a winning streak and an inventory of talent relationships. Now, however, 42-year-old Brandon Tartikoff takes over a studio that lost $7.3 million in its last quarter and whose market share has dropped from 22.2% to 14.9% in five years.

Significantly, Wall Street did not exactly do handstands over the Tartikoff announcement, the stock inching up 1 1/2 points – at $38, still way below its 52-week high of $50.25. Said one top investment banker, “We like the Tartikoff appointment, but Paramount’s got some problems to solve.”

Clearly undaunted, Tartikoff at week’s end cheerfully explained that the reason he “traded the peacocks for the mountains,” was that he hoped “to do for Paramount in the ’90s what I did for NBC in the ’80s” (see report on NBC, page 317). With this in mind, he set about the task of sifting through Paramount’s projects and of recruiting a new president for the studio. Mel Harris, who runs Paramount’s successful tv wing, is reported to be a top candidate.

What Tartikoff has going for him at Paramount is a cash-rich corporate parent, a commitment of creative autonomy in running the studio and the fact that, unlike Mancuso, he’s accepted as “a player” by Hollywood’s king-makers. “The Paramount of 1991 is in an aggressive, upbeat mood to buy assets and to make its mark,” says a top company exec.

At the same time, Tartikoff also confronts a spectrum of problems. Competition among the top studios has never been fiercer, nor costs more out of control. For all his charisma, Tartikoff has never put together major movie deals. And this inexperience is all the more important since Paramount desperately needs to build new bridges to top filmmakers and talent. Its problems with Eddie Murphy and Simpson and Bruckheimer have been noisily publicized.

To be sure, Paramount has always been a company with a high decibel level and its present management changes were emblazoned this week across two national magazines, which took diametrically opposed attitudes toward the causes. Newsweek pinned Paramount’s problems to Mancuso’s ineptitude, while Vanity Fair’s piece titled “Why Hollywood Hates Martin Davis,” insisted that Davis was the cause of Par’s recurrent upheavals.

Talk to key filmmakers around the studio and there’s no ambiguity where most come out on this issue: In their mind, the last three years under Mancuso have been disastrous. “Frank was a gentleman who liked to present himself as the Godfather of the studio, but he was a terrible manager,” says one top exec who’d once been close to the former Paramount boss.

“You always left his office feeling terrific,” reports a producer at the studio. “Then an aide would drop the news on you that everything was falling apart.”

Under the last three years of the Mancuso regime, sources say, productions were out of control and films were started without finished scripts. The Mansuco policy was to focus on a limited production program, unlike Disney, and to steer clear of “pick-ups,” unlike Warners. The danger of this philosophy was vividly displayed this year when the two films on which Mancuso chose to focus, “The Two Jakes” and “The Godfather Part III,” both proved to be boxoffice disappointments.

In recent months, sources say, the atmosphere at the studio has grown increasingly testy. Martin Davis, the Paramount CEO, became persuaded that Mancuso was trying to hide the truth from him. Meanwhile, the normally taciturn Mancuso was feuding with talent.

“I was in the third week of shooting when Mancuso fires my star and screams at me that I’ll never direct again,” says one director working on a studio project.

By contrast, Brandon Tartikoff’s reputation as a cool customer was on display at his press conference Thursday, deftly fielding questions and sidestepping prickly issues. Yes, he knew Davis was reputed to be a tough boss, Tartikoff parried, but he’d worked for an even tougher one at NBC in Jack Welch, the top man at General Electric.

As for Stanley Jaffe, Paramount’s new chief operating officer, Tartikoff paid homage to his filmmaking experience and said he looked forward to seeking his counsel. Indeed, neither Davis nor Jaffe were very specific in spelling out the parameters of Tartikoff’s authority.

“We didn’t ask Brandon to run a studio to teach him how to make movies,” said Jaffe, a very forceful and opinionated man, who 20 years ago, himself had been Paramount’s production chief.

“We’re going to emphasize a team approach,” said one top corporate officer rather vaguely.

The consensus within Paramount seems to be that Tartikoff will be given wide latitude in forging new talent relationships and building a new production program. “But if Brandon thinks for a moment he won’t hear a lot of opinions from Stanley Jaffe, he’s in for a surprise,” said one exec, adding quickly that he’s convinced Tartikoff and Jaffe had negotiated their working relationship before closing the deal.

Clearly, there’s no time to waste. Paramount looks forward to a few promising summer films such as “Regarding Henry,” directed by Mike Nichols, and Jerry Zucker’s sequel to “The Naked Gun.” After that, however, the pickings get lean and so does the talent.

Says one studio veteran, “People forget that when the so-called Killer Dillers left Paramount in 1984, they may have left the Spielberg and Eddie Murphy pictures, but they also littered the landscape with turkeys like “King David,” “Daryl” and “Rustler’s Rhapsody.” (The Killer Dillers was what Hollywood tabbed the Barry Diller-Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg troika who abruptly departed for Fox and Disney.)

Adds the studio vet: “In this business, everyone pays their entry fee. Even Brandon Tartikoff.”

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