A Conversation with Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein, Co-Presidents of Paramount's New Specialty Film Division
by Eugene Hernandez
[On Friday, February 27, 1998 Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group
chair Sherry Lansing announced the creation of a new specialty
division. That afternoon, indieWIRE Editor-in-Chief Eugene Hernandez
interviewed the company's Co-Presidents, Ruth Vitale and David
Dinerstein. The following is a transcript of the joint interview.]
indieWIRE: So lets just take it from the top...what's this division
David Dinerstein: I don't know, do you have a name?
Ruth Vitale: (laughing) A quarter if you give us a name!
iW: I thought it was going to be called "Paramount Classics"?
Dinerstein: No, it's not going to be called that. We're still looking
for a name and we may actually put together a little promotion...
Vitale: (laughing) ...we're gonna run ads in all the papers. Pick the
name...you get a free...
Dinerstein: (laughing)...option to make your first film!
iW: Will you be based in LA?
Vitale and Dinerstein: (together) Yeah.
iW: ...and why?
Vitale: Because the movie business is here, but that's not to say that
we won't have offices in New York and London which are very important
markets for us.
Dinerstein: And Ruth and I are from The City (New York), and we know it
very well, and we know everyone there very well, so it doesn't put us at
any disadvantage, in fact it puts us at an advantage in being here.
iW: OK, how's that?
Dinerstein: Well, because we really know all the players there, and
we're talking to them every single day. So, there aren't a lot of indies
based out of the Los Angeles area that we will be competing with and it
just puts us on the right foot.
iW: Will you stay at the Paramount lot?
Dinerstein: We're temporarily here. We're looking for space in the Los
Vitale: Some place where we have enough space to grow...
Dinerstein: ...that has our own personality and is a place we can actually work
iW: Tell me a little bit about the plans. When are things going to
start ramping up? What is the first year is going to look like?
Dinerstein: Part of our philosophy is to be a lean and mean machine. But
ultimately, this year we're gonna be lucky if we can get two films out
of the door, we're really a start up and we want to make sure that
whatever films we have are the right films initially. And then down the
line -- I'd say in 1999 -- we're looking at somewhere between four and
six films, if its a couple more or a couple less fine, we're not looking
to do more than that.
I think ultimately what we want to do is dedicate ourselves to giving
the filmmakers the time of day they really deserve to have, but have
really been lacking at some of the other places that are doing business.
You know its a filmmaker oriented business, we have very good
relationships with them, and we want to make sure that for the time they
spend making a film -- which is a very long time -- we want to make sure
it gets put out there in the right way.
iW: Even if you were to find a film tomorrow, when would be the earliest
point you would be ready to really handle it and go out with it in a
Dinerstein: At least the fall.
iW: So, the initial releases will be acquisitions?
Dinerstein: Its really going to be a mix of both, acquisitions and
productions, although we won't be developing projects.
Vitale: No development, it takes too much time.
iW: You say development "takes to much time." To what extent have your
previous involvements at other companies shaped that feeling?
Dinerstein: Well, without naming any film, if you take a look at the
last couple years of films that have been developed versus films that
have been packaged or acquired -- for the amount of time it took to make
the project versus the other -- the upside isn't as great, if that makes
iW: Tell me about the division's relationship with Paramount...
iW: ...the press release says "autonomous."
Vitale and Dinerstein: (together) WHO?!
Vitale: Well, obviously its something that Paramount and Viacom have
wanted to start for a long time, but we will be a completely autonomous
unit not using any of their distribution marketing or programming
staffs. We will be a completely separate entity, and make our decisions
based on our business goals and needs, because it is such a separate and
different business than anything that Paramount does now.
iW: With regard to the types of films you will be distributing, is
there a budget? There are so many so many different types of independent
films these days.
Vitale: No, but here's the thing, each one of them is their own
separate island. And to the extent that they make creative and
financial sense, budgets are no limitations. No, we're not making one
hundred million dollar movies here, but...
Dinerstein: ...and we have to be smart about what we're doing..
Vitale: ...And for how much we're doing it for. But if we know that X
number of dollars will be covered out of international and domestic, its
not going to be about the budget it's going to be the individual
iW: Paramount is releasing "The Real Blonde" this weekend. Is that a
film that would be handled by this division?
Dinerstein: Let me say one thing, I worked with Tom (DiCillo) before and
would potentially like to work with him again. Its really a difficult
question on whether or not that's our film, its a Paramount film...a
film they really liked and they went after.
Vitale: It is a Paramount film. We weren't here, so who knows what would
Dinerstein: If we saw it and really ...
Vitale: ..loved it, we probably would have had a fight with them to get
iW: Tell me about what some of the initial reactions from your
colleagues have been?
Vitale: (laughing) "Oh its about time someone announced it," that is the
reaction -- its the worst kept secret in Hollywood!
Dinerstein: Everyone's really happy about what we're setting out to do,
and I think we're going to be filling a void in the marketplace.
iW: Tell me what that void is.
Dinerstein: As I said before, I think its focusing on the projects in a
very labor intensive way that most other studios are incapable of doing,
and having the wherewithal -- both the experience and the passion -- to
market these sorts of films, and not being afraid to step up to the
plate when necessary.
iW: The two of you are working together for the first time, and I am
sure that is very exciting. Ruth tell me what David brings to this
company, and David tell me what Ruth brings.
Vitale: OK well, when I was first approached to talk about this venture
(my lawyer) and I were talking and he said, "have you ever met David,"
and I said, "No, I've heard of him, and he said, "Lets set up a
David and I sat down and realized that we both have the same feeling
about this business -- that it needs to be handled very differently,
very separately and with a lot of care. One misstep is a huge misstep in
this business, you know, you're not throwing the picture out on a
Dinerstein: ...and you are not spending 20 million dollars to open. Your
not buying your opening weekend.
Vitale: ...so when I met David I realized that he was the person I had
been looking for. Because our sensibilities are very similar, our tastes
are very similar. We don't see things exactly the same, but we see them
from the same side of the universe, which is a very good complement to
If I say, "Oh David I'm madly in love with this film," -- whether its a
script of a film -- he'll say, "Well, here's what we could do with it
and here's how we could make money," or he'll say, "Ruth get a grip,
there's not a thing in hell that we could do to make money with this!"
Vitale: So for me, his expertise and his relationships with filmmakers
were something that I new that I really needed.
iW: And David, likewise with Ruth?
Dinerstein: Well, I think that Ruth has an unbelievable reputation in
this business. I mean if you literally opened up a Rolodex and called
ten filmmakers and you said, "What do you think about Ruth?," they'd say
she's the best executive out there and that she's filmmaker friendly and
wants to get projects made.
Ultimately, I think Ruth is not averse to taking risks with the types of
projects, the types of scripts, the types of films she chooses to make,
and I think that is great. She's made some brave films in her past, and
really steps up to the plate at all levels to talk about why she's
making those sorts of films. Ultimately, that's what I've been
(wanting) for quite a while. I think its going to be a great marriage,
if you will.
Vitale: By the way, the last week has been a true test because we've
been in one small office that can't be more than 10 x 15 -- one desk --
and until Tuesday we didn't even have more than one phone! And, I
watched David have a small meltdown on Tuesday, and he watched me have a
screaming tantrum on Wednesday. He's much more classy when he starts to
iW: This for Ruth, the last year plus was probably a tough one at Fine
Line, given that there was so much speculation so prominently featured
in trade publications, saying that changes were coming. What kind of
pressures does this (new company) relieve and new pressures does it
Vitale: It was a tough year for me.
Fortunately when it all got resolved at Fine Line, it was resolved in a
very amicable basis -- so it was a relief. And I had to make some
personal decisions about what it is that I wanted to do. Given the
opportunity to do this, I thought the people at Paramount are terrific,
they're just real professionals. They've been in the business a long
time, they've had a real desire to build this particular business for
Dinerstein: And they've taken their time trying to figure it out.
Vitale: Yeah, they've taken their time, so it was a real comfortable
step for me to make and less nerve wracking than I actually thought it
was going to be. We stepped in here on Monday, and it was "OK, build
your company guys."
What's the challenge? What makes me nervous is that it is a tough
business and we're going into it with our eyes wide open. We're not
saying this is going to be easy, but have incredible support from a
parent company. And I have -- I don't mean to get mushy -- but I guess
the best partner that life could have supplied me with.
iW: At what level financially is Paramount committed to you and to this
company, and how many years are you on board for?
Dinerstein: We're here to build a company.
Vitale: We're here for awhile. They made a very big commitment to us.
And by the way, neither one of us would have done this if we didn't have
Dinerstein: You have to be patient, these sorts of things don't happen
overnight. You can't build a company on your first film, its gonna take
a little while and I think ultimately if you're patient you can see the
benefits of these sorts of films. If you take a look at "Shine" or "The
Full Monty," those are two films that proved that.
iW: For each of you, lets start with Ruth...one of my favorite Fine Line
films of last year was a film called "Gummo..."
Vitale: (laughing) Come on David you have to tell him the story...
Dinerstein: I told Ruth, "Why are you keeping this on your ..."
Vitale: (laughing) ...on the press release!
Dinerstein: To me it (showed) great character. She said, "I really love
that film, its just a brave film made by a kid with an incredible
vision." And I said, "But the press just attacked it and killed it."
Vitale: I asked him, "Did you see the movie?! " And he said, "No, after
I read that Janet Maslin review..."
...Harmony knows this, I can't pretend to begin to understand that
movie. But I know viscerally that its a very important statement from a
very specific generation.
iW: ...but my question to you is, and I will ask David the same thing --
tell me Ruth what films, when you look back at your time at Fine Line,
what films are you the most proud of?
Vitale: ...all the movies that were "mine" even if they failed -- I
honestly can say this and I really mean this from the depths of my heart
-- I'm not ashamed of one of them.
You know, "Grass Harp"...even Bob Shaye said to me, "That movie will
have tremendous library value" Thank you Bob.
"Twelfth Night" -- I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan, but Trevor Nunn made
Shakespeare accessible to me, and the movie in its own right is special.
Maybe its just that I like all my adopted children, you know. "For
Roseanna" with Mercedes Ruehl -- Jean Reno movie -- got terrible
reviews. I love this movie, I don't care. And I am proud of "Gummo."
Would I have made other movies if I could have there, in addition to
those, absolutely. But that is past history.
iW: Now David, coming from Fox Searchlight, same question.
Dinerstein: On the upside, the films that I really enjoyed working on --
and making them into something special -- were Bertolucci's' film
"Stealing Beauty," which got mixed reviews... I thought it was a very
beautiful, very poignant film. I thought Liv (Tyler) was tremendous in
it and I think the critics ultimately assassinated Bernardo for making a
film about a young girl and why should a man of his age make that sort
"Looking for Richard" -- I thought Al Pacino made a tremendous
documentary and was very brave as well... to make a little intimate film
about a subject he really loved. I had a great time with his film and I
think Al did to. And obviously, some of the other films I really worked
on breaking out were "The Brothers McMullen," which went on to become I
think the most profitable film of that particular year.
And obviously "The Full Monty" was a film I loved from the very
beginning. It was a script that was really wonderful and I just had this
great vision that this was going to be the breakout hit. Not to the
extent that it became, but I am really proud of that film and very happy
with it. Ultimately my reputation with any filmmaker --whether a film
works or it doesn't -- is there. I stand my by word and I put 110% into
every film I work on.
iW: Well, I wish you both well. We look forward to keeping up with the
company as it develops.
Vitale: (laughing) I think we should have a "Gummo" film festival...
iW: Hey, I'll be there!
Vitale: I think we should force David to watch it!
iW: Give it a look David, really.
Dinerstein: I'm going to have to go now.
Vitale: I'm going to get him the tape.