Exec exits amid new multilabel strategy

Gail Berman’s exit as prexy of Paramount Pictures is part of yet another major restructuring at the studio, with a division of production among four units: Par, Paramount Vantage, DreamWorks and MTV Films/Nick Movies.

Late Wednesday, Paramount Pictures chairman-CEO Brad Grey tagged the new setup a “multilabel strategy,” telling Daily Variety, “I have all the heads of these divisions reporting to me creatively. I’m really comfortable with that.”

Brad Weston, who arrived at Par around the same time as Berman (he came from Dimension Films), will become president of production (instead of co-president) and take charge of the Paramount unit. Leaving in the shakeup is Par co-president of production Alli Shearmur.

Newly installed MTV Films/Nick Movies prexy Scott Aversano, who previously reported to Berman, will now report directly to Grey. Already reporting to Grey is Par Vantage’s John Lesher. Stacey Snider remains production topper at DreamWorks.

Berman’s role has been steadily reduced in importance since she arrived 18 months ago, thanks to the Viacom-CBS split and the acquisition of DreamWorks announced in December 2005.

Last October, Berman approached Grey about ending her contract, since the shifts at Par — including the DreamWorks buy and the growth of Par Vantage — were diminishing her duties. She and Grey agreed to table the discussions until after the holidays.

In the past, Par proper was the key source of production. Now, the four divisions, plus films from Comedy Central and BET, make Par just one of the suppliers to the studio pipeline.

Under the new plan, the Par label and DreamWorks will each be responsible for turning out six to eight movies per year; MTV/Nick will be responsible for four to six; and Vantage seven to 10.

Few studio regimes have been under such intense scrutiny as Grey’s the past two years. Aside from rumors related to Berman, Grey has been subjected to talk of his own exit; non-Par legal headaches; the fundamental shifts due to the DreamWorks buy; the Tom Cruise “divorce”; and the ousting of Grey’s boss, Tom Freston, from the Viacom fold.

“Part of Gail’s problem was that the ground kept shifting, especially with the DreamWorks acquisition,” said one Par-based producer. And once (John Lesher) came on to run Paramount Vantage and started getting projects going, she looked kind of ineffective by comparison.”

Grey, who himself was more rooted in TV than film, stunned Hollywood when announcing in March 2005 that he’d convinced Berman to ankle as Fox Broadcasting prexy of entertainment and oversee the studio’s annual slate of movies. Rumors of her exit began even before she arrived on the Melrose lot, but they’d heated up in the past few days.

Berman is the only female exec to have held the top posts at both a major film studio and television network. (TV honcho Brandon Tartikoff lasted one year as chair of Paramount Pictures in the early 1990s.)

She hasn’t announced her next move, although she’s likely to continue to work in film, television or some combination thereof.

Berman oversaw several critically acclaimed and financially successful pics through the production process, including “World Trade Center,” “Nacho Libre,” “Failure to Launch” and, most recently, “Freedom Writers.” She scored another coup in bringing the MTV/Nick labels under her dominion.

In a statement Wednesday, Grey said Berman’s dedication has been “invaluable during this important and historic time at Paramount.”

Shearmur was hired by former Par topper Sherry Lansing and Donald De Line — who was unceremoniously ousted to make way for Berman — in 2004. A year later, Grey and Berman named Shearmur and Weston co-presidents of production.

Shearmur, who has close ties with such producers as Scott Rudin and Brian Grazer, guided titles including “Failure to Launch,” “Nacho Libre” and the upcoming David Fincher titles “Zodiac” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” among others.

Rumors were rife that Berman and Shearmur clashed from the get-go. Also, many complained that Berman butted heads with agents across town, as well as with producers on the lot, who said she didn’t understand the greenlighting process.

Berman’s departure comes just as awards season kicks into high gear with DreamWorks’ Bill Condon-directed “Dreamgirls” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” from Par Vantage.

The exit is the first high-profile ouster since Philippe Dauman took the reins of Viacom last fall after Freston’s departure. But it was likely Grey’s call. “Dauman has set a high bar for performance — but it’s up to Brad how he gets there,” figured one Viacom insider.

Wall Street, which has been snapping up Viacom stock with gusto, greeted Berman’s resignation with a shrug. Shares rose 1.9% to close at $42.53, continuing a tear. The stock is up more than 10 bucks from its 52-week low, with much of the boost coming over the past month.

(Jill Goldsmith in New York and Dave McNary in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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