Viacom taps H'wood manager to turn around studio's fortunes

Brad Grey will become Sherry Lansing’s successor at Paramount Pictures, a signal that corporate parent Viacom intends to follow through on its promise to re-invigorate the studio.

The move, which will probably become official in the next few days, underlines the desire by Viacom co-prexy Tom Freston and Viacom chief Sumner Redstone to aim Paramount toward younger moviegoers and shed the studio’s reputation as the town’s most cautious operation.

Grey has an impressive reputation as a Hollywood player, having built Brillstein-Grey into a powerful management firm, with such heavyweights as Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler and Lorne Michaels, and racked up an impressive track record as a TV producer with shows including “The Sopranos,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Politically Incorrect” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”

By bringing in someone with deal-making expertise, an outsider’s perspective and an extensive knowledge of the nuances of studio operations, Viacom is giving Grey a mandate to remake Paramount’s culture.

Adaptation

Freston’s been stressing the need for Paramount to adapt amid the massive shifts in film business economics at a time when filmmaking costs have been soaring and the industry is threatened with piracy and the potential erosion of its core audience by video games and other powerful distractions.

Viacom and Paramount had no official comment Sunday on a report in the Los Angeles Times that Grey had emerged as the leading candidate to succeed Lansing.

The move comes two months after Lansing, who’s headed Paramount since 1993, announced she was leaving her post by the end of 2005. Grey will be taking over as Paramount’s completed a long stretch of underperformance at the box office, though it’s scored decent returns with its most recent films, “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

Grey, who’s owned Brillstein-Grey for the past decade, is expected to wrap up details shortly to divorce himself from Brillstein-Grey by selling the firm to associates. He’s also in the midst of extricating himself from Plan B, the Warner-based film production company that he co-owns with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, with Warners expected to OK Grey’s departure.

Plan B has been ramping up with a major Warners release “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Johnny Depp and set for next summer. Grey’s expected to keep a producer credit on “Charlie” plus another film.

Shooting for Par

Grey emerged as the go-to choice for the Paramount top slot in recent meetings with Redstone and Freston, who began oversight of the studio in early June when he and Leslie Moonves were promoted as co-presidents. Paramount production president Donald De Line has been the leading internal candidate to succeed Lansing.

Paramount’s on-lot producers had been hopeful that De Line, who took over for John Goldwyn a year ago, would be promoted.

De Line sought to bring a fresh outlook to Par, and insiders are cautiously optimistic about the 2005 slate, highlighted by remakes of “The War of the Words,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, and “The Longest Yard,” starring Adam Sandler. “War” is co-financed by DreamWorks; “Yard” is co-financed by Sony.

But Freston and Redstone have clearly opted for continuing what appears to be an extensive revamp of Paramount’s culture, which had been the most conservative in Hollywood for more than a decade. By tapping Grey, the studio will be headed by a consummate dealmaker with a strong business track record, impressive relations with talent and an unflappable demeanor.

Grey’s major attribute at Paramount is expected to be his expertise in talent relations, which had been a problem area under the tight-fisted reign of Jonathan Dolgen, who departed his post as Viacom Entertainment chief the day after Freston’s promotion.

Grey area

Producers expressed initial surprise over the choice, pointing to Grey’s limited experience as a film producer and his lack of experience in running a large studio. His exec producer credits include hits such as “Scary Movie” and “The Wedding Singer” and underperformers such as “City by the Sea,” “What Planet Are You From?” and “The Cable Guy.”

Grey, who has made several hundred million dollars at Brillstein-Grey, is 47. He broke into the business as an assistant to Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein before being hired by manager Bernie Brillstein two decades ago and becoming a partner in 1991.

Execs at Paramount, which has been the worst performer among the majors for two consecutive years, have been proclaiming during 2004 that they were taking a riskier course with such projects as Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust,” Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” and Gore Verbinski’s “The Weather Man.” Since Freston’s ascension, the biggest shift looks to be an appetite for projects such as “Locked and Loaded” that can take advantage of Viacom’s MTV brand and deliver teens and young adults.

The studio’s become less inclined to co-finance and has been looking to beef up specialty label Paramount Classics.

Paramount’s next movie, MTV’s “Coach Carter,” is aimed squarely at younger audiences. Its key upcoming projects include remakes of “Bad News Bears,” “Last Holiday,” TV-based projects “Aeon Flux” and “The Honeymooners,” sequels “The Italian Job 2,” “Mission: Impossible 3,” “Indiana Jones 4″ and potential franchise starters “A Princess of Mars” and “Spiderwick Chronicles.”

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