Agent Set to Lead Paramount Classics

Times Staff Writer

Four months ago, Hollywood agent John Lesher sent an internal e-mail to his colleagues at Endeavor, assuring them that rumors about his leaving to become head of Paramount Pictures' specialty film unit were completely untrue.

On Monday, in a classic Hollywood turnabout, Lesher's 15 partners at Endeavor issued a statement congratulating him on landing the job he once claimed not to be taking.

"We are thrilled for John Lesher and his new role at Paramount Classics," the statement said.

There was just one problem with Endeavor's graciousness: It was premature -- officially, at least. Four sources confirmed that the 39-year-old agent's deal with Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures was done Monday, except for the minutest of details.

"It's going to happen. We're just dotting the I's -- the small I's," said one source involved in the matter.

But studio spokeswoman Janet Hill declined to comment. An official announcement naming Lesher as president of the soon-to-be-renamed division is expected today.

Lesher, who was unavailable for comment, will bring creative credibility and solid relationships with filmmakers to Paramount's foundering specialty division. He has represented such maverick independent film directors as Fernando Meirelles ("The Constant Gardener"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams"), Walter Salles ("Motorcycle Diaries") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and veteran Martin Scorsese.

But Lesher will not bring something that Paramount Pictures as a whole is sorely lacking: experience running a movie operation. Lesher's new boss-to-be, Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey, spent his entire career as a talent manager before taking the reins in March. A few months later, Grey hired veteran television executive Gail Berman as studio president.

Lesher, like Grey, joins a long list of talent wranglers who successfully made the transition from sellers to buyers, including former MCA Inc.'s legendary chief Lew Wasserman and, more recently, Warner Bros.' production president, Jeff Robinov.

Grey had been looking to replace the heads of Paramount Classics, Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein, for months. When he fired the duo in October, however, he stepped up his efforts to find a new leader.

Lesher had been in negotiations for the job over the summer, but talks broke down when the agent deemed the proposed compensation too low. Top agents can earn more than $2 million a year in salary and bonuses.

Over the last few weeks, Lesher and Grey resumed their talks, according to three sources at both companies who asked not to be named. The two men knew they could work together -- Grey's first move as Paramount's chief was to negotiate a deal with Lesher on "Babel," a movie to be directed by the agent's client Inarritu.

Sometime in the last week, those sources said, Lesher and Paramount came to terms. Then, familiar as he is with the cutthroat tactics of the agency business in which he has worked for 17 years, Lesher got on the phone -- and in at least one case, on a plane -- to beg his clients to stay at Endeavor and not jump to rival agencies, said two people familiar with the matter.

In addition to Lesher, Grey had talked to a number of other candidates, including Lions Gate Films Releasing President Tom Ortenberg, "Sideways" producer Michael London and New York attorney and producer John Sloss, who is considered a major power broker in indie film circles.

When he learned that Lesher would soon be named to the job, Sloss said in a phone interview, "I think he's a brilliant choice. He's intimately acquainted with the specialized universe and he'll be a great executive."

Robert Newman, a top agent at International Creative Management who has been one of Lesher's direct competitors, agreed. "I think John has demonstrated consistently that he has the taste and ability to identify new talent that no one's heard of and they go on to become world-class artists," Newman said.

Lesher's hiring comes at an important time for Paramount.

Although the studio's specialty film division recently made headlines with such acclaimed movies as "Hustle & Flow" and the sleeper hit "Mad Hot Ballroom," it had long been no match for rivals such as News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight Pictures and NBC Universal's Focus Features.

Even before Grey came to Paramount, the man who would become his boss, Viacom co-President Tom Freston, publicly criticized Paramount Classics as an "also-ran" that was not making enough of the edgy, bold films that attract younger audiences.

In general, specialty film operations are on a roll now with offerings such as the hit documentary "March of the Penguins," "The Constant Gardener," "Capote" and "Good Night and Good Luck," about legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow.

These kinds of prestige films, aimed at sophisticated adult audiences, often win Academy Awards and serve as a good antidote to a studio's more formulaic mainstream "popcorn" movies.

Lesher joined Endeavor as a partner in February 2002 after leaving United Talent Agency, where he had worked since 1991. Fresh out of Harvard in 1988, he started his career at Bauer/Benedek, the agency that later became UTA.

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