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‘World War Z’ a Big Test for Paramount’s Wary Strategy

Things too quiet on the Melrose front as studio doesn’t make many movies or create much sizzle

Memo To: Brad Grey
From: Peter Bart

Back in 2005, Brad, when you were named Paramount’s uberboss, I wrote a memo to you that waved some warning flags. “You’ve never run a studio,” I wrote, “so let me list all the things that could possibly go wrong.” You were politely dismissive of my warnings — that is, until just about all of the dire predictions became reality.

Eight years later, those problems have been long forgotten and your regime at Paramount seems as solid as any in town. But is it solid or stolid, as some of your critics suggest? The studio doesn’t make many movies or create much sizzle. It’s almost like the ‘R’ word (risk) has been dropped from the studio’s vocabulary.

That’s why there’s so much focus within the industry on the opening of “World War Z” on June 21. This isn’t just another summer release, it’s your only other summer movie besides last month’s “Star Trek.” And since it’s only your fifth release of 2013, the success of this $200 million Brad Pitt vehicle is pivotal to the studio.

I realize this sort of comment exasperates you, Brad. You argue persuasively that your studio’s lean schedule and disciplined cost controls have contributed to Viacom’s lofty earnings and record stock price, that next year’s slate holds great promise and that the studio’s stability is widely respected by Wall Street. At a time when some analysts are second-guessing Sony for distributing so many films (it will release seven between now and the end of August), Paramount’s relative austerity has its supporters, or so you say.

Still, austerity has never defined your style, Brad. As a prolific talent manager and producer, you were inventive and hyper-active. Your name still adorns Bill Maher’s TV show. But the new Brad Grey, age 55, looks and acts more like a buttoned-up corporate type than the congenial dealmaker of former years. When you talk about your adventures working beside Bernie Brillstein, you still laugh at your war stories. Time and again, the two of you brilliantly devised ways to trump the majors.

But Brad, the dealmaker, might have had problems negotiating with Brad, the studio boss. As I understand it, your Paramount strategy lays out like this: The studio releases up to 12 movies a year (plus perhaps a distribution pickup), most of which are co-financed. The slate consists to a large degree of franchise projects with a very occasional midrange picture like “Flight” (which cost $30 million and grossed slightly more than $160 million worldwide).

And most of the projects are Paramount-bred. Mega-deals with reliable suppliers like Marvel or DreamWorks Animation are things of the past, and so are producer pacts but for relationships with a few key filmmakers like Michael Bay, who is currently shooting “Transformers 4.”

Hence the tentpole-centric pipeline is heavy with sequels — future “Mission: Impossibles,” “Transformers” and “Star Treks” (the latest iteration a certified hit). There’s a sequel to “Anchorman,” a sci-fi opus from Chris Nolan titled “Interstellar” and a pricey biblical co-production from Darren Aronofsky titled “Noah.” Paramount also will distribute Marty Scorsese’s latest film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which Viacom’s Wall Street admirers may or may not embrace.

You’re taking some big swings, Brad, and, because of your limited agenda, none of your filmmaking partners can accuse you of lack of focus. The re-shooting and marketing of “World War Z” has been a studio obsession. When Rob Moore, your distribution guru, ran Revolution with Joe Roth, the production company made more films each year than you have on your entire Paramount slate.

Many in the creative community worry that the Paramount strategy translates into fewer jobs and a more rigid, sequel-obsessed approach to studio planning. From your standpoint, Brad, I can see why the program seems attractive, compared with your first few turbulent years at the studio, when every one of your decisions seemed to stir maximum turbulence. The first cycle of top executives — Gail Berman, John Lesher and Brad Weston — were all casualties of this turbulence. And, the press reveled in your alleged links to Anthony Pellicano, some even predicting your demise.

You’ve deftly survived all the noise Brad, but now it’s almost too quiet on the Paramount lot. Some banner worldwide grosses for “World War Z,” a costly high wire act, will liven things up (the portents are encouraging) but so would additional challenging new film projects — especially those embodying that dreaded ‘R’ word.

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