Peter Bart: Last Pic From Brad Grey Era, Can ‘Annihilation’ Bolster Paramount’s Turnaround Effort?

Paramount Pictures

Scheduled for release next week, Paramount’s Annihilation is stirring expectations despite its unsettling title. The cerebral sci-fi genre thriller represents the last in an anomalous slate of films left behind by the late Brad Grey’s ill-starred regime at Viacom. The movies represent a defiant, if not dizzying, profile of the sort of ambitious, mid-budget dramas that Hollywood studios have been most urgently spurning. So insiders wonder, will Annihilation repeat the discomfiting scenario of Paramount’s other fall entries — Downsizing, mother! and Suburbicon?

Since the official review date of Alex Garland’s movie is still a week away, I won’t try to predict its reception other than to say that it fits the anomaly. Indeed, cash-hungry Paramount sold off international rights to the $55 million picture to Netflix, retaining only the U.S. and China. This was surprising, in that Annihilation likely will play better overseas than the rest of its slate. Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, was well received critically.

Annihilation, which could have been re-titled Get Out – But Quicker, has weathered a variety of social media mini-storms in post production — reported disagreements between producers and director on editing changes, plus casting choices that allegedly did not reflect the Asian and biracial characters of the original novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The plot of the movie focuses on a biologist who investigates the disappearance of her husband in an environmental disaster.

Annihilation arrives at a portentous time: Viacom’s revenues are in decline, reflecting skimpier fees from satellite and cable distributors as well as disappointing film grosses. While Viacom’s CEO, Bob Bakish, keeps saying “we see a clear path,” some investors don’t share that vision.

Brad Grey
Brad Grey in 2016 REX/Shutterstock

I personally feel a circumspect connection to Brad Grey’s final slate for this reason: When the ex-manager was anointed to assume the top studio spot 20 years ago I published a memo to him warning of the pressures of his new career. One of the biggest perils Grey will face, I said, was that filmmakers he once represented would assault him with pitches for their passion projects. As a manager, he had supported their ambitions, but in his new role he would keep saying “no” and hate himself for it. A generous, warm-spirited man, Grey sent a memo back to me, thanking me for my advice but declaring he would not fall victim to that dilemma.

To be sure, over the course of his surprisingly long tenure at the studio Grey delivered some solid results, often finishing first or second in market share with franchises like Transformers and Star Trek, plus surprise hits like The Departed and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Moreover, his gifts for diplomacy helped him survive Sumner Redstone’s idiosyncratic management shifts in the CEOs to whom Grey reported.

Grey bravely concealed his battle with lung cancer for over a year, but in his final months colleagues saw a mood swing. I traveled to Brown University with Grey and Jack Nicholson (both were proud parents of Brown students), but as I chatted with them onstage I noticed Grey’s flagging energy. The pace of production at the studio had been flagging and the faces of the production staff also kept changing.

“mother!” Paramount Pictures

Then came the surprise slate. The star names were impressive: Matt Damon, starring in Suburbicon with George Clooney directing, also played the lead in Downsizing directed by Alexander Payne. Jennifer Lawrence held the starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s challenging allegory mother! and Natalie Portman is Garland’s star in Annihilation. These were all formidable packages to be produced on mid-range budgets, which together totaled about $180 million.

Downsizing at $68 million was the most costly for a “mid-range” project — and the term “mid-range” is itself a tenuous word in today’s Hollywood, since it suggests the risky territory between so-called specialty films and the rarefied world of franchises. Grey himself was hopeful about their prospects. He once confided to me that they represented a potential throwback to the modestly budget pictures of Paramount’s early 1970s slate when I served at the studio with Bob Evans. The catch of course, was cost: The combined cost of such ’70s hits as Paper Moon, Harold & Maude, The Conversation and Goodbye Columbus was — incredibly — slightly more than one-tenth of Grey’s slate.

Will the returns be higher? By year-end 2017 the first three releases have grossed under $50 million in the U.S., with Annihilation still pending. Paramount’s parent company urgently hopes that Grey’s final foray will still prove successful when results are tallied. Filmgoers as a whole have a vested interest in rooting for it.

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