TV Exec Moves to the Big Screen

Times Staff Writers

As Gail Berman and her husband sat in a darkened theater last weekend, she found herself giggling over the trailer for the upcoming film “Bewitched,” a remake of the 1960s TV show. Then the newly named president of Paramount Pictures was struck with a realization.

“Bewitched” is being released by Sony Pictures -- a rival studio.

“I never had to worry about competitors’ movies before,” Berman said Wednesday after Paramount formally announced her hiring.


Now it will be up to Berman to create a slate of movies that will leave her rivals squirming in their seats.

In May, the TV veteran will join Paramount Chairman Brad Grey in a daunting task: turning around the flagging fortunes of the Viacom Inc.-owned studio.

The outgoing Fox Entertainment president has spent a quarter of a century in entertainment, first as a Broadway producer, then helping create such TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” During nearly five years at Fox, she put together a lineup that includes “American Idol,” “24" and “The O.C.”

Berman’s lack of experience in the movie business is not lost on her.

“I approach all of this with a tremendous amount of humility,” said Berman, who has signed a four-year contract with Paramount. “I understand that there’s a learning curve.”

She said she might get a hand from her 12-year-old twins, whom she described as “my own personal focus group.”

Berman, 47, also said her television years would serve her well in this next episode of her career. Among the qualities Berman says she brings to the table are creative instincts, strong relationships with talent and the kind of “strategic business thinking” required in a world where media companies risk hundreds of millions of dollars a year on movies.

In recent years, Paramount has struggled with management upheaval amid a string of such box-office losers as “The Stepford Wives” and “Alfie.” The studio also earned a reputation for being risk-adverse and difficult in its business dealings.

Berman says she knows what she’s getting into. “I want to create an environment where creative people want to be and their visions are supported,” she said.

That’s what her new boss Grey wants too.

He said Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone and co-President Tom Freston had told him “to build a Paramount that would really take great strides in the future.”

As part of that mission, Berman will oversee the development, budgeting, casting and production of movies and literary acquisitions. She will consult with Grey on picking movies, but he said he would have the final say.

Berman is Grey’s first major hire since taking the reins of the studio just a month ago. Paramount executives were caught off guard -- especially Donald De Line, who lost his job to Berman after just 14 months of his three-year deal. De Line will soon depart the studio, leaving behind several potentially hot summer films, including Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” starring Tom Cruise, and “The Longest Yard,” with Adam Sandler.

Although Berman is new to the film business, she has dealt with several movie titans who have also worked in television. Among them: Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, whose company produces Fox’s “24" and “Arrested Development”; writer Paul Attanasio, who is an executive producer of Fox’s new hit “House”; and producer Arnon Milchan, who is behind Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Bernie Mac Show.”

Milchan was so impressed with Berman’s straightforward style when he launched Regency TV in 1998 that he hired her on the spot as its founding president.

“This young lady walks in and a half-hour later I said, ‘You know what, here are the keys -- you’re the boss,’ ” recalled Milchan, who counts “Pretty Woman” among his movie credits.

Milchan praised Berman for championing Regency’s comedies “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Bernie Mac Show.” He said Berman’s absence of movie experience would help her bring a fresh perspective to the business.

Another longtime friend agreed.

“A good product is a good product,” said Viacom co-President Leslie Moonves, who met Berman in 1981 in New York, when he was working in theater management and she was a Broadway producer. “Yes, there are different skills involved, but Gail will learn them all quickly.”

Berman was the reason that producers of “House” said they shopped their drama to Fox.

“Gail is not scared, she’s gutsy,” said Attanasio, an executive producer of the series whose screenplay credits include “Quiz Show” and “Donnie Brasco.”

“There are times that you leave some movie executive’s office and you wonder why they are even in the business,” he said. “No one will ever leave Gail’s office wondering that.”