Gail to bail for Grey gig

Par raids Fox house for new film prexy

News that Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman is on the verge of ankling the network to take over as Brad Grey’s top film exec at Paramount stunned Hollywood and rattled Paramount Pictures to the core Tuesday.

Berman’s hiring is nearly certain to precipitate departures from Par’s executive suite, once the town’s most stable. And it comes at an inopportune time for Fox, which is just two months away from unveiling its new series to advertisers at the May upfronts.

Paramount confirmed Tuesday it was in negotiations with Berman, adding it hopes to conclude talks shortly. Sources said she’d assume the studio presidency.

“Ms. Berman is one of the most talented executives in the entertainment industry, with great relationships, exceptional taste and an amazing creative track record,” the studio’s statement said. “She would be a great addition to the Paramount team.”

Fox, on the other hand, declined comment. Berman’s contract there is set to expire later this year, and she had been negotiating a new pact. But insiders said the exec informed News Corp. prexy-chief operating officer Peter Chernin on Monday night that she had decided to accept the Paramount gig.

It didn’t take long for the news to leak out Tuesday morning, blindsiding Paramount producers and execs, and catching Fox staffers completely off guard. Grey sent out an email message to staff that began, “The Hollywood rumor mill is spinning in full force today, and I wanted to address what many of you are hearing or reading on the Internet.”

Inside Fox, sources said the mood was “stunned.” One insider said “shell-shocked” execs gathered to quietly discuss the rumors as word spread throughout the network offices.

Berman conducted several meetings throughout the day — including pilot casting sessions — but said nothing about the Paramount rumors. Staffers, in turn, didn’t openly ask about her impending departure.

At Par, the initial reaction was uniform amazement over the prospective hiring of Berman, given her lack of feature credentials.

But Berman supporters cited her strong reputation for solid people skills in dealing with a wide array of personalities in the TV world, her expertise in development and passion for film. Insiders believe she’ll offer a fresh perspective and serve as a catalyst in terms of pushing Paramount toward more feature comedies.

“The key component of that job is how well you establish and maintain relationships with top people,” one exec noted.

And with Paramount now run by Grey and Berman — a pair of outsiders who came out of the TV world — it’s also a strong confirmation of Tom Freston’s goal to shake up a studio that’s consistently underperformed in recent years.

Freston, who’s been co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom for only nine months, decided to cast against type in both hires as a way of forcing Paramount to operate more nimbly in the cutthroat studio business. The studio hasn’t released a film topping $200 million domestically since 2000’s “Mission: Impossible 2.”

The move comes three weeks after Grey succeeded Sherry Lansing as chairman-CEO of Paramount Motion Pictures Group.

Though no official announcement came Tuesday, insiders believe that Berman being given the title of film studio president marginalizes Paramount Pictures co-presidents Donald De Line and Tom Jacobson. De Line, who was in London meeting with director Paul Greengrass on Tuesday, also holds the title of vice chair of the Motion Picture Group.

Recent rumors have centered on De Line ankling to a producing deal at Sony, since he has a strong relationship with Amy Pascal, head of the Sony motion picture group, but others labeled the notion as speculative.

Par’s executive corps probably won’t stay intact for long, with rumors also surrounding the possible departures of Jacobson and Par Pictures production president Karen Rosenfelt.

Paramount’s widely expected to announce soon that recently departed Dimension co-president Brad Weston and Paramount exec VP Alli Shearmur will become co-presidents of production, but those deals haven’t been finalized.

De Line succeeded longtime studio prexy John Goldwyn in late 2003 and has been credited with helping energize Par during Lansing’s final year with a more aggressive approach toward riskier fare aimed at connecting with younger audiences. Studio has a solid summer lineup with “The Longest Yard,” “War of the Worlds,” “The Honeymooners,” “Bad News Bears” and Sundance sensation “Hustle and Flow.”

Rosenfelt, who’s been at Par since 1990, was named co-president of production in 2002 and became the sole production prexy last year when Michelle Manning ankled for a producing deal. Jacobson joined Paramount as co-president with Goldwyn in early 2003.

Prior to Tuesday, Grey’s biggest deal at Par had been acquiring the rights to star-driven drama “Babel” with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal toplining and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu helming.

Since accepting the job in January, Grey had not indicated that he was pondering any significant hires. He’d also singled out De Line for praise, and Berman’s name hadn’t surfaced as his potential successor until Tuesday.

Observers noted Tuesday that Viacom’s Leslie Moonves is a Berman fan, although it’s unclear whether he had a hand in persuading her to join the conglom. Execs also said they believed the appointment reflected well on Grey.

“She’s a brilliant choice for the job,” said UTA partner Jay Sures. “She’s not one of the 10 people you would think of for the job, but she brings new perspective to it, and she’s a phenomenal manager of people.”

Insiders believe Berman was ready to depart after surviving a difficult fall season. Fox traditionally gets hammered in October when baseball playoffs and the World Series force the net to go dark on its entertainment fare.

Berman has served as Fox Entertainment prexy since July 2000, making her the longest-tenured of all current network entertainment toppers. Under her watch, the net has developed hit skeins including “24,” “American Idol” and “The OC.”

She joined Fox from Regency TV, where under her tenure as president the boutique shingle developed the hit “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Prior to that, Berman was president of Sandollar TV, where she served as exec producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and later its spinoff “Angel.” Berman began her career as a Broadway producer before joining the Comedy Channel in 1990. Exec produced the original Broadway production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (which garnered seven Tony noms) at the age of 23.