In his first 18 months as chairman of Columbia Pictures, 43-year-old Mark Canton has presided over the marketing and distribution of a string of successes that began with “My Girl” and propelled the studio to strong box office results in the second half of 1992.

But Columbia’s early ’93 hit “Groundhog Day” marked one of the first productions shepherded by Canton from start to finish, and now several films are rumbling at the starting gate.

The pre-production purgatory has Hollywood fiercely divided over Canton’s aggressive management style.

Currently waiting for the go-ahead at the Culver City-based studios are a $ 35 million western to be directed by Walter Hill titled “Geronimo”; the sequel to “My Girl”; the Damon Wayans starrer “Blankman”; “Saturday Night Live” spinoff “Hans and Franz”; Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood”; Luc Besson’s “Leon”; Roseanne and Tom Arnold’s “Car Picture” and the just-delayed “First Knight,” a project that director Jerry Zucker, of “Ghost” and “Airplane!” fame, hoped would start this summer.

The ever-confident Canton said the studio is carefully getting its ducks in a row. He pointed out that Columbia started production last Wednesday on a major project when lensing on the Jack Nicholson-Michelle Pfeiffer starrer “Wolf” began. The pic modernizes the classic wolfman tale.

Columbia president of worldwide production Michael Nathanson reports that several of the movies in pre-production are close to a start.

Geronimo charges ahead

He was confident that a recent rewrite of “Blankman” would rev the movie toward production in 12 to 14 weeks, while “Geronimo” appeared on track under the aegis of director Walter Hill.

In fact, the delay on “Geronimo” underscores the ambitious tack Canton began to implement on his first day at the studio. At the 11th hour on “Geronimo,” the studio and director Hill decided that one of the smaller parts — originally earmarked for an unknown and inexpensive actor — would be perfectly handled by the experienced and expensive talents of Robert Duvall, who sources said Monday had committed to the project.

As the studio wended its way toward the four-time Academy Award nominee, stars and technicians hired for “Geronimo” crews were essentially kept in a holding pattern. Duvall and his William Morris Agency representatives met with studio exex April 7, but his participation in “Geronimo” was still up in the air late last week.

“My Girl II” is another movie on the Paul Masson route: not to be served before its time.

According to “My Girl” director Howard Zieff, casting agents have been holding auditions for weeks on the Sony Pictures Studios lot because “we’re trying to find an unknown for one of the parts.” At further prodding, Zieff said it is imperative that “an important new face” be discovered for the role of the mother, who will contribute to a secret plot twist at the end of the film.

Go movies are crucial to Columbia if it is to avoid repeating the dearth of product suffered by sister studio TriStar Pictures in 1992. In that year, TriStar shepherded two Herculean movies –“Hook” and “Bugsy”– to market, only to be left with little product in the pipeline after those behemoths completed their box office runs.

A lengthy business trip by Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Peter Guber, who is due to return from the Far East on Thursday, has fueled recent reports that production dollars are tight. SPE spokesmen declined comment on Guber’s trip, but the creative community began to joke last week that the jaunt was the namesake of Columbia’s 1992 hit “Mo’ Money.”

Though Columbia sports a healthy development slate, the parallel between TriStar and Columbia is obvious on the release side. On April 8, Canton, exec VP Sid Ganis, president of distribution Jeff Blake and senior VPs Mark Gill and Marc Shmuger held back-to-back meetings with Arnold Schwarzenegger on “Last Action Hero” and Clint Eastwood on Castle Rock Entertainment’s “In the Line of Fire”– a film bound to benefit from the Academy Award afterglow of “Unforgiven.”

Columbia’s two potential summer blockbusters have created an imbalance at the studio, several producers say. They maintain that long-term planning is in jeopardy, partly because development spending was curbed shortly after Schwarzenegger agreed to star in “Last Action Hero” in December. The harness on acquisition and development began to lift last month.

“It is a heat-seeking, crisis-managed studio that is going to have the two biggest hits of the summer,” United Talent Agency partner Jeremy Zimmer said.

“That’s utterly absurd,” Columbia spokesman Mark Gill countered. “Long-term planning is definitely in better shape today than it was a year ago.” He said Canton’s emphasis on continuity of management has improved the Colpix distribution, marketing and production operations — as evidenced by the studio’s box office surge.

Some producers complain that dormant projects at the studio are rarely given a chance to get made by being placed in turnaround at Columbia — some say a reaction to Canton’s days at Warner Bros., which sold the rights to “Home Alone” and “Edward Scissorhands” to 20th Century Fox.

“It is pure frustration, and a feeling of us vs. them,” one producer on the lot said.

Producer trims

Much of the negativity stems from Hollywood’s new budget awareness. Canton’s Colpix has faced the difficult task of trimming producer term deals at the studio, which could leave as many as 15 producers out in the cold.

Canton said the studio will attempt to maintain as much continuity with filmmakers as possible, including deals with such talent as “Lost in Yonkers” producer Ray Stark, Jim Brooks’ Gracie Films, Sandollar Prods., John Singleton’s New Deal Prods., Penny Marshall’s Parkway Prods., Brillstein-Grey Entertainment and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” producers Trilogy Entertainment, one of the first companies Canton brought to the lot.

The chairman is also proud that Colpix has managed to attract such directors as Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, John McTiernan and, most recently, Paul Verhoeven.

While the studio always seems to nudge its production, Columbia arguesthat it works in partnership with its talent, allowing them to put together the best possible product.

Canton and Nathanson are confident that Columbia will suffer no production shortage after “Last Action Hero” and “In the Line of Fire.” Guarding against a shortfall is the minimum of four films a year the company releases from Castle Rock Entertainment.

Canton said the numbers speak for themselves. A smooth marketing and distribution machine has helped to post the best numbers in Col’s history. First-quarter box office gross was $ 160 million, putting it 118% ahead of the studio’s $ 74 million performance in the first quarter last year.

“If this is the crossroads, I’m happy to be in the car at that point,” Canton said.

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