Sleeping giant

Par is unique with slow, steady touch

Flashy it may not be, but Paramount enjoys a level of stability and consistency few other Hollywood mainstays can match.

Top film execs sit in the same posts they had nearly a decade ago. Tenures in marketing, homevideo and distribution stretch back even farther.

The stability — even stolidity — contrasts with the dizzying exec turnover afflicting most majors as consolidating media congloms continue to wreak havoc.

Paramount’s box-office record reflects management’s even keel — no colossal hits, but no outright disasters either. In 2000, true to form, the studio so far ranks No. 5 thanks to down-the-middle winners “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Shaft” and “Snow Day.” Up next is the “Saturday Night Live”-derived “Ladies Man” on Oct. 13.

In order to fully grasp the studio’s conservative makeup, consider this: Only one or two studios made money on films this past year. And Par is one of them.

With budgets contained, risks managed and producing partners producing, the studio hasn’t missed a beat since parent Viacom merged with CBS earlier this year.

Producing and equity partners such as Mandalay Entertainment, Scott Rudin, Lakeshore, Cruise/Wagner, Icon, Alphaville and Mutual Film wield considerable clout.

Partly as a result, the highest budget ever approved for a feature, studio execs insist, was $80 million for “Mission: Impossible 2.” The Tom Cruise actioner wound up costing at least $20 million more, but still well below other summer megabudgeters like “Dinosaur,” “The Patriot” or “The Perfect Storm.”

‘Positive place’

Rudin, who has no fewer than six Par pics set to go before next spring (Daily Variety, Sept. 25), dubs the studio “a very positive place” to do business.

“If they’re on the fence, they give you the benefit of the doubt,” Rudin said. “I’ve made pictures ranging from ‘Sleepy Hollow’ to ‘Wonder Boys,’ from ‘Shaft’ to ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ and I credit the studio with helping me figure out how to make these films in a responsible way.”

The fewer the risks, of course, the fewer the chances for execs to shine. They tend to take a bit of a back seat to the Rudins and Peter Gubers — except, of course, for motion picture chairman Sherry Lansing and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen.

Many Par execs sigh that they can do little about their pet projects except wait until Lansing flashes the green light with her preferred actors already in mind.

While not disavowing her central role, Lansing likens the exec team to a happy family.

“It’s so tough out there to make good movies, you have to feel that within these walls it’s a tight group,” she reasoned.

When Dolgen arrived in ’94, he and Lansing decided to strive for stability.

“We see no reason to pit people against each other,” he said. “Warring factions are no good for Somalia and they’re no good for movie studios.”

Par may indeed be enjoying a period of peace. But several nagging issues persist:

Development may be a messy process industrywide, but at Par the pace is glacial.

Lansing often boasts that it took 10 years to make “Runaway Bride,” the 1999 smash starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. “Double Jeopardy” and “Forrest Gump” took nearly as long.

“The philosophy that governs every project is that we are script-oriented,” said Lansing, who tends to operate as the producer she once was at Par. “The script is our greatest asset. If we believe in a movie, we never give up on it.”

Another studio exec remembers a meeting with talent agents at which “Double Jeopardy” was mentioned for the umpteenth time. ” ‘Please don’t bring that project up again!’ ” the exec recalls them wailing.

Key factors

Those acquainted with the system identify two factors that make Par so pokey.

First, the priority remains on old-fashioned star-driven vehicles such as “M:I-2” and “Double Jeopardy.” As those projects take shape, the stakes are higher to make sure the machine is running smoothly. Therefore the studio likes to pick over every detail.

“More so than most places, we have our likes and our dislikes,” conceded one exec.

Also, Par’s penchant for co-financing deals can retard the pace, as the risk-averse financing mentality creeps into the development side.

“Do people say we’re slow on the trigger? Yeah,” conceded Robert Friedman, vice chairman of the motion picture group. “We’re not going to bet the house on a movie because you don’t want to lose your house. But this studio does not operate out of fear of failure. That gives people the ability to create.”

Ruth Vitale has developed a similar patience in running the nearly three-year-old Paramount Classics with David Dinerstein. After a rough start, the art arm has scored with small-scale hits such as “Sunshine” and “The Virgin Suicides.”

“They’ve taught me that you just wait,” Vitale said of her Par counterparts. “You make your decisions very carefully. You weigh all of the factors and then you make your move.”

Rudin considers “Zoolander,” a comedy set for 2001 release, a prime example of the benefits of patience.

“We couldn’t agree on a budget one-and-a-half years ago,” he recalled. “Sherry wouldn’t go along with it even though she liked the material. We argued and haggled but it wouldn’t work. Eighteen months later I raised it again with her, this time with Ben Stiller directing as well as starring. The studio came up with a financing partner and we got it done.”

Consolidation has redefined the landscape.

Paramount is credited with distributing Hollywood’s first feature film in 1914, and for decades it occupied the glorious nexus of showbiz moneymaking.

In 1966, the age of autonomy ended when Gulf & Western took control of Par. Viacom bought the studio in 1993 and fended off Barry Diller’s hostile takeover bid a year later. The company closed its merger with CBS in May.

Merger effects

Following those corporate maneuvers, Par’s domestic film B.O. now accounts for about 7% of the total revenue of its parent company.

The impact of the CBS merger is far heavier on the TV side, but the repercussions do reach the film corridors.

Film-TV synergy, on which Par has thrived more than any other company, should only increase with more small-screen properties in the fold.

This November’s “Rugrats in Paris” follows other MTV- and Nickelodeon-based hits “Rugrats: The Movie,” “Snow Day,” “Beavis and Butt-head,” “Varsity Blues” and “The Original Kings of Comedy.”

Execs’ discontent appears to be growing.

If they are a family, as Lansing asserts, it is a disparate one that has managed to get along during their unusually long run. But while most have settled into well-defined roles — production chief Michelle Manning the troubleshooter, film group prexy John Goldwyn the problem-solver — there are cracks in the foundation.

There is talk that senior veepee Chip Diggins, exec veep Donald Granger and VP Dede Gardner may all be on the verge of ankling.

Then again, similar speculation about Lansing and Dolgen arose earlier this year and they promptly re-upped with six-year deals.

Marketing is geared toward mainstream titles.

While much of the talk of continuity at Par centers on film production, the marketing and distribution staffs have also been ultra-stable.

With this longevity has come a sense of security about what the studio is and what it is not.

“We haven’t chased market share by increasing the number of films we produce,” noted Wayne Lewellen, distrib chief and a 26-year company vet. “If a picture is not ready, we’re not going to go out with it.”

The industry consensus is that they succeed with the fare that is supposed to succeed, but they rarely pull a Miramax- or DreamWorks-style rabbit out of the hat.

You want a solid double like “Shaft”? No problem. “General’s Daughter”? Just sell John Travolta to the teeth.

Quirky challenge

But with quirkier, sophisticated pics like “Wonder Boys,” “Election” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (shared with Miramax), it’s a dicier story. The studio’s struggles are illustrated by subdued grosses and negligible award hauls. (February’s “Wonder Boys” will be re-released this fall in a bid for Oscar consideration.)

Friedman admitted “Election,” in retrospect, would have been a better fit for Par Classics, whose holiday pic “The Gift” will seek a similar mix of upscale and wide auds.

Marketing chief Arthur Cohen, who came to the studio after years in advertising, said the goal is simple.

“When you pay someone $20 million for a movie, you’ve got to have a real good reason not to put them on the poster,” he said.

In addition to “Zoolander,” major pics on the 2001 slate include “Vanilla Sky,” “The Sum of All Fears,” “Rat Race,” “Tomb Raider,” “Jimmy Neutron,” “Along Came a Spider” and “Save the Last Dance.”

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