Goldstein column takes aim at arthouse unit

LAYOFFS AND REORGS always carry a nasty backlash, and the situation at Paramount Vantage has run true to form. Some of the employees who got axed claim a lack of professional courtesy and notification. Even the basic mission of the Vantage division has come into question.

One of the columnists for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein, delivered a rant in Saturday’s paper berating Paramount’s John Lesher for losing “untold millions of dollars” during his stint at Vantage and now downgrading the unit from an arthouse wing into a “Screen Gems-style genre division.”

Goldstein also complained that Lesher, who has since promoted to be Paramount’s overall production chief, wouldn’t return his calls.

It’s curious that a Times columnist is absolutely certain where Vantage is headed. By contrast, Brad Grey, Lesher’s boss, and two Vantage executives last week assured me and two of my reporters that Vantage would, in fact, continue to turn out art films as well as adding some genre projects to its mixed slate. Frankly, I believe them — but maybe they should have shared that intelligence with Goldstein.

The columnist also made a few other curious charges, claiming that Variety failed to report Vantage losses as well as its dismissal of a talented acquisitions executive named Amy Israel. Variety, in fact, covered Vantage’s problems extensively. The paper also broke the news of Vantage’s firings and of Israel’s departure. Perhaps the Times cut Goldstein’s subscription to Variety as part of its cost-cutting (I will personally restore it).

The columnist’s condemnation of Lesher’s management skills also seems shrill, The press beats up on studio executives for their obsession on tentpoles. Should the press also clobber guys like Lesher who may have been overambitious about some of his art films? The public, at least, got some terrific movies out of the venture.

Indeed, I feel empathy for all of the players involved. Working amid the chaotic layoffs at the Times, Goldstein and others may feel a pressure to amp up the noise level. John Lesher, also facing cutbacks, seems to be making his situation worse by his mercurial behavior toward subordinates and his name-calling run-ins with journalists.

My advice? It’s almost August, folks. Perhaps everyone should just take a vacation.

* * *

Hollywood’s surprising imagination

An unfortunate thing happened to Hollywood this summer: The movie god decreed that the studios, having temporarily run out of tentpoles, would have to rely on their imagination.

And here’s the surprise: It turned out they’d be able to mobilize enough creativity to fuel record box office results. Instead of churning out another “Pirates” or “Spider-Man,” Hollywood created new franchises like “Iron Man,” improved on incipient ones like “Hellboy,” dusted off aging shows like “Mamma Mia!” or extinct TV series like “Get Smart” and “Sex and the City” and invented new animated hits like “Wall-E” or “Kung Fu Panda.”

The upshot: Despite strike threats and recession woes, Hollywood is actually feeling pretty good about itself. And last week’s record numbers triggered by “Dark Knight” reinforced this sense of well being.

“The gambles paid off,” Variety‘s Pam McClintock observes in her box office story this week. “Movies of all shapes and sizes performed better than expected.”

But it hasn’t been a season without its defeats: Witness “Speed Racer,” “The Love Guru” and “Meet Dave.” It’s a jolt to see Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers go down in flames.

On the other hand, consider the upside: Pixar is king. Heath Ledger is the new James Dean. And Steven Spielberg is still Steven Spielberg.

* * *

Batty beginnings

To the fanboys lining up outside the plexes, “Batman” is clearly the phenomenon of the moment. To the old-timers, the caped (and obviously kinky) superhero is a relic.

For the record, “Batman” was born 70 years ago, a creation of Detective Comics (later DC). From the start, the DC folks acknowledged they wanted a character on the weird side — “a weird menace to all crime,” said one internal memo.

“Batman” barged into TV in 1966, but he was a kinder and gentler character than the comic version. No one really wanted a “Batman” movie until Peter Guber and Jon Peters wandered along. Having surreptitiously swiped the underlying rights from Warner Bros., the producers then turned around and tried to sell that same studio on a “Batman” production deal.

This infuriated the then uberfuhrer of Warner Bros., a conglomerator named Steve Ross, who rightfully wanted to know why the studio had let the rights elapse to begin with. Nonetheless, the movie, directed by Tim Burton with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was a hit (some $400 million meant a lot in 1989 before opening weekends of $156 million seemed feasible).

All told, there have now been six “Batmans,” and all of them have been a little weird — “strangely dark,” David Thomson once wrote; “downright Langian,” wrote the late Vincent Canby.

Will the legacy continue? With those numbers, hell yes.

* * *

The Apatow express

In terms of sheer productivity, the summer has to belong to Judd Apatow, however. With the release of “Pineapple Express” and “Step Brothers,” Apatow’s powerhouse team has turned out some 10 movies in two years. Most have been hits, like “Knocked Up,” some have been flops, like “Drillbit Taylor.”

Apatow’s credits have ranged from writer to co-producer, but he has not, in fact, directed since his promising “Knocked Up.” What he’s succeeded in doing, however, is to mobilize and empower a remarkable team of zealots. And, while the product has varied somewhat in subject matter, all the movies have reflected the Apatow brand — a vision at once young, defiant and raunchy.

The choices have been consistently unpredictable — Seth Rogen as a leading man? Jason Segel as a naked lothario? Jonah Hill gets the girl?

OK, it’s not exactly studio thinking, but it’s fresh. And as for Apatow, he insists his level of productivity will not be further amped up. In fact, it will be tuned down. When I reminded him that Hal Ashby in his career only made 11 films and Preston Sturges only 12, he replied that he intends to focus on only one movie this year, “Funny People,” which he plans to direct.

Will Apatow miss the action? Maybe not, but the distributors will miss the product.

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