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Paramount Needs to Fatten Up Skimpy Film Slate

A decade ago I wrote a column about Brad Grey just as he had assumed his new role as chief of Paramount. I issued dire warnings about the challenges he would inevitably face making the transition from the town’s top talent manager to studio chief. Re-invention in mid-career certainly did not work out well for David Begelman, a fabulously successful agent whose stint as Columbia’s CEO almost landed him in jail. Michael Ovitz brilliantly ran CAA but promptly self-immolated at Disney as did producer David Puttnam at Columbia and agent John Lesher at Paramount.

Grey seemed destined for a similar fate at Paramount. In his first months at his new gig, the press pounded him relentlessly: His appointments were deemed inept (TV executive Gail Berman was hired and fired as head of movie production). Stories about his litigation with former client Garry Shandling hinted at dark dealings with phone-hacker Anthony Pellicano. Then came the headline-making blowup with DreamWorks, with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg marching their troops off the lot. Then Grey’s boss, Sumner Redstone, abruptly fired Tom Cruise over his greedy demands and weird off-screen behavior.

Now, 10 years later, Grey has defied predictions that his personal mid-career transition would be as disastrous as those of his predecessors. He seems very much in control at Paramount and the press has stopped beating up on him.

But it has become very clear that Grey now faces a new job of re-invention — this time of his studio. Paramount’s movie slate has become so thin that the studio has all but disappeared (its first major release will be mid-summer). Though the studio’s press releases have stressed profitability, yearly profits have declined three years in a row, down 12% last year alone. Meanwhile, Paramount’s parent company, Viacom, is imposing major layoffs under pressure from ratings declines at its cable networks. According to analyst Roger Smith, Viacom’s studio revenues have fallen every year save one since 2008 from $6 billion to $3.7 billion (there were disastrous tumbles in homevideo revenues in that period). CBS, under Les Moonves, has remained a bright spot in Redstone’s corporate universe.

Grey is sending signals that he intends to spark a resurgence at Paramount. Dismissing his production chief, Adam Goodman, he is trusting Goodman’s deputy, Marc Evans, to increase the annual film slate from six to between 12 and 14 films a year. The search is on for new franchises to bolster the aging “Star Trek” and “Transformers,” and Grey himself is focused on bolstering the animation pipeline and resusitating Paramount’s television initiatives.

In tackling all this, Grey has a credibility problem to overcome. He has proclaimed ambitious plans in the past to bolster Paramount’s annual slate, and has named ambitious executives, with little follow-through. The job of production chief has become a revolving door.

Nonetheless, a prospective studio resurgence is all the more relevant now that Wall Street is floating various corporate scenarios that might unfold at the end of the Sumner Redstone era. Insiders believe that, contrary to speculation, Redstone’s long-entrenched personal consiglieris will ensure a smooth transition; still corporate rivalries exist within the empire and takeover specialists avidly eye Viacom’s vast landscape.

Those close to Grey testify that he exhibits no such tensions. Soft spoken and canny, Grey clearly has mastered the laws of corporate survival. As far as he’s concerned, the first 10 years mark only the beginning.

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