Par trying to optimize its labels

Studio's slate strengthened by D'works acquisition

It’s been a couple of months since any major rumblings have been felt from Melrose Avenue. Could it be true? Is Paramount Pictures finally in a good place, a smooth-working studio, free from the once-rampant rumor mill churning with talk of executive shakeups, producer unrest and an empty slate?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

Private equity investors showed confidence that Paramount is a studio to bank on. Par announced Oct. 3 that it had closed a $300 million film financing deal with investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort for production coin to fund 30 films on its slate. The deal for its new Melrose Partners 2 fund is an increase of $75 million over its previous 2004 Melrose pact, which covered 25 pics.

But even with a thumbs-up from Wall Street, some folks on the West Coast wonder where all that cash is going, and what their release schedule is.

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“That’s what everyone wants to know — what exactly is their slate?” says one vet filmmaker. “The studio is working on a lot of stuff, but the slate for next year proves that the acquisition of DreamWorks was a crucial one.”

DreamWorks is crucial, but it’s hardly the only contributor to the 2007 slate. It turns out the studio has a lot more going on than most people realized. Now that chairman Brad Grey has solidified his troops, the studio’s myriad production labels have quietly been putting a slew of deals together.

With so many labels, some skeptics wondered if there would be room for films from the studio’s own production ranks, but Par execs point with pride to 2007 releases.

They include serial-killer thriller “Zodiac” Jan. 19; Antoine Fuqua’s “Shooter” on March 2; Matthew Vaughn’s fantasy ensemble “Stardust” on March 16; Akiva Schaffer’s “Hot Rod” produced by Lorne Michaels and John Goldwyn in June; the untitled Kimberly Peirce project; Robert Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” on Nov. 16 in association with Warner Bros. Pictures and Steve Bing’s Shangri-La Entertainment; and Owen Wilson laffer “Drillbit Taylor,” December.

And DreamWorks is providing a hefty number of films. DreamWorks comedies include the Eddie Murphy starrer “Norbit” on Feb. 9; Will Ferrell-Jon Heder ice skating laffer “Blades of Glory” on March 30; DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek the Third” on May 18; the Ben Stiller-Farrelly brothers “The Heartbreak Kid” (formerly “Seven Day Itch”) on Oct. 5; and DWA’s “Bee Movie” on Nov. 2.

There are also the pricey DreamWorks-Par co-production “Transformers: The Movie” on July 4; DreamWorks’ “Disturbia,” Aug. 17; and the Susanne Bier film “Things We Lost in the Fire” starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, for late in the year.

In addition, the 2007 release slate includes the Hilary Swank starrer “Freedom Writers” from Par-MTV Films on Jan. 12.

Specialty pics from John Lesher’s Paramount Vantage division include “Black Snake Moan,” Feb. 23; the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”; “Year of the Dog”; “Carriers”; “Call of the North”; and a slew of pics from specialty fave directors, such as “A Mighty Heart” (Michael Winterbottom); an untitled Noah Baumbach film; “There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson); “Into the Wild” (Sean Penn) and “Kite Runner,” with DreamWorks (Marc Forster).

And the Par-Fox bigscreen version of TV comedy “Reno 911” is being distributed by Fox early in 2007.

Projects in production at Paramount include the Par-Nick Movies production of “Spiderwick Chronicles” and “Case 39,” to be skedded for either 2007 or ’08.

The slate for 2007 is totally from the regime of Grey and studio prexy Gail Berman, who have been in their respective posts for 18 months. (Some 2006 releases, like “Mission: Impossible 3” were nurtured in development prior to the execs’ arrival.)

One source at the studio says new Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman and senior exec VP Thomas Dooley “are very tough numbers guys, meaning this company will have to make its numbers by doing business right. Buying DreamWorks was a good start; it’s doing business right.”

Agents, producers and others doing business with Paramount appreciate the further credibility and autonomy recently given to Nickelodeon, MTV, Vantage and other units, but questions remain whether this apparatus — a far more complex structure than at any other studio — can yield firm offers and greenlights.

“You just don’t know the entry points,” says one studio producer. “And you don’t know if the machinery can move quick enough to get the deals done.”

For example, there are Nickelodeon Movies and MTV Films. In late August, Paramount announced that it would be upping the two Par-based production entities to full-fledged divisions of the studio. Scott Aversano, a former Scott Rudin Prods. vet who had a production deal on the lot, was promoted to oversee both divisions.

Execs close to the situation say that elevating the shingles to divisions of the studios was a coup for Berman, helping her solidify her position. During her first year in the post, it was clear that Berman struggled to transition from Fox broadcasting to feature films. Sources say she had trouble early on in her dealings with filmmakers and other executives on the lot as she tried to put a slate of pics together.

She then made a concerted effort to clear up any fuzzy areas and focus on a set of goals that included changes at MTV Films and Nick Movies. That gave the studio a direct line to both brands and a certain amount of power over the pics produced by those divisions.

MTV Films and Nick Movies, which enjoyed a long string of success under the previous regimes, will be expected to eventually add a total of six films per year to the Par pipeline.

With those two divisions along with DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage, one might think there inevitably will be a lot of jockeying and infighting under the Par umbrella for production coin or the best release date. However, a source at one of the divisions insists nothing of the sort has so far taken place.

“There’s really no competition,” the source says. “If the company does well, then we all benefit. We make our bonuses based on the success of the entire company, not just our division, so we want everyone to do well. As a matter of pride, of course we’d like our movies to be the best but in the end we want the best for Paramount.”