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STUDIO PRODUCT UP TO PAR

Paramount Pictures, on a roll since Viacom acquired the studio last year for a cool $10 billion, is surprisingly healthy heading into the summer, despite having only four releases. The “Forrest Gump” video sold 12 million copies, making it the largest adult sell-through title ever. “Braveheart” is performing well at the box office and “Congo” shocked the biz by earning $25 million in its opening weekend.

Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” screened to a group of very satisfied execs June 22 – production prexy John Goldwyn liked it so much that he was literally in tears. “Clueless” is also tracking quite well. But even with all those signs of success, there are rumblings of discontent on the lot.

To be sure, life is sunny for Barry London, vice chairman of the motion picture group, and his distribution team. And worldwide marketing president Arthur Cohen can rest easy with the 40-some staffers at the 2-year-old inhouse ad agency, 5555 Communications, which is now hiring about 10 more execs.

But on the production side, agents complain that the studio can be Hamlet-like in its reluctance to decide on film projects and casting choices. Those ten-percenters also suspect that while motion picture group chairman and CEO Sherry Lansing and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen work well together, they are not always in sync. But even if some opportunities are lost, the studio has demonstrated a knack for landing on its feet.

Sources say Par was considering John Travolta for the starring role in “Nick of Time” last year before the opening of “Pulp Fiction” catapulted him back to stardom. But the studio brass waffled until “Pulp” opened, and by that time Travolta was not only pricy, he was unavailable. The studio recovered nicely, however, as Johnny Depp took the role instead.

A similar problem arose when the studio began courting Jim Carrey last January for “The Truman Show,” a high-priority project that was being developed at Scott Rudin Prods. Some sources say Par could have closed the deal quickly by paying Carrey what is now the bargain price of $7 million, but during a pause in the talks the wacky thesp’s reps suddenly demanded script approval. This was not a popular request.

The negotiations continued for four more months, and as they neared an agreement Carrey still had script approval. By that time the golden boy of comedy was hired as a “Cable Guy” by Columbia for $20 million. Still, observers note that Carrey still could have taken the $20 million by simply saying he didn’t like the “Truman” script. Rudin and Par might still wait for Carrey to become available.

More recently, Par flip-flopped on “The Phantom,” which had been killed but was revived recently with newcomer Simon Wincer at the helm and Billy Zane in the lead. “The Phantom” will fill the summer pic slot vacated by “The Saint” – which the studio realized was going to be delayed because of budget problems and casting difficulties. “The Phantom” is mobilized for a Memorial Day ’96 release.

But a few sources close to the project said the greenlight might be more yellow. “It’s hard to know whether they’re serious about this,” says one. “But they can be sure they have a movie for that slot,” notes another.

Part of the problem is that the executives are sometimes left in the dark about key decisions. The talk on the lot in May suggested that Par had killed plans to form a specialized film division. But sources now say that Dolgen and Lansing are definitely committed to forming the division within the next year. “They are?” says one baffled Paramount mole.

In one other incident, sources say Lansing and Dolgen sold the foreign rights to a picture without telling either the producer or the exec on the project, which reportedly caused a bit of consternation. But Paramount officially denied the flap.

Other observers note that the studio’s “Gump” era simply would not have happened without a few key executives and producers, who could easily depart for more lucrative posts across town.

Star execs

Most sources agree that the two stars are exec VP Michelle Manning and senior VP Donald Granger. Motion picture group production president John Goldwyn is also well-regarded. And many of the lower-profile execs get their fair share of praise.

Even as the studio rolls in “Gump” video money and “Congo” cash, it has maintained its focus on cutting costs, which some sources say has put a dent in executive paychecks and bonuses. But those sources insist that the larger problem is the studio’s inability to celebrate success, and the overwhelming consensus is that the production executives are yearning for a little corporate jote de vivre.

Sources familiar with the “Forrest Gump” production say that Manning was not given due credit for her crucial role in shepherding the largest-ever hit for the studio.

Background role

When the awards and B.O. cash were rolling in, the executive was suddenly upstaged by bigger names. And the wide-spread backlot folklore reflects Manning’s huge role in the bringing the blockbuster to the big screen. Paramount officially denied the slight, and Manning did not return phone calls.

And when “Gump” opened to huge numbers last summer, the studio didn’t even take time to celebrate the much-needed hit. “It was business as usual,” says one source. “There wasn’t even a sense that something good had happened.” According to numerous sources, the studio also has shown a lack of corporate enthusiasm about hits like “Star Trek Generations” and even “Congo.”

In separate interviews, both Dolgen and Lansing praised the executive production staff, and Lansing emphasized that she would like to promote from within. Many sources also sight good policy changes like health benefits for domestic partners. When asked if she had any other specific ideas to keep their star production execs on board, Lansing said, “We compensate our people fairly, and we treat them well.”

But despite bucking for more parties and some other hushed complaints, sources in the motion picture division admit that there is an unusual amount of camaraderie at the studio. Indeed, they almost unanimously marvel at the goodwill between execs, which is perhaps best described as an off-the-record group hug.

One could say it comes from the top down. When Paramount had one of its first post-takeover flops, Viacom Inc. chairman of the board Sumner Redstone called Lansing the Monday after the film’s opening and said, “I know you must be feeling bad this morning, but I want you to know that it’s not your fault. It was the right decision to make this movie.”

Dolgen is also known to occasionally stroll down the hall to smoke a cigarette with his top executives, and discuss recent music releases on the R& B chart. “They really like him,” said one agent.

Another agent basically summed up the bottom line, “Nobody is leaving anytime soon. They all have a lot of time left on their contracts, and besides, they actually like it there,” he says.

MANY OBSERVERS CITE the $11 million ad campaign for the star-less “Congo” as a textbook example of how to sell a picture in the ’90s.

After months of conversations with producer Kathleen Kennedy and director Frank Marshall, the studio decided on a single concept for the campaign, which was described as man vs. the jungle and in turn, the jungle vs. technology.

The quick-moving trailer showed elements of the rain forest through a digital computer screen, with the voiceover, “Where you are the endangered species.”

Early start

Paramount then kicked off the “Congo” campaign last November with a teaser trailer on the front of “Star Trek Generations” that revealed no gorillas, but focused on the concept.

Par also went out with teaser one-sheets in the theaters at Christmas, and standees. The studio rolled out the complete print artwork and regular trailer around Easter, which were praised by a number of competing marketing mavens, especially for keeping the gorillas a mystery, a la “Jurassic Park’s” dinosaurs.

Marshall toured the country, and even attended a few sci-fi conventions to plug the picture. The trailer was also available to the computerati on the Internet.

Then the ubiquitous corporate tie-ins started to kick in. Par estimates that the promotional value of its tie-ins for “Congo” ranged from $80 million to $85 million, highlighted by deals with Taco Bell and Pepsi. Par also attached teaser trailers to every “Gump” video-cassette, and by the time “Congo” opened, more than 11 million “Gump” units had sold.

The big picture

“The whole strategy was to (make) June 9 (a special event),” says motion picture vice chairman Barry London. “We knew we had an opportunity of one week to maximize a result because of the impending summer competition. But one thing matters the most – people like this movie.”

The creative staff of 5555 Communications, which is made up of mostly Internet surfers and Beastie Boys fanatics, created some of the promotional materials for the movie, which saves the studio an estimated 10%-25% on all ad production.

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