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Paramount's Black Friday

The way Paramount rolls, it’s hard to keep things private at that studio. (Remember all those Paramount versus DreamWorks leaks?) So rumors have been all over the studio lot for the past six months that chairman Brad Grey and vice chairman Rob Moore were unhappy with John Lesher’s performance as president of the Paramount Film Group. I asked my sources if it was possible that Lesher would be pressured to exit.

I was told it was under discussion but a final decision was not imminent. Then, in the past two weeks, Lesher began telling his pals that he thought he was “on borrowed time.” But from an “urgency perspective, you’re not talking tomorrow, next week or even next month,” an insider told me.

But then I ran a June 19 story that Lesher would lose his job “soon” on my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com. Not long after, “soon” turned into that day. I learned that my post moved up Paramount’s timeline for the firing. (“Nikki Finke knew about it before I did,” Lesher told a friend.)

Now all their lawyers will negotiate a production deal at the studio for the axed exec. Soon after, Grey asked Brad Weston to also transition to a production deal. And not long after that, Adam Goodman was named Lesher’s replacement. Paramount called the shakeup a “streamlining.”

Which begs the question: What went wrong with Lesher after only 18 months?

It’s been an unusual situation with three executives in very senior but seemingly similar positions.

Lesher had been promoted from specialty division Paramount Vantage, where he had full or joint custody on Oscar-accoladed An Inconvenient Truth, Babel, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. He went to No. 3 at big Paramount with creative and production control of all the studio’s film labels. Goodman in December moved from DreamWorks to Paramount Pictures as president of production, overseeing a creative staff managing current DreamWorks projects and creative relationships, as well as new development now for Paramount. Weston continued as president of production for Paramount Pictures once Lesher was brought in above him.

I broke the story December 5 that Paramount boss Grey was about to promote Lesher, who sped up the process by bursting into Weston’s office and delivering the news of his coming promotion and Weston’s demotion. “I’m not stepping down and reporting to you,” Weston responded. It fell to Grey, who was in NYC at the time, to fly back and sort everything out.

Grey’s special relationship with Lesher dates back to Brad’s Brillstein-Grey management and production days when the Harvard grad who speaks Mandarin dazzled Grey with his smarts. The boss had grown even more comfortable with Lesher at Paramount Vantage, where the two had developed Babel with Grey’s former client Brad Pitt. (On the night that Babel won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Lesher gave up his seat mid-dinner so Grey could sit next to Pitt.) Brad’s thinking was that Lesher could bring quality, originality and talent relationships to a big studio slate. It was a gamble to be sure. Lesher’s naysayers warned at the time that his taste was too sophisticated.

But, by all accounts, that didn’t prove to be the source of Lesher’s problems. It was his style of management, or rather lack of it. Specifically, I’m told Lesher fell down in two areas: not green-lighting enough, and not behaving appropriately for the position.

Paramount has just a handful of non–DreamWorks pics in the pipeline and only four that Lesher can really claim credit for green-lighting: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender; the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio Shutter Island (considered a no-brainer since Scorsese has his deal there and Lesher used to rep him at Endeavor); Gore Verbinski’s animated pic with Johnny Depp, Rango (an obvious go, but also Lesher has close ties to Depp’s agent, Tracy Jacobs); and J.J. Abrams–produced Morning Glory (another situation where Abrams has a deal with the studio). Lesher was told there wasn’t enough in the pipeline but didn’t pick up the pace.

In turn, he wasted a lot of time trying to develop a Beverly Hills Cop 4 with Eddie Murphy starring and Brett Ratner directing. As an insider told me then, “Brad put him in the job because of his relationships with interesting filmmakers. Not to hire Brett Ratner.” BHC4 was dead by December. “It feels like the wrong moment,” Lesher told pals. “There’s no universe where we’re paying Eddie his full fee.” He wasn’t wrong. But there was nothing big in the works to fill the spot and even now Paramount’s slate has a huge gap between releases.

The problem for the Paramount bosses was not that the movie’s development died. But it was emblematic of a curious change in Lesher’s management style. “To defend John, putting movies together is incredibly hard. And he’s been in the business exactly when DVD peaked to when the movie biz got even harder,” a source tells me. “But at Vantage, he’d become known for aggressively supporting projects and people. But now people are feeling that he was not moving projects forward. There’s been frustrations ... that John [in the new job] has shown a lack of passion to champion projects and to get to see them get made.”

“John is complicated” is the mantra repeated even by his pals. (“John is complicated to figure out.” “John is a complicated dude in a million ways, and that’s not a secret to anyone — least of all Brad and Rob.”) But even during his Endeavor days, as one of my sources confided, “... John was more work than any client they ever had.”

By all accounts, Lesher was “more efficient and in a better place” back when he was at Paramount Vantage. But the stress of the new job showed. The result has been negative buzz about Lesher ever since. To be fair, some of this can be attributed to jealousy, especially by agents, but much to his own brazen arrogance and unprofessional behavior. Like telling a screenwriter I know, “You must not be any good if I haven’t heard of you,” even though the scripter had credits with $1.5 billion worth of box office. And like the time Lesher disappeared for four days in New York after appearing at the Toy Fair looking “incredibly disheveled.”

Agents and managers began complaining. “He vanishes after 1 p.m. and doesn’t return calls,” they told Paramount. Lesher drew notice for looking “whacked out and shit-faced and falling down” during the studio’s big Benjamin Button and Sweeney Todd screening parties. He’s been known to nod off in front of directors during their discussions. He’s been seen dozing on his office couch.

That may be because he’s been up at 3 a.m. engaged in “incoherent and rambling and emotional” communications with his Paramount colleagues. Lesher’s bizarre, wee-hour e-mails to other execs and staff are now the stuff of legend. Even more famous is Lesher’s sobbing “I’m sorry” phone call to Nick Meyer in December after Lesher pushed him out of Paramount Vantage.

I know that, six months ago, Brad Grey was alarmed after being given an earful about Lesher and began considering who might fill the job. But there was still not a shortlist. Turns out Grey didn’t need one: Adam Goodman was already a logical successor.