What went right?

Special to The Times

PARAMOUNT finds itself in a strange place this awards season -- in the race. Stranger still is how it got there.

Last week the studio picked up 15 Golden Globe nominations, two more than any competitor, positioning it well for the Oscars. It has four potential best picture contenders. In descending order, they are "Dreamgirls," "Babel," "Flags of Our Fathers" and a long shot, "World Trade Center." "Dreamgirls" and "Flags of Our Fathers" were produced by DreamWorks SKG, bought in 2005 by Paramount parent company Viacom.

The studio has been a laggard at the Oscars over the past decade, with the exception of the years it fielded co-productions "Titanic" (with 20th Century Fox) and "Saving Private Ryan" (with DreamWorks). In 1996 and 2000, Paramount landed only four total nominations. In 2001, that number was two, and amazingly, in 2003 the studio didn't have a single nomination in any category.

All the current Paramount contenders owe some debt to the dealmaking of Chairman and Chief Executive Brad Grey, a former talent manager, and President Gail Berman, who comes from television. For the past two years, the Grey-Berman regime has been the favorite punching bag of the Hollywood chattering crowd. (Paramount declined to comment for this story.)

Berman's inexperience in feature film left some producers and agents questioning Paramount's direction. Then, Grey engineered the purchase of DreamWorks, which also brought the studio best animated film possibilities "Over the Hedge" and "Flushed Away." Naysayers chided him for overpaying for the studio.

But the question now around town seems to be how much credit the two deserve if they bring home Oscar riches.

"It will help perceptually that they have begun to right the ship and that Paramount is not just a place for comedies but a possible home for serious filmmakers," says one agent who represents a cadre of A-list directors. "Of course, it also depends on which Paramount executives get thanked at the Oscars -- and which don't."

"Babel," which stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and topped the Globes with seven nominations, is presented by Paramount Pictures and Paramount Vantage. That's because the project was sold to Paramount by John Lesher when he was an agent. Lesher was later named head of the studio's indie label by Grey.

Talent manager Ken Kamins, who represents Oscar winners Peter Jackson and "Usual Suspects" screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, points out that studios' indie labels count on having their films up for awards consideration, and "Babel's" success is validation.

"John Lesher is developing Paramount Vantage as a division that intends to be filmmaker friendly. When you have a filmmaker centered division, the Oscars are a natural discussion point both for purposes of celebration and for marketing movies," Kamins says.

Oscar-winning producer Donna Gigliotti adds, "Lesher has real talent at spotting high-toned, high-end material that will draw Oscar attention."

Does Lesher deserve the credit for "Babel" or should Grey and Berman share in it? Either way, after a tough run, the town will be watching Grey and Berman in their orchestra seats on Oscar night.

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