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Par swings for the fences: studio pops for riskier pics, richer deals.

Paramount Pictures is jetting a small army of celebs to Vegas for a blowout exhibitors' dinner at Bally's Paris Casino on March 24. After shunning the ShoWest spotlight for eight years, Par has planned this boffo ballyhoo as part of its push to reinvent itself in the wake of a dismal stretch at the B.O.

For years, Paramount was the town's most cautious studio, both fiscally and artistically. Now it's working furiously to overhaul its image from plodder to innovator.

The charge is being led by motion picture group chairman Sherry Lansing, who's energetically wooing talent and tubthumping pics--and, in the process, asserting that she has no intention of stepping down anytime soon.

Par is aggressively trying, to show Hollywood that it's changing, revamping everything from its style of filmmaking to its exec roster.

Studio coprez John Goldwyn, production co-prexy Michelle Manning, exec VP Dede Gardner and marketing chief Arthur Cohen have ankled; Donald De Line has taken Goldwyn's slot; Gerry Rich is the new prexy of marketing; and production ranks have been filled with former Jersey Films production prexy Pam Abdy, former Laura Ziskin Prods. exec Marc Evans, and former Universal exec VP Allison Brecker-Schearmur.

Crucially, the studio is attracting a fresh pool of talent. Lansing recently flew to Austin to secure Robert Rodriguez to direct "Princess of Mars," a sci-fi tentpole budgeted at more than $100 million.

Other edgier, hipper filmmakers on tap include David Fincher (expected to direct "Benjamin Button"), Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater.

Long known for its hardball deal-making, Paramount is showing new largesse in its talent deals, such as the $10 million it's paying Charlize Theron in "Aeon Flux." For "The Longest Yard," Par, along with partner Sony, is paying Adam Sandler $25 million against 25% of first-dollar gross--a first for the studio.

And when DreamWorks withdrew as co-financier of Crowe's romantic comedy "Elizabethtown," Par chose to go it alone.

"We're going to swing for the fences--both artistically and, when appropriate, financially--and concentrate on projects where there's a big upside rather than aiming for the middle," is how De Line defines the studio's new marching orders.

Other changes are afoot:

* More prestige projects such as Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan" and Scott Rudin's "The Smoker," with Linklater directing, and possibly "The Corrections," based on Jonathan Franzen's novel.

* More emphasis on comedies: The studio recently signed spoof specialist Phil Beauman for a dance parody and gave blind script deals to Sheldon Turner ("The Longest Yard") and Tina Fey ("Mean Girls").

Lansing and De Line are making a concerted attempt to address the town's skepticism about the studio.

"I realize there have been frustrations in the creative community," De Line says. "I think we're making an effort to act swiftly in both decision-making and deal-making and put forth a clear point of view."

At ShoWest, Par will run a highlight reel with scenes from a dozen upcoming pics under its long-honored slogan "Still the best show in town."

The studio is showcasing an eclectic menu at ShoWest: "The Stepford Wives," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Alfie"; Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob Square-Pants" and "Lemony Snicket"; retro sci-fi adventure "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and modern-day epic "Sahara"; high school sports drama "Coach Carter" and high school comedy "Mean Girls," among others.

Among those expected on the 40-seat dais are Jim Carrey, Samuel Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Lindsay Laban, Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington.

"We think it's an extraordinary slate and that now is as good a time as any to shout it from the rooftops," declares Rob Friedman, vice chairman-chief operating officer who will act as emcee.

The moves by Paramount would have probably been unthinkable a year ago.

For more than a decade, Par's executive suite had been an island of stability amid the usual comings and goings at other studios. Under Lansing and Viacom Entertainment chief Jonathan Dolgen, Par focused not on market share but on the bottom line--racking up profits via middle-of-the-road projects, split financing, an occasional surefire tentpole (the two "Mission: Impossibles") and tough-as-nails talent negotiations.

Diminishing returns

That approach gradually became less viable. Two years have passed since its last huge hit, "What Women Want," whose U.S. gross topped $180 million.

Since then, Paramount has released only three films that topped $100 million in domestic box office: "The Sum of All Fears," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "The Italian Job."

On March 8, Viacom topper Sumner" Redstone told a Bear Stearns investment conference that Paramount will get the money it needs: "Some degree of risk aversion is good but if you're not a risk-taker, you can't make any money."

Just before Thanksgiving, De Line emerged as the leading candidate to replace Goldwyn as vice chair of the motion picture group and studio prez.

De Line delivered the studio's "Italian Job" and teamed with Scott Rudin to produce "Stepford Wives," which has a prime June 13 release date.

Positive assessment

De Line has received good marks from agents and producers so far for his enthusiasm, responsiveness and openness to new approaches.

Lynda Obst, who produced "How to Lose a Guy," asserts that De Line and Lansing have been assiduous in encouraging producers to pursue projects passionately.

"Donald came out of our ranks and understands what it takes to make things work here," Obst says. "We all felt that this studio was a Little conservative but now there's a reactiveness that didn't happen before."

Producers say the studio needs to be nimble-footed to operate effectively within a corporate mega-conglom such as Viacom.

Paramount oversees film operations of corporate siblings MTV and Nickelodeon, which have been expanding their roles beyond low-price specialty fare. MTV is producing "Aeon Flux" and "Longest Yard" and Nick is producing "Lemony Snicket."

Execs and producers say De Line has a knack for diplomacy. And Lansing remains a formidable presence, nurturing talent relations with ton actors and directors along with the all-important producer deals with heavy hitters like Rudin, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Cruise/ Wagner.

"Sherry and Donald are determined to have this studio get ahead of the curve," says Scan Daniel, who's producing a "A Princess of Mars" with Jim Jacks at Alphaville. "There's no question that this is a reinvigorated place."

Still, Paramount's slump has now entered year three with dreary performances from "The Perfect Score," "Against the Ropes" and "Twisted."

Hopes weren't particularly high for the first two but "Twisted" carried the seeming advantage of a tried-and-true formula of Ashley Judd starring in a woman-in-jeopardy thriller; it probably won't make $30 million domestically.

With few exceptions--"School of Rock," "Italian Job," "How to Lose a Guy"--Par films over the last 12 months have consistently fallen short of the mark. There's also some uncertainty over two of Par's tentpoles: "Mission: Impossible 3," which has seen its start date gradually slip backwards and is now set for' release in May 2005, a year later than its original date; and "Indiana Jones 4," which had been planned for 2005, looks like it won't get to theaters until 2006 at the earliest. (There's still no script.)

The poor performance plus the seeming change in attitude has an upside --agents and producers now say that Paramount is where they are taking potential tentpole projects.

"I know that they have a real need for it," one tenpercenter says.

But if Par truly wants to improve, insiders say, it needs to take better advantage of relationships with '02 '03 siblings MTV and Nickelodeon; it must ease up on hardline bargaining, particularly at the eleventh hour; and it needs to be more assertive in committing to a fixed budget on a film.

One agent gripes: "The creative execs are not empowered to make big decisions; they really need to stop this crazy penny-pinching over $250,000 here and there."

One attorney is blunter, arguing that Paramount will need to undergo a change in philosophy.

"The Paramount way was always about not losing money," he notes. People, he says, will be cynical about the "newer, friendlier Paramount," but he hopes it's true: "I wish them luck because they're going to need it."
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Author:McNary, Dave
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 15, 2004
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