Paramount exec prepares for Oscar season

Running a studio specialty film division is harder than it looks. And becoming harder still.

Just ask ex-Endeavor agent John Lesher.

After restarting Paramount’s specialty label with a pair of brand-defining successes — the global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” — Lesher’s honeymoon is over.

Eighteen months after Lesher sculpted Par Vantage from the old Paramount Classics, the division is preparing to release a slate of promising but dark art films. Now Vantage must make the numbers work — and turn a profit.

Lesher got off to a strong start, nabbing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and pushing the film to a $23.8 million gross and an Oscar win.

He also brought over from big Paramount old client Gonzalez Inarritu’s polyglot drama “Babel,” and rode its Oscar success to a $34 million domestic and $98 million foreign gross (Vantage distributed the film in half the world).

And he swiftly put into production an alluring slate of movies driven by such brand-name stars and filmmakers as Angelina Jolie, Daniel Day- Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Tommy Lee Jones, the Coen brothers and former client Paul Thomas Anderson. In the past year, as a buyer-producer-distributor, Lesher has learned how easily money flows out the door — and how slowly it trickles back in. He has also figured out how brutally competitive this crowded niche market can be.

“There’s no margin for error in any of this,” says Lesher. “You have to have a good movie, the right date and you have to get lucky. It’s a confluence of many variables you can’t control.”

It made sense to throw marketing cash at “Babel” and “An Inconvenient Truth” to establish a new label. Despite lavish P&A spending on both, Lesher says the results were worth the cost: “Going for it and making a mark in the U.S. pays off here in homevideo and around the world. We’re very conscious of how we spend our money. Our spending is way below what Harvey would spend, and in keeping with Fox Searchlight or Focus.”

“No one looks askance if you overspend and it works,” points out one indie distributor. But at a time when Paramount’s performance is being unfavorably compared to high-performing rival sibling DreamWorks, Paramount studio chief Brad Grey is counting on Lesher to deliver as his hand-picked golden boy.

Overspending on movies that do not work will draw scrutiny — two Paramount holdovers, Craig Brewer’s exploitation pic “Black Snake Moan” and National Geographic’s “Arctic Tale,” stumbled at the box office, as did Mike White’s quirky Molly Shannon comedy “Year of the Dog” — but Vantage’s biggest misfire was Lesher’s $14 million passion project “A Mighty Heart,” starring Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, wife of slain Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl. Because Jolie had a short window to do press after her Cannes send-off in May, Vantage opened the well-reviewed Michael Winterbottom film wide on 1,300 screens in June. It died. Domestic gross: $9 million.

While some observers fault Vantage’s summer timing, the real issue was one of scale. The realistic emotional drama cried out for a more limited arthouse release. The femme-friendly title also doomed the movie with male audiences.

Now, as summer draws to a close, Lesher is licking his wounds and preparing to release a slate of promising but dark art films. Two are 50/50 global co-productions with producer Scott Rudin and Miramax Films: the Coen brothers’ Cannes hit “No Country for Old Men,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, and P.T. Anderson’s period gangster drama “There Will Be Blood” based on an Upton Sinclair novel and starring Day-Lewis. “It’s about oil and God and the California oil boom,” says Lesher.

Vantage grabbed another Rudin project, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to “The Squid and the Whale,” the edgy family comedy “Margot at the Wedding,” starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black. And when Gonzalez Inarritu tipped Lesher that Sean Penn was getting ready to direct a film version of Jon Krakauer’s survival tale “Into the Wild,” Lesher quickly called the actor-director and nailed the $20 million project (which is half-financed by Bill Pohlad).

Talent relationships are Lesher’s forte. When he was a top directors’ agent, he’d fight to the death to get his clients everything they wanted, as many pained distributors can attest. His clients tended to swing to the arty side: Anderson, Gonzalez Inarritu, Fernando Mereilles, Martin Scorsese.

But making the switch from pushy client advocate to fiscally responsible division chief is tricky. Just how filmmaker-friendly can you afford to be?

In part to add some sanity to the Vantage bottom line, in early 2006 Lesher brought in old friend Nick Meyer as his co-president. The respected veteran of Sony Pictures Classics and Lionsgate Intl. offered a complementary skill set strong on global business affairs and distribution.

“We’re building a company,” says Meyer. “Our goal is to build a company that is an asset to Paramount and Viacom for the long term, not in three but 10 or 15 years.”

Meyer wasted no time in launching a foreign sales operation and closing a sought-after deal with the fledgling Overture Films to sell and release their projects overseas. Three greenlit Overture titles are already in the pipeline.

This fall, three of Vantage’s pics, “Margot at the Wedding,” “Into the Wild,” and “No Country for Old Men,” will launch at the Toronto Film Festival in September, while advance footage from “There Will Be Blood,” a post-Christmas release, will unspool at Telluride.

So tight is Vantage’s fall schedule that after Lesher offered “No Country for Old Men” an August release when the Coens preferred a fall slot, Miramax and Vantage switched foreign and domestic duties.

A surprise screening in Toronto will be Vantage’s splashy $7 million buy at this year’s Sundance fest, the U.K. youth comedy “Son of Rambow,” which was pushed back to 2008 release due to legal issues over underlying rights. Lesher insisted on being able to use the title; that issue has been resolved.

No longer on the Vantage slate, despite Lesher’s relationship with Scorsese, is the Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light,” which has been pushed back to April by Paramount, which will release it wide. Confusion continues over the Paramount Classics label, which seems to be used by both Paramount and Vantage to suit specific branding needs.

This November Vantage is also releasing (under the Classics mantle), with input from DreamWorks, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Participant Productions, “The Kite Runner,” based on the Khaled Hosseini novel and directed by Marc Forsteron location in China and Pakistan in English and Dari. After its first industry screening last week, Oscar buzz is growing.

Much is at stake for Lesher and company this fall because after Vantage’s auspicious beginning, things did not go smoothly. “Black Snake Moan,” Brewer’s first project since “Hustle & Flow,” the story of a black man (Samuel Jackson) who chains a white girl (Christina Ricci) to a radiator, was not an easy sell. Vantage’s decision to embrace the pic’s trashy aura didn’t pay off at the domestic box office, but the raunchy movie has done better on homevideo.

Most recently, Vantage opened National Geographic’s “Arctic Tale,” another nature movie in the vein of “March of the Penguins,” in just four theaters on July 25. Plan was to ride a huge Starbucks promotion timed to reach maximum penetration when the movie went wide on Aug. 17. It never did.

Lesher’s attempts to improve the pic with a new score, cutesy narration by Queen Latifah and a global-warming message backfired with reviewers. After early pans from trade critics, National Geographic Films president Adam Leipzig begged to open the European version of the movie instead, but Vantage refused.

“In retrospect the strategy of opening what was intended to be a family movie on a couple of arthouse runs didn’t work,” says Leipzig, who is lobbying for the foreign version to be released on DVD.

“A Mighty Heart” has been Lesher’s deepest disappointment, though he remains hopeful regarding its future prospects. “I’m proud of the movie,” says Lesher, who thinks Jolie’s tabloid press hurt the film. “It didn’t work, but the jury is still out. It opens this fall in the rest of the world. Every bit of money we spent will help the DVD, and we’ll go for the Oscar for Angelina.”

In the wake of these marketing and distribution misfires, some industry insiders question the lack of experience of Lesher’s cadre of young execs. Having interviewed some 20 prospective marketing heads, Lesher never found anyone who would fit into his hand-picked Vantage team.

“I wanted to think outside the box and try things differently,” he says. “I just wasn’t interested in the same old same old.” Instead he promoted PR chief Megan Colligan and creative ad man Guy Endore-Kaiser to marketing co-presidents.

Going forward in 2008, Vantage is trying to balance such arty entries as Edward Zwick’s Nazi fighter drama “Defiance” with more comedies. Coming up are Groundswell’s “The Marc Pease Experience,” starring Ben Stiller, Toby Young’s “How to Lose Friends and Influence People,” and the step-dancing Sundance pickup “How She Move.” Vantage also signed a first-look deal with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who are developing “King Dork.”

The challenge for Vantage: Carve out its own identity separate from the parent studio, balance Lesher’s dark taste with a range of projects with wider appeal, and get a handle on the specialty arm’s spending and distribution learning curve.

“The stakes for the specialty divisions have gone up,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. “The economic sphere they inhabit has become very inflated. But all it takes is one hit to go from smelling funny to smelling like a rose.”

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