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Everyone out of the pool


NO ONE said life was fair, but in the movie business, life often seems like a rigged poker game, especially when it comes to who gets the ax and who gets the cushy promotion. Nowhere is this more evident than at Paramount Vantage, which just laid off the majority of its 100-or-so staffers, a tacit admission that its much-ballyhooed specialty division -- like most of Hollywood's specialty divisions -- had been a big money loser.

On the other hand, Vantage founder John Lesher, the one-time Endeavor agent whom Brad Grey hired in late 2005 to reinvent the studio's flagging Paramount Classics art-house wing, got out when the getting was good. Lesher was named president of the Paramount Film Group in January, largely as a reward for putting Grey in the Oscar game and allowing him to rub elbows with such cinematic luminaries as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese.

Of course, you wouldn't know any of this from reading Variety's Thursday coverage of the layoffs, which bought the Paramount party line hook, line and sinker, failing to mention that Vantage had lost untold millions of dollars not just by greenlighting art-house films with wildly inflated budgets but also by overspending on marketing the films. Variety also failed to connect the dots about the news last week that Vantage dumped production and acquisition executive Amy Israel, replacing her with ex-New Line exec Guy Stodel. The man who made New Line millions by resurrecting the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" franchise, Stodel is a good hire, but he won't be making any more "Margot at the Wedding"-type critic favorites. He's there to turn Vantage into a Screen Gems-style genre division.

In fact, that's the old/new idea of the month in the movie biz: Transform your woebegone specialty division into a lean, mean macho machine, churning out low-budget comedies, thrillers and horror films. Warners just turned the same trick, axing its money-losing Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse divisions, replacing them with a new, streamlined New Line Cinema, whose mandate is to return to its low-budget horror and youth comedy roots.

Of course, this leaves us with a tantalizing question: Why would Grey take Lesher, who failed to make any money in his two-plus-year stint at Vantage, and make him Paramount's production chief, a job that by definition (as this summer's flood of superhero movies attests) is solely about making money?

An undeniably smart guy with an unfortunate tendency to engage in indiscriminate public Hollywood hugging, while yelling at his underlings (and reporters) in private, Lesher did a great job of sussing out his mission at Vantage. His predecessors, Paramount Classics founders Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein, had stuck to the business model invented by tightfisted Paramount boss Jonathan Dolgen, spending as little money as possible, happy to hit singles instead of home runs.

Seeing that all Vitale and Dinerstein got by hitting a lot of singles was a pink slip, and sensing that his new boss wanted to prove that he was more than a glorified talent hand-holder, Lesher decided to swing for the fences. He hired a platoon of gifted filmmakers (some of whom were his former clients at Endeavor, by the way) and gave them plenty of dough, figuring they would quickly put Vantage on the map. The strategy worked. Vantage released a lot of good movies, notably Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" and Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," a film that even had a visible effect on world affairs.

Unfortunately, the only Vantage releases that made any real money were "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Babel," the latter a film that Grey had bought before Lesher arrived at the company. The vast majority of other pictures, notably the Angelina Jolie-starring "A Mighty Heart," Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner" and Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding," were losers.

It was one thing to spend heavily on "Babel's" marketing, since, after all, it was the boss' first big acquisition and an important flag-planting symbol for Vantage. But the real killer was losing money on the movies that should've made money.

The big failure was "There Will Be Blood," a Miramax co-production that became a poster child for specialty division excess. It cost more than $45 million to make and nearly that much to market as Vantage struggled to find an audience -- and Oscar validation -- for the bleak period drama.

Lesher also stumbled badly with his handling of "No Country for Old Men." It was the Oscar winner he let get away. Produced by Scott Rudin, the Coen brothers' movie was originally slated as a Vantage release.

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