Par ramps up laffers to fill its lean pipeline

A correction was made to this article on November 3, 2005.

A funny thing’s happening at Paramount — new studio president Gail Berman wants to boost its output of comedies.

“Comedy, comedy, comedy, comedy,” Berman responded Tuesday when asked what kind of projects she’s seeking. “I love comedies.”

To that end, Berman told Daily Variety Paramount has greenlit a sequel to MTV’s 2003 “Jackass the Movie,” which was the studio’s most profitable film that year, with a gross of $65 million; the film cost less than $5 million. The aim’s to get “Jackass II” into theaters during the 2006 holiday season.

Berman, who’s five months into her studio gig following five years as head of Fox Entertainment, isn’t only focused on comedy. But she hopes to rely on comedy to boost what now is a rather meager Paramount Pictures pipeline inherited from the previous regime. Currently, the studio has approximately 10 movies tentatively pegged for release in 2006 and three more for 2007.

However Berman was quick to point out that she’s not going to rush into making movies to fill that slim slate.

“I can take the criticism,” she added. “You can’t make a movie just because you need a movie.”

But movies need to be made, so Berman is at work reviewing the projects the studio has in development, managing the slate and redirecting the future focus of development. “We need to create the best product, market the best product and be competitive with everything that’s being thrown at the moviegoer,” she added.

She’s also leaning on Par’s producers, particularly with uber-producer Scott Rudin having departed. Studio’s signed seven new deals this year (Plan B, Mark Waters-Jessica Tuchinsky, Jason Blum, Kevin Misher, Tom Jacobson, Jamie Foxx, Craig Brewer-Stephanie Allaine) and re-signed Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

Right off the bat, Berman is giving high priority to a pair of possible franchise starters — Nickelodeon’s “Spiderwick Chronicles,” which is being rewritten by John Sayles, and Alphaville’s “Ripley” action-adventure, based on the life of Robert Ripley, creator of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Short of “Mission: Impossible,” Paramount is a barren place for major franchises.

Since Par chairman Brad Grey stunned Hollywood in March by tapping Berman, supporters have noted her strong people skills, her expertise in development and passion for film. She’s trying to serve as a catalyst in pushing Paramount toward more feature comedies — due, in no small part, to her TV background.

Berman, whose successful skeins at Fox include “24,” “American Idol” and “The O.C.,” began her showbiz career on Broadway by exec producing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at the age of 23.

She broke into TV in 1990 at Comedy Central, first heading Sandollar TV, where she was exec producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” and then Regency TV, where she helped develop “Malcolm in the Middle.”

“The question of how do you connect with programming to get to the demographics — 18-34, the 12-17, the 18-49 — that’s what’s in my head,” she noted. “That’s my sweet spot.”

And Berman’s not overly concerned about the current slump in the box office, with year-to-year results off 6% from 2004. “The current situation is tough, but I think it’s also cyclical,” she said.

She’s also certain there’s still plenty of potential in the middle — between tentpoles and specialty fare — for moderately priced pics such as Par’s “Four Brothers,” produced by di Bonaventura with a domestic gross near $75 million.

Berman sees “Ripley” as a particularly attractive property in that regard, describing it as ” ‘Indiana Jones’ with freaks” and a property that’s original but accessible. “The question we face is how do you engage young men who have already seen everything in the world get blown up in other movies?” she adds.

Paramount’s first two 2006 films will be comedies — the remake “Last Holiday,” with Queen Latifah, and Rudin’s “Failure to Launch,” with Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker. Berman’s particularly pleased with Nick’s upcoming Jack Black wrestling comedy “Nacho Libre,” directed by Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”), currently in production, saying she’s looking for more of the same. “That is the perfect example of what I love. If I could have two more of that (movie) I’d be thrilled,” she said.

And she’s emphasized that the new Paramount is not automatically discarding projects developed under Sherry Lansing’s regime — “We’re looking at everything very carefully” she said — and pointed to long-in-development car salesman comedy “August Blowout” (aka “Hot Rod”), with Lorne Michaels producing, as a particularly promising project.

Berman’s also pushing for a more focused approach on putting projects on the development front than under the Lansing regime. “It needs to be more youthful and diverse,” she said.

Planning calls for 2006 releases for “Last Holiday,” “Failure to Launch,” “Mission: Impossible 3,” “Nacho Libre,” Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center rescue project, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Dreamgirls,” “The Zodiac,” “Babel,” “The Barnyard” and “Jackass II.” Likely 2007 pics include “Freedom Writers,” “Transformers” and “Beowulf.”

Par’s co-financing “Dreamgirls,” and “Transformers” with DreamWorks, and partnering with Warner Bros. on “Zodiac” and “Beowulf. “

While the slate looks slim at this point, Berman’s looking to eventually get the number of annual pics released up to 25, including projects from Paramount Classics, MTV, Nick, BET and Country Music Television. Studio’s also planning a regional release of the MTV/CMT project “Angel From Montgomery,” to tap star Toby Keith’s fan base.

Studio also is skewing younger, snapping up such projects as Charles Burns’ just-published graphic horror novel “Black Hole,” in which freakish deformities infect sexually active teens. Par’s signed Alexandre Aja (“The Hills Have Eyes”) to direct and set it up with MTV Films and Brad Pitt’s Plan B with Aja and partner Gregory Levasseur producing. Kevin Messick’s exec producing.

Other high-priority projects for Berman:

  • A pair of action projects set up with di Bonaventura — “By Any Means Necessary” with Antoine Fuqua directing; and “Convoy.”

  • “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” with Brad Pitt starring and David Fincher directing. Plan B’s producing.

  • Robert Ludlum’s “The Chancellor Manuscript,” with Leonardo DiCaprio starring and Red Wagon producing.

  • Neil Gaiman’s fantasy “Stardust,” with Matthew Vaughn directing and producing.

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