Studios’ Hollywood-style divorce

Paramount ramps up to meet its target

Paramount’s next greenlight is likely to be the Jason Reitman-directed “Up in the Air,” with George Clooney attached to star.

That project is a microcosm of the new Par-DreamWorks relationship. Par has the picture, though it was developed by DW. It is co-financed by Montecito Pictures, a company that had a deal with DW, but that is now in the Par fold.

In other words, DreamWorks and Par are officially separate, but not really. And, as the movie title says, much of the complex relationship is up in the air.

According to Par vice chairman Rob Moore, the studio plans to hold steady with the number of films it releases each year — about 18 pics.

There are 10 DreamWorks films scheduled for Par release over the coming two years, not including this weekend’s big opener “Eagle Eye.” Par plans to quickly ramp up production to offset the six DreamWorks films it averaged per year that it will no longer distribute after 2010.

So, is Paramount equipped to pick up the slack?

“We will most likely be there by 2010,” Moore says. “Paramount hadn’t been at its intended goal of making 8-10 movies. Over the next two years, we’ll get to the goal we were aiming for. It’s not about changing the target. It’s about meeting the target.”

“Up in the Air” is one of the roughly 200 projects developed by DreamWorks. Par got custody of all of them, including projects DreamWorks had been developing before its 2006 purchase by Par.

DreamWorks is now flush with cash since its buy by Reliance. So could the two end up teaming to co-finance projects that will be released through Paramount’s distribution pipeline? Or will DreamWorks negotiate to get back some of the work?

To date, both camps say there have been no conversations about any specific projects being relinquished to DreamWorks.

“We’re open to conversations if it adds value to Paramount’s bottom line,” says Moore, noting the possibility of co-financing projects with the new DreamWorks entity that will be headed by Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider.

However, Par execs are working under the assumption that they will retain the entire trove. But industry watchers question whether Paramount has the manpower to handle the avalanche of projects and nurturing they will require.

“We have the staff to handle (it),” says Paramount prexy John Lesher, noting that there might be one or two additions to the production ranks. “We knew (the DreamWorks exit) was going to happen. So, we’ve been preparing for it for a long time. We’re really excited about these projects. We’re looking to put together 12 movies (per year) from the two development pools that are now one development pool.”

As for the split’s effect on the community, sellers anticipate that Paramount will buy less in the coming months due to the glut of DreamWorks development projects it now has in its stable.

When Tom Freston hired Brad Grey to take over the Par reins in early 2005, Grey devised a plan to turn around the then-moribund studio. That plan included an emphasis on different labels, including MTV, Par Vantage and Par proper.

But his shrewdest move was the addition of the DreamWorks label, buying the company for $1.6 billion in 2006. The following year, DreamWorks enjoyed its best year ever at the box office, with a string of hits that included “Norbit,” “Blades of Glory” and “Disturbia” and contributed to parent company Viacom’s bottom line.

During their nearly three-year union, DreamWorks contributed a number of hits to Par’s distribution pipeline, including “Dreamgirls” and “Transformers.” But Par is quick to note that during that period, the biggest hits associated with the DW label came from DreamWorks Animation, which will continue to release its films through Par for years to come.

Though landing DreamWorks was a coup for Grey, his detractors are quick to point out the turnover in top positions at the studio. From former Par president Gail Berman to the recently departed marketing topper Gerry Rich, the body count during Grey’s tenure has been high.

While Grey has stayed largely behind the scenes, the press-savvy Moore has emerged as the face of Paramount and unifying presence within the studio — which is only fitting given he is the rare studio executive who has spent time in production, marketing, distribution and business affairs.

The father of three sons, Moore joined Grey in 2005 from Revolution and is considered one of the most sophisticated number crunchers in showbiz.

Another key exec is Frederick Huntsberry, chief operating officer of Paramount. The former Universal NBC U TV Intl. prexy was part of Grey’s five-year plan, which included beefing up the studio’s international operations.

Thanks in large part to Moore and the departed Rich, Paramount over the past two years performed where it counted most: in theaters. But few of the biggest hits were homegrown. “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” were among the Par-released films financed by outside entities (Marvel and Lucasfilm, respectively). In order to avoid the rent-a-studio label, Par will need to nurture and greenlight more projects like the J.J. Abrams-produced “Cloverfield.”

Grey, Moore and Lesher feel confident about their upcoming homegrown fare, which includes at least two potential franchises: “G.I. Joe” and Abrams’ “Star Trek.”

“You’ll see from our slate next year the type of range of movies we’d like to be doing,” says Lesher, citing a low-budget Wayans brothers comedy and “Transformers 2.” “Our summer couldn’t be better. Then, in the fall we have Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island,’ which is a real departure for him because it’s an almost Hitchcockian mystery.”