Classics duo gone after unit restructure

David Dinerstein and Ruth Vitale are out as heads of Paramount Classics.

Par chairman Brad Grey, who’s been revamping the studio top to bottom, fired the pair Thursday morning even though there’s no replacement onboard.

Early buzz on a successor centered on Lions Gate president Tom Ortenberg, but a Paramount spokeswoman said no deal’s in place. Ortenberg was not available in his Lions Gate office Thursday.

Dinerstein and Vitale have been sole heads of the arthouse shingle since it was launched in 1998. Their four-year contracts were due to run out Feb. 14.

The fate of Dinerstein and Vitale was likely sealed a year ago when Viacom co-president Tom Freston told an investment conference that the niche arm would be beefed up and broadened as part of Par’s overall push for fare that’s riskier, more creative and aimed at a younger demo. Freston pointed out that specialty films cost less and have the potential for great breakout success, saying at the time, “We think we can be major players here.”

Grey’s clearly aiming to carry out that mandate. And his choice of a successor to Dinerstein and Vitale — whether the slot’s filled by a producer or studio exec, for example — will serve as a key indication of exactly how Paramount Classics will be ramped up.

“Sideways” producer Michael London was an early Freston pick to take over the division, and Cinetic Media’s John Sloss was said to be offered the post. Former Newmarket Films prexy Bob Berney was also a likely candidate, but instead landed at HBO and New Line’s Picturehouse unit.

The uncertainty over Paramount Classics has lingered during Grey’s tenure as he’s focused on reinventing the studio by making it more talent-friendly and bringing in a new exec team. Key departures since Grey replaced Sherry Lansing in March include studio co-presidents Donald De Line and Tom Jacobson, production president Karen Rosenfelt, studio vice chair Rob Friedman and motion picture group exec VP Bruce Tobey.

In a statement, Vitale and Dinerstein said: “We are extremely proud of everything we have accomplished in building Paramount Classics over the past eight years, and we are sad to see this chapter come to an end. We understand that Paramount is moving in new directions. We care deeply about our projects and filmmakers and will do everything possible to (ensure) a smooth transition.”

The ouster of Dinerstein and Vitale comes a month after the duo lost a bidding war to Fox Searchlight over writer-helmer Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking.”

Par Classics asserted it had a handshake deal in place with William Morris to buy the pic only to find itself waylaid by an eleventh-hour bid from the Fox specialty unit. The company then contended it owned the pic, but Searchlight had the signed paperwork and was the preference of “Smoking” producer David Sacks.

Under Par’s old regime, which tightly held Par Classics’ purse strings, the specialty unit concentrated on picking up arthouse fare on the fest circuit, including such pics as “You Can Count on Me” and “The Singing Detective.”

But during the past year, Vitale and Dinerstein were unshackled from the dictates of former ways, and under Freston and Grey made an audacious $9 million purchase at Sundance of Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow.”

Pic was released with help from Viacom unit MTV Films, with B.O. falling somewhat short of expectations at $22 million domestically. Still, “Hustle & Flow” grossed double the label’s previous best performer, “You Can Count on Me.”

The did score with its pickup of this year’s Slamdance-opening pic, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” taking in $8 million from the kiddie-dancing docu.

Unit has recently moved beyond purely buying finished films and is currently co-producing Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan” as well as horror pic “Beneath” and Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young concert docu, which will be released in February as Par Classics’ next pic.

Division still plans to release Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust,” starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, but has moved the drama from December to March.

Company has 16 employees, most of which are expected to stay on as of now.

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