‘Babel’ towering

Grey makes first deal as new Par boss

In its first major move under new studio chief Brad Grey, Paramount has set up the star-driven drama “Babel” with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal to topline and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directing a script by Guillermo Arriaga.

Anonymous Content chief Steve Golin (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) will produce with “Alexander” producer Jon Kilik.

Paramount was in final negotiations to close the deal Wednesday, the day after Grey officially succeeded Sherry Lansing. Par, which has been striving to remake its image as the town’s most cautious studio, is believed to have paid north of $20 million for rights to package, including North and South American distribution.

“Babel” will portray four interweaving stories set in Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico and Japan. Story’s kicked off with a tragedy striking a married couple on vacation.

Auction for the project, conducted by Endeavor, drew interest from most major studios. But Par — with Grey and studio prexy Donald De Line leading the way — had emerged in recent days as the most likely winning bidder, particularly given the ongoing strategy shift by Viacom co-president Tom Freston and Grey to push for riskier projects with high-profile talent and international cachet.

The scenario for “Babel” was somewhat reminiscent of the bidding three years ago for “21 Grams,” which successfully reteamed the “Amores Perros” directing-writing duo of Inarritu and Arriaga. Focus Features won the auction for the tale of three lives also interconnected by a tragedy; “21 Grams” went on to gross $60 million worldwide and draw Oscar nominations for Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.

Negotiations are in progress for Blanchett, fresh off her supporting actress Oscar win for her role as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” to star in “Babel.”

Pitt, who’s in final negotiations, is also expected to star as gunslinger Jesse James in a Western based on Robert Hansen’s novel “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Book was optioned last year as a co-production between Scott Free partners Ridley and Tony Scott, and Plan B, the Warner Bros.-based shingle that was run by Pitt, Grey and Jennifer Aniston.

Plan B’s future has remained uncertain since Grey exited to take the top job at Paramount Pictures and Pitt and Aniston separated as a married couple.

Bernal most recently appeared in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

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