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With `Babel,' exec proves new Vantage label is an indie force

Paramount's John Lesher is showing it doesn't hurt to be a former talent agent.

October 30, 2006|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

When John Lesher sold a film project to Paramount Pictures Corp. last year, the Hollywood talent agent couldn't have imagined he'd end up shepherding the movie into theaters as head of the studio's new specialty unit.

"Babel," an intense drama starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, opened over the weekend, Lesher's first release under the Paramount Vantage banner. The energetic and excitable 40-year-old must be giddy today: In the few theaters in which it played, the film made a spectacular showing.

After a two-decade career representing such luminaries as Martin Scorsese and "Babel" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Lesher has shown a knack for his new role. Though detractors say he can be a cocky snob, few can deny how quickly Lesher has put Vantage on the map.

In less than a year, the label has become a bona fide competitor in an independent film arena dominated by News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight Pictures and NBC Universal Inc.'s Focus Features. Vantage has eight movies in production and 10 releases set for next year, with such noted writer-directors as Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and the Coen brothers ("Fargo").

Lesher reshaped Vantage's predecessor, Paramount Classics, handpicking a staff of 77 and hiring a top business executive from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., Nick Meyer, to help run the division.

Before the label's renaming as Vantage, he scored with the spring release of Al Gore's global-warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

"He's done an incredibly impressive job in a very short time of putting together some of the best filmmakers and first-rate executives in the business," said onetime rival Robert Newman, a top movie agent at International Creative Management Inc. "The company has become a real force and he's made it an attractive place for artists to work."

Specialty labels such as Vantage have become linchpins for the major studios. Their lower-cost, offbeat films can bring Oscar prestige and big profits while complementing studios' mainstream, "popcorn" fare.

Some of the most acclaimed specialty films lately were made by Lesher's former clients at Endeavor agency, including Todd Field's "Little Children," Fernando Meirelles' "The Constant Gardener," Bennett Miller's "Capote" and Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries."

Lesher's out-of-the-gate success is particularly sweet for Brad Grey, a former talent manager who was criticized when he became chairman of Paramount Pictures in 2005 for having little moviemaking experience and surrounding himself with others who were equally as green.

Shortly after joining the struggling studio, Grey made the specialized film business a top priority. His former boss, Viacom Inc.'s then-Chief Executive Tom Freston, had trashed Paramount Classics as an "also-ran."

Grey first worked closely with Lesher on Scorsese's "The Departed," with Grey as a producer and Lesher representing the director. "You need someone who really understands the language of talent," Grey said, describing his choice of Lesher. "John has extraordinary taste ... and he thinks out of the box."

Lesher's tenacity was on display this year when he snapped up "An Inconvenient Truth" at the Sundance Film Festival, where it drew several suitors.

"John was the most persistent by a factor of 20," Gore recalled in an interview. "He made at least a dozen phone calls to me personally. He was very passionate and promised he was really going to get behind it."

Lesher made good on his word. He took Gore to the exhibitors' ShoWest convention in Las Vegas to get theater operators excited about the movie.

He pleaded with Cannes Film Festival officials to screen the documentary even though it already had been shown at another major venue. Gore not only walked down the red carpet ("I'm old enough to know it's just a rug," he quipped), but also was toasted at a party for the film hosted by Vanity Fair magazine.

"It really helped set the stage for everything we were doing," said Lesher, who even sent Gore to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. headquarters to schmooze the nation's largest seller of DVDs.

In the marketing campaign, Lesher framed the documentary as a moral rather than a political debate, helping to broaden its appeal. Opening on the competitive Memorial Day weekend and still in theaters, the film has grossed nearly $24 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Was the former vice president impressed? "Are you kidding? Absolutely," Gore said. "This is a slide show on global warming starring Al Gore!"

Filmmakers who have worked with Lesher say they admire his chutzpah, his decisiveness and his trust in artists. They find his eccentricities charming too.

Comedy screenwriter Mike White ("Nacho Libre" and "School of Rock") said making his directing debut on "Year of the Dog" for Vantage was "the best work experience I've ever had," in part because Lesher remained virtually "hands off" during production.

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