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A Paramount disad-Vantage

August 25, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

It was a year ago July that Paramount Vantage laid off the majority of its 100 or so staffers, signaling the end of the studio's short-lived specialty division that brought home a host of Oscar nominations but managed to lose loads of money along the way. Finally this June the studio axed Vantage founder John Lesher, who'd enjoyed an all-too-brief reign as Paramount's top creative executive after leaving Vantage behind.

It's one thing to get rid of your top executives and hard-working staff. But what do you do about all the movies they made and acquired along the way? With little fanfare, at a time of year when the studios customarily clean their shelves of stale product, Paramount is quietly dumping its last remaining Vantage theatrical releases -- some of them so quietly that the studio isn't even opening the movies in New York or Los Angeles.

No one at the studio is talking -- I got a polite brushoff from Rob Moore, the studio's vice chairman who oversees its marketing and distribution, among other things. But it wasn't hard to piece together what is happening. In a four-week period that began earlier this month, Paramount is unloading three Vantage films, with only one of them, "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard," getting more than a token release. It's the oldest story in town. When a studio jettisons a top executive or folds a specialty division, the movies belonging to the previous administration become instant orphans, without a champion willing to lobby for the kind of big marking money needed to support a major film release.

The studio did put a little elbow grease behind "The Goods," which stars Jeremy Piven as a hustling used-car liquidator, releasing the $10-million film in 1,800-plus theaters on Aug. 14, doing a cable TV and online ad campaign targeted at young males. The film made only $5.6 million in its opening weekend, but since Vantage had sold off a bunch of foreign territories, it could break even if the film ended up grossing close to $15 million (it has made $11 million so far). But the other Vantage releases are getting a much quieter send-off.

In fact, it's hard to imagine a film costarring Ben Stiller getting as little support as Paramount is giving "The Marc Pease Experience," a quirky comedy that opened last Friday in 10 theaters around the country (but not N.Y. or L.A.) and took in about $3,000. The film stars Jason Schwartzman as Pease, a 26-year-old a cappella vocalist still at odds with Stiller, his mentor-turned-nemesis (their relationship never recovered from a meltdown Pease had during his high-school musical theater glory days).

The movie was co-financed with Groundswell Productions, the indie film company run by Michael London, who has produced such classic fare as "Sideways" and "The Visitor." (And who would not comment for this story either.) It's easy to imagine that London is unhappy about Paramount giving the film the bum's rush, but Paramount insiders say that when they did preview screenings for the picture, its numbers were alarmingly low. Rather than throw good money after bad, the studio decided to forgo an L.A. or New York release, since it's far more expensive to release a film in those media markets than anywhere else in the country. Had the per-screen averages been impressive in the smaller markets, then Paramount would have considered broadening the film's release. But the lack of marketing support seemed to doom the film's prospects for any kind of impressive opening.

The studio is preparing a similar stealth release for "Carriers," another Vantage production due out Sept. 4. The film is being released in 10 cities, once again outside of L.A. and New York. The suspense thriller stars Chris Pine and Piper Perabo as part of a group of four friends attempting to escape a viral epidemic that threatens to wipe out the human race. The studio won't have any critics screenings for the film, which doesn't bode well for its prospects of getting a wider release (though many studios these days keep critics away from their genre thrillers, figuring critics have little to say to the films' core audience). Paramount sources say the film did not perform well at advance research screenings, making it a bad bet for a big marketing push.

If "Marc Pease" and "Carriers" still had an executive at the studio to serve as their champion, it's unlikely that they'd be thrown to the wolves in the dying days of summer. From the studio's point of view, their poor showing at advance screenings has branded them as commercial long shots.

Fair enough.

But the whole idea behind specialty filmmaking was to make films that wouldn't necessarily test well with a bunch of kids at a suburban mall -- they were supposed to be nurtured by marketers who didn't need to run them through the big-studio sausage machine. As we can see from the fate of these Vantage leftovers, it's harder than ever to find a happy home for a film that wasn't made to fit comfortably on the studio marketing assembly line.

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patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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