Studio has 11 films unspooling in 2008

It’s been three years coming.

Following several tumultuous management shifts and Paramount Pictures chairman Brad Grey’s canny acquisition of DreamWorks, which brought in a record $1.5 billion B.O. 2007 for the studio, 2008 now becomes the studio’s defining year, the one that will show Hollywood what Grey’s team can do beyond DreamWorks.

The 2008 slate is expensive. But on paper, the lineup looks stronger than any of its rivals, with 11 Paramount films unspooling in theaters nationwide, alongside two from DreamWorks Animation and six from DreamWorks.

But Grey’s recent reshuffling of his studio players continues.

He promoted Rob Moore from president of worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment to vice chairman of Paramount. He also moved John Lesher from prexy of Vantage to topper of the Paramount Film Group, where he will supervise creative affairs for Paramount Films, MTV Films, Nickelodeon Movies and Vantage.

Why make all these changes when you are poised to kick ass at the box office?

You have to answer the question with Mogul Logic, a prime directive of which: When things get rough, back away from the person who will take the blame.

Thus Grey was less than supportive of his first hire to run the studio, ex-Fox Network exec Gail Berman, a film business neophyte. Within two years, she was shown the door.

Now Grey has brought in Vantage exec Lesher to supervise production chief Brad Weston, who had a big hand in the 2008 slate. Grey is keeping Weston happy by sidelining Scott Aversano (a Berman hire) from running the MTV and Nickelodeon film labels to a production deal, and giving his turf over to Weston.

“It’s the smartest structure going forward,” Grey says. “I can put all the development money in one place rather than bifurcate it into smaller labels. I’d rather take the whole amount of money and make two to four great brand movies a year. Not using our full firepower is foolish.”

But telling an exec who was reporting to you that he is now reporting to two other people does not seem like a vote of confidence. It’s a distancing move. If 2008 plays out well, Mogul Logic goes, then Grey grabs credit. If it goes badly, then Weston is positioned to take the blame.

Grey says that, finally, Lesher is filling the Berman slot. “I made many mistakes,” Grey says. “I learned from the mistakes and I’ll make more mistakes, but not the same ones, in the future. It’s a humbling business. The ones that you think work, don’t, and the ones you think don’t, do. You learn from each of them.”

What Grey needs are Paramount hits.

First up is the J.J. Abrams-produced $25 million hand-held monster movie “Cloverfield,” which bowed Jan. 18. Grey likes the idea of overthrowing the conventional paradigm for a would-be franchise picture and putting his studio dollars and Viacom properties like MTV into marketing a cheaper movie. “It’s fun to think outside the box and see it bear fruit,” Grey says.

As Moore and Weston explain it, it took time to throw out all the old deals and start over from scratch, with new talent like Abrams replacing outgoing talent like Scott Rudin, whose Iraq-themed “Stop-Loss,” from Kimberly Peirce, was pushed back to 2008.

Abrams, who is producing and directing the reinvigorated “Star Trek” for release next Christmas, is clearly the studio’s 800-pound gorilla, someone Grey breathlessly compared to Steven Spielberg in a recent New York Times article.

It remains to be seen if Abrams measures up to that standard; the returns on Abrams’ “Mission: Impossible 3″ were a factor in Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone’s unceremonious booting of pricey star Tom Cruise off the Par lot.

But former manager Grey has deep relationships, and ex-client Brad Pitt has replaced Cruise in the studio’s affections. Pitt stars in David Fincher’s follow-up to “Zodiac,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” about a man who ages backwards — and falls in love along the way.

The studio has indulged favorite-son Fincher, who has labored long over the visual effects and final cut of the picture.

Grey says he is more than willing to shell out big bucks for franchise pics. He’s also plunking down a lot of money on “Button,” on which Par is partnered with Warners.

“Button” will likely compete with another literary drama, DreamWorks’ “Revolutionary Road,” a Sam Mendes relationship drama reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in the year-end awards derby.

While Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is the summer’s most-anticipated sequel, Par splits the profits on the pic 50-50 with Lucasfilm, with big backend cuts going to Spielberg and Harrison Ford. If the movie makes tons of money, the studio gets a taste.

Par is partnering with Marvel on the launch of another would-be summer franchise, “Iron Man,” directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Robust and action-packed, advance footage wowed fans at Comic-Con.

Two features from DreamWorks Animation, the summer’s “Kung Fu Panda” and fall’s “Madagascar” sequel, are expected to pull in big B.O.

Several of the year’s comedies are on the expensive side, including the Judd Apatow-produced “Drillbit Taylor,” starring Owen Wilson as an ex-soldier who trains a pair of hapless high school freshmen to combat a schoolyard bully.

The studio is bullish on the summer’s “The Love Guru,” starring Mike Myers, which boasts a high budget for a comedy. Myers costs money, and so does Eddie Murphy, who stars in the August release “Nowhereland” as a father who learns solutions to his business problems from his daughter’s imaginary friends.

Due in February is the pricey “Spiderwick Chronicles,” a would-be children’s franchise that the studio steered to the Nickelodeon label but which hasn’t built much positive buzz so far.

Grey was impatient, to a degree, with the studio’s slow ramp-up, but Par seems to be cooking now.

One person who didn’t waste any time out of the starting box at Vantage was Lesher. “John started a company,” Grey says admiringly. “He proved himself a savvy and creative executive.”

Former agent Lesher is about talent relations, assembling packages and supervising production. Moore’s about running the studio and delivering the numbers. Given that Lesher has been spending more than Vantage has been earning as he established the unit, moving to the deep-pocketed studio may be a good fit.

Oscar nominations are unveiled Jan. 22, and Lesher is expected to have two major contenders in the mix, “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” both produced by Rudin and co-financed with Miramax Films. A third Lesher film, Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” is also looking to be in the Oscar mix.

Lesher has shepherded “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Babel” through the Oscars. As expected, his co-prexy, Nick Meyer, who came over from Lionsgate in 2006, will take over the sole presidency of Vantage. The well-respected exec will take the lead at the Sundance Film Fest. But Lesher won’t stay away.

As for the question of a DreamWorks sale, speculation still swirls around whether David Geffen will pull the deal he wants out of General Electric or News Corp. Studio insiders say DreamWorks and Paramount must split: “It’d be like two people living in the same house after a divorce,” says one.

Grey remains circumspect. Is he looking to prove the studio can stand alone, without DreamWorks?

“The DreamWorks team is state of the art,” he says. “The deal is very important to me and everyone at Paramount. We fought for it. I felt we were building a great bridge for us to the future. And we have acquired all the DreamWorks pictures in future. We don’t know what will happen yet.”

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