Just as Paramount and Nickelodeon Films enlist DreamWorks as partner on “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events,” director Barry Sonnenfeld has exited the film.

But whether he was sacked or left on his own depends on the storyteller.

Sonnenfeld’s exit follows producer Scott Rudin’s decision to ankle the project late last year after bruising budget battles (Daily Variety, Dec. 13). Jim Carrey is still aboard as the film’s star, subject to Par and DreamWorks hiring a new director to his liking. Paramount will retain domestic distribution territories while DreamWorks takes foreign.

DreamWorks film principals Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Steven Spielberg are expected to take the creative lead, as they are more adept at managing special effects-heavy franchise spectacles for the half-pint set than Paramount. Par has been struggling with the budget of the film for months.

As for the departure of Sonnenfeld, there was a difference of opinion what sparked this latest in a series of unfortunate events. The director doesn’t get along with Parkes, who produced Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black 2.” But sources said Sonnenfeld still expected to be the film’s director until his reps were informed the studios would be replacing him.

“Snicket” is Sonnenfeld’s favorite book, and he hung in when Paramount asked for cuts in the budget and in the compensation of the principal players.

That prompted the exit of Rudin, who set up the project to produce with Nickelodeon’s Albie Hecht and Julia Pistor.

Paramount vice chairman/COO Rob Friedman flatly denied the idea that Sonnenfeld was axed.

“We did not fire him,” he said. “He withdrew from the project once Paramount and DreamWorks became partners.”

Paramount hopes to have the project ready to go for a summer start date and a 2004 release for what Par has viewed as its answer to WB’s “Harry Potter” film series.

Sonnenfeld would not comment on his exit, but when Rudin ankled, the director acknowledged that Par’s Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen got very tough on a film whose budget was a shade under $100 million at the time.

About $9 million was saved by moving a Gotham shoot to Wilmington, N.C., but Par wanted an additional cut of $5 million. The director favored taking a break to allow author and screenwriter Daniel Handler to lose some of the pricier pages so that Par’s dollar demands could be met.