Analysis: When is the drama at Paramount going to end?

06.20.09 8 years ago

Paramount Pictures

I have nothing personal against Brad Grey.  I’ve never met the guy, but after yesterday’s dramatic development’s at Paramount Pictures, a question that is no doubt percolating through Hollywood’s elite has to be asked: should Brad Grey still be the studio’s CEO?

On Friday, Grey dismissed his second president of the studio, John Lesher, in four years.  This follows his axing of Donald DeLine upon his arrival in 2005 and the short reign of Gail “in over her head” Berman which ended in 2007.  Lesher, a former Grey colleague who had previously spearheaded the studio’s prestige fare with the launch of Paramount Vantage, lasted only 18 months.  At the same time, Brad Weston, president of production, was also dismissed.  To say this is the most turnover amongst the studios during the same time period is somewhat of an understatement.

The pair are being replaced by Adam Goodman, the former No. 3 to Steven Spielberg and Stacy Snider at DreamWorks who has had a meteoric (and some say lucky) rise through the ranks.  In Goodman’s defense however, he’s helped guide almost all of the hits the former DreamWorks partnership brought to the studio including “Transformers,” “Eagle Eye,” “Disturbia,” “I Love You Man,” “Hotel for Dogs” and “Blades of Glory” just to name a few.

The professional reasons Grey finally let Lesher go will probably make a scandalous article in Vanity Fair some day soon, but the business justifications were a much more serious concern.  The bottom line is Paramount is running out of product.  With a limited number of films shooting, the studio was being forced into a corner where the Grey, Lesher, Weston triumvirate either could not find nor agree on what projects to move forward with.  After this October’s “Shutter Island,” the studio has “The Last Airbender,” “Up in the Air,” “Morning Glory,” and “Rango” in production.  A “Star Trek” sequel and fourth “Mission Impossible” are in development, but nowhere near ready to go.  So, things are a bit slow on the Melrose lot.

Grey’s tenure has been marked by three major directives. (1) The failed DreamWorks acquisition, (2) a continuous overhauling of the production pipeline and divisions and (3) divesting from the former UIP conglomerate and releasing Paramount films on their own overseas.  And while the former was long in the works before his arrival, the well-respected Paramount International has clearly been Grey’s most noteworthy success so far.  Let’s look at the rest shall we?

The DreamWorks partnership was a fantastic move at the time, but turned out to be completely short term.  And sadly, Grey is just as responsible as everyone else (including the egos of Spielberg an Snider) for not making it work.  The pair brought hits such as the aforementioned “Transformers” franchise, “Dreamgirls,” “Sweeny Todd,” “Norbit” and “Tropic Thunder,” but now their taste, talent relationships and creativity are setting up shop with the Walt Disney Company. In the long run, did the studio get anything beyond control of the “Transformers” movie franchise?  Sincerely debatable to say the least.

On the Paramount production side, Grey initially divided the studio up into separate divisions: MTV/Nickelodeon, DreamWorks, main Paramount and Vantage.  In hindsight, only the traditional studio really remains today.  The most unheralded disappointment of this mess was the studio dropping the ball with its MTV and Nickelodeon connections.  The Viacom sister companies were profit centers for almost a decade with hits such as “Save the Last Dance,” “Jackass,” “Rugrats” and “Spongebob Squarepants.”  Today, neither MTV  nor Nickelodeon Films truly exist as a brand anymore.  The last big Nickelodeon contribution was “Charlotte’s Web,” which was a pet project of the former regime.

More recently, Grey’s decision to put Lesher in charge overall was met with universal skepticism.  Lesher helped spearhead some strong pictures at Vantage including “There Will Be Blood,” “Babel,” “Into the Wild” and “No Country For Old Men” (which Miramax released domestically), but only the former actually made money. As a business, unlike Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Focus Features or Miramax, the division was a financial failure.  In fact, that was the main reason Vantage’s staff was broken up, laid off or merged with big Paramount earlier this year. 

When taking all of this into account, the bigger question Viacom stockholders must be asking themselves is: after almost five years, what is Grey’s vision for the studio?  The company has transformed itself into a tent pole maker, but hasn’t been able to find success with the singles, doubles and triples (small to medium budgeted flicks) such as “The Hangover,” “Role Models” or even “The Proposal” which fuel profits at most studios.  Ironically, these were the staples of his predecessor, Sherry Lansing.  The chairperson had her faults, (most notably in approving horrible movie posters), but at least she was consistently profitable during her 12-year run.  Can anyone name one smaller movie that Paramount has had explode on the scene within the past few years?  One?

And, with Lesher gone, is the studio even in the Oscar game anymore?  The executive’s single greatest achievement was the prestige hit “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but beyond this year’s “The Lovely Bones” from Peter Jackson (and by no means a slam dunk), one of DreamWorks last contributions to the studio, are they even in that game anymore?

And has the studio committed itself to too many distribution deals?  In 2010 alone, Paramount will market and distribute three DreamWorks Animation titles and Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 2.”  All major tent poles that require significant time from the company’s increasingly shrinking marketing and distribution staffs.  Is it worth having both deals for only a limited distribution fee?

No one is going to dismiss the achievements under Grey’s term of making better movies across the board (half of which can be credited to the DreamWorks alliance), relaunching a franchise long thought dead (“Star Trek”) and the international foothold the studio now has.  On the other hand, constant executive upheaval and change of direction is not good for any business or employee morale in the long run — that’s pretty much business 101.

As a former Paramount employee, I’d like nothing better than for Grey to succeed.  Shoot, as a “Star Trek” fan I’d second that.  Plus, this town needs a strong Paramount to keep the movie business vibrant.  The idea of loosing a studio to potential merger (a rumor publicly making the rounds) would worsen the overall health of an industry barely surviving the recession.  

So, Mr. Grey,  Mr. Goodman is your latest hope to bring stability to the ranks.  Is the third go around the charm?  You may not believe it, but for everyone’s sake, we’re actually rooting that it is.

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