Gail Berman, Paramount Pictures
The hallmark of Berman's tenure has been remaining focused on a diverse slate in the midst of speculation and industry pressure.It's been a rough-and-tumble 18 months since Gail Berman left her post as entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting Co. to take the reins as president of Paramount Pictures under studio chairman and CEO Brad Grey. After five years at the network, "I was intrigued by the notion of trying a new field," Berman says. "I love Broadway, TV and the movies. In my career, I've tried to stay experimental in different areas. Women have to be able to expand their horizons and embrace risk-taking."
Under a clear directive from Viacom to rebuild Paramount's cultural DNA from scratch, Berman and her production team -- led by co-heads Alli Shearmur and Brad Weston -- threw out much of what was in development. Right off the bat, Berman was assailed in the press for her imperious manner and lack of experience in Hollywood. Even she admits that there's no question that she had much to learn. "I underestimated the challenge," says Berman, who found the pace and rhythm of the movie industry to be radically different from that of television. "I had to adjust to the new business. It's a longer development and production period; there's more time to get the details right, to see how filmmakers work."
Berman also had to cope with Viacom's acquisition of DreamWorks and its power-hitting executive bench, especially new co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider. But the addition of eight DreamWorks live-action films and two DreamWorks Animation pictures a year "takes some of the pressure off of putting out a big slate," Berman says.
Berman's proud of her first pictures, the idiosyncratic little Nickelodeon movie "Nacho Libre," starring Jack Black, and Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which the studio bought in turnaround from Universal.
Berman has focused her attention on developing a diverse lineup for 2007 and 2008. Having initially thrown a lot of money at new development, the Paramount pipeline now boasts a plethora of modest-scale movies. They range from MTV Films' drama "Freedom Writers," directed by Richard LaGravenese (who also wrote the screenplay) and starring Hilary Swank, and Kimberly Peirce's sophomore effort "Stop-Loss," starring Ryan Phillippe, to producer Judd Apatow's $40 million comedy "Drillbit Taylor," based on a John Hughes scriptment and starring Owen Wilson as a homeless bodyguard.
But getting to the starting line on supersized tentpole projects has proved challenging for Berman, who lacks experience at the delicate art of assembling big-talent packages. "There's nothing remotely cavalier about backing a movie that costs $140 million-$150 million," Berman says. "We seek a balanced slate and want to be in the tentpole business. We're off and running in it."
The biggest tentpole for 2007 is the $150 million DreamWorks co-production "Transformers," directed by Michael Bay and slated for a July 4 release. Also in the big-budget arena are two partnerships with Warner Bros. Pictures: David Fincher's serial-killer thriller "Zodiac," starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, for March 2007, and Robert Zemeckis' $150 million high-tech performance capture "Beowulf," with Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins voicing two of the characters, for November 2007.
The impact on the studio of the departure of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner's Paramount-based producing deal is still to be felt, but the studio still has its deal with Brad Pitt's prolific Plan B Prods., which has landed such high-profile acquisitions as the upcoming "World War Z" and "Black Hole" for the studio. Pitt also will co-star with Cate Blanchett in Fincher's epic time-warp love story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; adapted by Eric Roth from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. The film is shooting in New Orleans for a November 2008 release.
As Berman and her team finish up Year 2, "I certainly have more confidence," she says. "I'm always looking for ways to improve and learn, to do more as a better leader and executive and editor for filmmakers. But I feel like we're doing a good job here. We're as competitive as any studio."
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