New studio regime confounds town as it shakes status quo

With last week’s signing of John Lesher as prexy of Paramount Classics, brass at the parent studio are closer to realizing their vision.

So why are many industry insiders still scratching their heads? Well, perhaps because Par’s gameplan is nothing less than a revolution within the Hollywood studio system.

It may be the only studio in history in which four top jobs are filled by executives who are working in completely new territory. Brad Grey gained his experience as a successful manager and producer; Gail Berman worked her way up the ladder in television. Rob Moore was the dealmaker at Revolution Studios before being named Par president of marketing and distribution; and Lesher landed at Par after spending his entire career in the agency business.

And all this has happened in only a year. It was on Nov. 2, 2004, that Sherry Lansing announced she was leaving Paramount Pictures after a dozen years as studio chief. Her exit created a flurry of changes from top to bottom, everything from the phone system to a wholesale revamp of the executive suite.

Though the venerable Par lot at 5555 Melrose Avenue looks the same, it’s been transformed. And that’s saying something, since the studio had been the most stable and tradition-bound in Hollywood, known for its conservative and risk-averse ways.

The past 18 months have seen the exits of Lansing, Jonathan Dolgen, Donald De Line and Rob Friedman at Par and Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein at Par Classics.

Exactly a year after Lansing announced her departure, longtime agent and Endeavor partner Lesher joined the specialty arm. The position had been the focus of many indie gossip circles over the past year — particularly due to the expressed desire by Viacom co-president Tom Freston to amp up Par Classics from a peripheral entity into a major player, on the order of Fox Searchlight.

The plans also call for Par to zero in on pics that target a younger audience, making use of the easy marketing access to the MTV generation. And while the studio’s upcoming release “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” was greenlit by Lansing, it’s notable that development wasn’t launched until after Freston canned Dolgen in mid-2004.

“Get Rich” is strongly indicative of the hipper demo that Par is hoping to get into theaters. Even the Nov. 2 premiere of the Jim Sheridan-directed gangsta drama showed a cooler side of the studio, with a chic Tropicana Bar after-party complete with go-go dancers.

In the Lansing years, Paramount had specialized in middle-of-the-road projects: women-in-distress thrillers like “Double Jeopardy,” detective stories like “Along Came a Spider” and Tom Clancy political dramas like “The Sum of All Fears.”

Now Par’s looking for the leading edge; it’s no accident that it’s the first studio to have greenlit a 9/11 project. And not just any 9/11 project either — the studio signed up Oliver Stone for a yet-to-be-titled World Trade Center rescue film that’s in production, with Nicolas Cage starring.

“Paramount used to be the most predictable studio, and now it’s the least predictable,” one exec muses.

It’s been a year of surprises. Freston surprised the town on the day after New Year’s Day by naming Grey — best known as a talent rep and developer of such shows as “The Sopranos” — to succeed Lansing. Grey then stunned showbiz two months later by naming Fox Entertainment president Berman to succeed Donald De Line as prexy.

Since then, Grey and Berman have:

  • signed seven new producing deals, including Brad Pitt and Jamie Foxx and gone out of their way to present themselves as more talent-friendly;

  • greenlit “Mission: Impossible 3″ at a reduced budget;

  • started to unwind its UIP foreign distribution partnership with Universal and set up its own operation in 2007;

  • revamped the computers, the phones and the rest of the executive suite. Longtime production prexy Karen Rosenfelt ankled, replaced by Ali Shearmur and former Dimension prez Brad Weston;

  • paid top dollar for properties such as more than $20 million for the rights to “Babel,” and $3.5 million for “The Chancellor Manuscript” from the Robert Ludlum estate in the biggest literary sale of the year; and

  • pushed Par to be younger and hipper by elevating MTV and Nickelodeon from their niche status, and stepping up its purchasing of edgier properties like Charles Burns’ “Black Hole,” “36 Quai des Orfevres,” “Damn Nation,” “How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion” and “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Obey the Bible as Literally as Possible.”

At agencies, there’s a mix of excitement over the potential opportunities and frustration over uncertainty about what Par wants. The studio’s been under a microscope as the rest of the town tries to get a handle on exactly what it’s seeking.

“It’s an awkward time for Paramount because the new executives have to deal with the movies from the old regime,” one producer notes.

The situation’s complicated by a relatively meager slate. When Berman arrived in May, Paramount had only five pics locked in for release in 2006.

She’s more than doubled that number, with 11 movies set for next year: “Last Holiday,” “Failure to Launch,” “Mission: Impossible 3,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Nacho Libre,” the World Trade Center project, “The Zodiac” (with Warners), “Dreamgirls” (with DreamWorks), “The Barnyard,” “Babel” and “Jackass II.” Its 2007 releases include “Beowulf” (with Warners), “Transformers” (with DreamWorks) and “Freedom Writers.”

Grey and Berman haven’t gotten rid of everything developed under Lansing’s regime. But they have put several high-profile projects into turnaround, including “The Watchmen,” a remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “21 Jump Street.”

Berman’s also been stressing to agents, execs and producers for the past several months that Par needs comedies to provide more balance to its portfolio. She’s a particular fan of Universal’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Fortunately for the new regime, Par’s seen a significantly better performance this year at the box office. The studio underperformed during the last years of Lansing’s reign, but once she left — as happened during previous regime changes at Sony and U — Paramount’s seen solid performance thanks largely to Lansing’s greenlights on “The Longest Yard,” “War of the Worlds” and “Four Brothers.”

Viacom reported Nov. 1 that Paramount’s net income surged to $110 million in the September quarter from a meager $5 million in the year-ago period, with revenue jumping 54% to $845 million.

Key question yet to be resolved is whether Par has the desire — and the money — to expand its business in tentpoles and franchises beyond “Mission: Impossible.” Top candidates so far are “John Carter of Mars,” with Jon Favreau attached; “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” with John Sayles rewriting the script; and “Ripley,” based on the life of the creator of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

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