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With ‘Babel,’ exec proves new Vantage label is an indie force

Times Staff Writer

When John Lesher sold a film project to Paramount Pictures Corp. last year, the Hollywood talent agent couldn’t have imagined he’d end up shepherding the movie into theaters as head of the studio’s new specialty unit.

“Babel,” an intense drama starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, opened over the weekend, Lesher’s first release under the Paramount Vantage banner. The energetic and excitable 40-year-old must be giddy today: In the few theaters in which it played, the film made a spectacular showing.

After a two-decade career representing such luminaries as Martin Scorsese and “Babel” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Lesher has shown a knack for his new role. Though detractors say he can be a cocky snob, few can deny how quickly Lesher has put Vantage on the map.

In less than a year, the label has become a bona fide competitor in an independent film arena dominated by News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight Pictures and NBC Universal Inc.'s Focus Features. Vantage has eight movies in production and 10 releases set for next year, with such noted writer-directors as Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”) and the Coen brothers (“Fargo”).

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Lesher reshaped Vantage’s predecessor, Paramount Classics, handpicking a staff of 77 and hiring a top business executive from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., Nick Meyer, to help run the division.

Before the label’s renaming as Vantage, he scored with the spring release of Al Gore’s global-warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“He’s done an incredibly impressive job in a very short time of putting together some of the best filmmakers and first-rate executives in the business,” said onetime rival Robert Newman, a top movie agent at International Creative Management Inc. “The company has become a real force and he’s made it an attractive place for artists to work.”

Specialty labels such as Vantage have become linchpins for the major studios. Their lower-cost, offbeat films can bring Oscar prestige and big profits while complementing studios’ mainstream, “popcorn” fare.

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Some of the most acclaimed specialty films lately were made by Lesher’s former clients at Endeavor agency, including Todd Field’s “Little Children,” Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener,” Bennett Miller’s “Capote” and Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

Lesher’s out-of-the-gate success is particularly sweet for Brad Grey, a former talent manager who was criticized when he became chairman of Paramount Pictures in 2005 for having little moviemaking experience and surrounding himself with others who were equally as green.

Shortly after joining the struggling studio, Grey made the specialized film business a top priority. His former boss, Viacom Inc.'s then-Chief Executive Tom Freston, had trashed Paramount Classics as an “also-ran.”

Grey first worked closely with Lesher on Scorsese’s “The Departed,” with Grey as a producer and Lesher representing the director. “You need someone who really understands the language of talent,” Grey said, describing his choice of Lesher. “John has extraordinary taste ... and he thinks out of the box.”

Lesher’s tenacity was on display this year when he snapped up “An Inconvenient Truth” at the Sundance Film Festival, where it drew several suitors.

“John was the most persistent by a factor of 20,” Gore recalled in an interview. “He made at least a dozen phone calls to me personally. He was very passionate and promised he was really going to get behind it.”

Lesher made good on his word. He took Gore to the exhibitors’ ShoWest convention in Las Vegas to get theater operators excited about the movie.

He pleaded with Cannes Film Festival officials to screen the documentary even though it already had been shown at another major venue. Gore not only walked down the red carpet (“I’m old enough to know it’s just a rug,” he quipped), but also was toasted at a party for the film hosted by Vanity Fair magazine.

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“It really helped set the stage for everything we were doing,” said Lesher, who even sent Gore to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. headquarters to schmooze the nation’s largest seller of DVDs.

In the marketing campaign, Lesher framed the documentary as a moral rather than a political debate, helping to broaden its appeal. Opening on the competitive Memorial Day weekend and still in theaters, the film has grossed nearly $24 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Was the former vice president impressed? “Are you kidding? Absolutely,” Gore said. “This is a slide show on global warming starring Al Gore!”

Filmmakers who have worked with Lesher say they admire his chutzpah, his decisiveness and his trust in artists. They find his eccentricities charming too.

Comedy screenwriter Mike White (“Nacho Libre” and “School of Rock”) said making his directing debut on “Year of the Dog” for Vantage was “the best work experience I’ve ever had,” in part because Lesher remained virtually “hands off” during production.

Despite his chic attire, slick persona and smarts (he studied Japanese literature at Harvard), Lesher puts talent at ease with his boyish laugh and animated antics. “He was an agent for all those auteurs, so he definitely knows the angst of the filmmaker,” White said. “But he also has an odd, idiosyncratic temperament -- more like me.”

White said that when Lesher first saw a cut of his movie, the executive surprisingly “leapt from his seat and laughed and cried.” Earlier, at a “Nacho Libre” production meeting with White and his former production partner, actor Jack Black, Lesher dropped to his knees for effect.

“He threw himself at Jack’s feet,” begging the actor to stay involved in one of Vantage’s films,” said White, referring to the untitled Baumbach project. “It worked.”

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Writer-director Adam McKay, a production partner with actor Will Ferrell in a company signed by Vantage to make low-budget comedies, said he loved that Lesher could converse about the artistic merits of films and still “giggle like a giddy 9-year-old.”

Lesher, a native of Pittsburgh, was halfway through college when he first thought about working in Hollywood. He followed a friend’s advice to start at a talent agency, a fertile learning ground. Lesher spent the next 17 years working mostly at United Talent Agency and Endeavor.

“I loved being an agent, but it was never really my ultimate career goal,” Lesher said.

He sees one distinction between being an agent and being an executive. “As an agent you have to be on the side of the filmmaker and talent,” he said. “You have to be ‘Daddy’ in this new job,” but also strike a balance between a filmmaker’s artistic vision and fiscal responsibility.

One of Lesher’s most difficult moments, he said, was saying no to former client Paul Thomas Anderson when he asked to increase the production budget by a few million dollars for “There Will Be Blood,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

“We took many walks around the lot,” Lesher recalled. “ ‘Why can’t I do this? Why, why, why?’ he asked me.... Paul was able to be more resourceful because he knew he couldn’t get more.”

“Babel” is the first real test of Lesher’s balancing act. He considers the film a signature Vantage movie, provocative and compelling, with a cast and a director who have international appeal. “It really speaks to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Yet Lesher is under pressure to make sure the $25-million art-house film turns a profit, and whether that happens will not be known until “Babel” goes into wide release. Hoping to build an audience from strong word of mouth and Oscar buzz, Vantage is slowly rolling out the movie in seven theaters in Los Angeles and New York, with plans to expand to 1,200 on Nov. 10.

Though having the star power of Pitt and Blanchett would seem a marketer’s dream, “Babel’s” dense plot is not easily boiled down in a movie poster or a 30-second TV spot. The movie interweaves multiple stories and incorporates five languages, including sign.

“I thought making the movie was difficult, but promotion is suicidal,” said Gonzalez Inarritu, who spent three years on the project, for which he won the best-director award at Cannes this year. “It’s very complex and breaks a lot of paradigms. It’s told in five languages, has four stories and takes place on three continents.”

In “Babel,” a shooting accident involving an American couple visiting Morocco reverberates for two local boys involved in the incident; the couple’s own two young children, who are illegally taken to Mexico by their nanny; and a rebellious, deaf Japanese teenager whose father is sought by the Tokyo police.

The film’s high-adrenaline trailer, playing up the edge-of-your-seat intensity, helped draw theatergoers over the weekend. The TV spots convey the film’s message that “pain is universal but so is hope,” said Lesher, whose challenges in his new role may be as towering as those of “Babel.”

He said his job could be “aggravating” at times but reasoned: “No one said it’s going to be easy. But I’m honestly having a blast.”

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

*

Begin text of infobox

Profile

Name and title: John Lesher, president, Paramount Vantage

Born: May 12, 1966, in Pittsburgh

Education: Harvard University, graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies

Employment:

1988-2005: Represented top independent filmmakers at United Talent Agency and its predecessor company and most recently as a partner at Endeavor

2005: Named president of Paramount’s specialty film label Paramount Classics, which was recently renamed Paramount Vantage

Family: Married, with a daughter, 11, and a son, 5

Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times

*

Coming attractions

Paramount Vantage’s planned 2007 releases include:

Untitled Noah Baumbach project

Writer-director: Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”)

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Turturro

Story: A humorous and heartbreaking tale of a family in distress

No Country for Old Men*

Writers-directors: Coen brothers (“Fargo”)

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Story: A thriller set against the Rio Grande, circa 1980, based on Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller

A Mighty Heart

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Writers: Laurence Coriat, Michael Winterbottom

Cast: Angelina Jolie

Story: A true story about slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, adapted from the memoir by his widow, Mariane Pearl

Year of the Dog

Writer-director: Mike White

Cast: Molly Shannon, Regina King, Peter Sarsgaard

Story: A poignant comedy

about a secretary’s personal transformation after her beloved dog dies

Into the Wild

Writer-director: Sean Penn

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Marcia Gay Harden

Story: A true story based on the Jon Krakauer bestseller about an Emory University graduate who abandons his possessions to live in the Alaskan wilderness

There Will Be Blood*

Writer-director: Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”)

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis

Story: Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s epic novel “Oil!” about family, greed, corruption and the pursuit of the American dream

The Kite Runner**

Director: Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”)

Writer: David Benioff

Cast: Jonathan Ahdout

Story: A family drama based on the Khaled Hosseini book spanning from the final days of the Afghan monarchy to the present

*Co-financed by Miramax International

**Paramount Pictures inherited the movie when it acquired DreamWorks SKG

Source: Paramount Vantage

Los Angeles Times


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