Just days after a formal changing of the guard took place at one Hollywood studio specialty division another studio took the first step towards re-envisioning its classics unit. Paramount Pictures confirmed Thursday that it would not renew the contracts of Paramount Classics co-presidents David Dinerstein and Ruth Vitale. The news hit the same week that Disney welcomed new leadership at Miramax and its co-founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein formally launched a new company. While a replacement has not yet been announced for the nearly eight-year-old Paramount Classics, which was founded by Vitale and Dinerstein, speculation intensified regarding the leadership of the division.
Chatting with indieWIRE Thursday evening, Dinerstein and Vitale were good-natured and direct about their situation, later offering a formal statement expressing pride in their work. The pair have contracts with Paramount until February and emphasized that they will remain on board as long as necessary to facilitate a transition, saying that they are committed to protecting their upcoming projects, including Robert Towne's "Ask The Dust," Jonathan Demme's Neil Young performance film, and Craig Brewer's new feature, "Black Snake Moan."
"We are extremely proud of everything we have accomplished in building Paramount Classics over the past eight years," Vitale and Dinerstein said in the formal statement, "And we are sad to see this chapter come to an end. We understand that Paramount is moving in new directions. We care deeply about our projects and filmmakers and will do everything possible to insure a smooth transition."
In New York Thursday night, insiders were gathered at a crowded party toasting the ten-year anniversary of Killer Films and many buzzed about the Paramount Classics situation, speculating about its future. In one corner sat Picturehouse chief Bob Berney and attorney/producer/rep John Sloss, two men who in the past year had been seen as potential new leaders of the Indiewood company (Berney is settled at his new job and Sloss emphatically said Thursday that he wouldn't be heading the new Paramount Classics). On the other end of the room, Focus Features co-president James Schamus wondered what the future would hold for the division, aware that Paramount was aiming to match the revenues seen at companies like his and Fox Searchlight. Studios have tasted the successes Indiewood hits can deliver and show no signs of retreating from capitalizing on those businesses.
When Sherry Lansing ran big Paramount she apparently kept Paramount Classics on a short leash, eventually pursuing former United Artists chief Bingham Ray to rework the division, but rising star Tom Freston from MTV was elevated to a top Viacom slot and he hired producer and talent manager Brad Grey to run the studio. Since taking the reigns in March, Grey has been remaking the studio. Over the past few months, Vitale and Dinerstein weathered speculation about their futures, releasing a pair of high profile movies that they nabbed in Park City: "Hustle and Flow" which was a $9 million acquisition and "Mad Hot Ballroom" which they bought for $3 million.
All indications now are that Grey will push Paramount Classics more towards higher profile productions and bigger revenues, setting his sights on a younger audience.
Insider buzz Thursday centered on Tom Ortenberg who many said would leave Lions Gate to take the top spot at Paramount Classics. Late Thursday in LA, reached via BlackBerry, Ortenberg declined comment on the situation, but throughout the evening back in New York during different pockets of discussion at the Killer Films party, conflicting rumors persisted: 'he's in - it's a done deal', 'he can't get out of his contract - stock options are keeping him at Lions Gate'.
A Paramount studio spokesperson reached late Thursday also declined to comment about the new leadership or the timing of any announcement, emphasizing that nothing is set yet. The sixteen-person Paramount Classics team gathered in the office earlier Thursday, but staffers were neither told who the new head of the company would be nor were they informed of their own status at the division. "We'll be back at work tomorrow," one executive said, while another expressed relief that the long period of wondering and speculation was coming to an end.
For many on the Paramount Classics team, the news feels like the end of an era, not only for the veritable unit that released nearly 60 films since it began in early 1998, but it also marks the near extinction of the studio specialty units of old. Gone are days when "classics divisions" competed to acquire and release foreign language, documentary, indie and art pictures. With the exception of Sony Pictures Classics, the divisions have evolved into mini-majors making bigger budget, star-driven movies and aiming for Oscars. Some veterans of the 90s art house and specialty film boom have started their own smaller, independent companies, while others are out of work or serving as consultants.
Ruth Vitale previously served as president of Fine Line Features for three years in the mid-90s, was head of UBU Productions film division before that and also worked for United Artists, Vestron Pictures and The Movie Channel.
David Dinerstein was involved with the launch of Fox Searchlight in the mid-90s and previously worked at Miramax. He has a background in advertising and television.
Highlights from Dinerstein and Vitale's Paramount Classics included the releases of numerous acclaimed and award-winning movies, including Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," Patrice Leconte's "Girl on a Bridge," "Man on the Train," and "Intimate Strangers," Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine," Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count On Me," Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday," Sandra Nettlebeck's "Mostly Martha," the Michael and Mark Polish's "Northfork," Jacob Estes' "Mean Creek," Roger Michell's "Enduring Love," and this year Marilyn Agrelo's "Mad Hot Ballroom," and Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow."
Just a few weeks ago in Toronto, Dinerstein and Vitale became entangled in one of the most intriguing and public battles over a film in years. Thinking they had a handshake deal for Jason Reitman's "Thank You For Smoking" the pair left negotiations after a night of deal-making only to learn hours later that the film's novice producer had decided to take his film to Fox Searchlight. The next day some of Paramount Classics' competitors quipped that no producer would want to take their film to the studio given the perceived instability at the top, but the episode seemed to underscore something else. So-called independent films are now a big business in Indiewood and times have changed.
In a conversation with indieWIRE the next day, Vitale emphasized that she was holding the film's producer and its sales rep accountable for the deal. She cited numerous cases in which verbal agreements with sales reps were not 'papered' until much later, noting a long history of industry practices that includes sketching out deals for indie films on cocktail napkins at film festivals and relying on late-night handshakes. She said emphatically, "That's how we do business."
Clearly, times have changed.