Ted Turner in H’w’d: Bringing goals to New, Castle

TED TURNER HAS A FIERCE appetite to become a major player in Hollywood, and whatever Ted wants, Ted gets. The only problem is that Ted’s precise wants are not always in focus — not even to himself.

As evidence, the ubiquitous Turner is in advanced negotiations to acquire two important film companies, Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema. If Turner were able to bring off these purchases, valued together at somewhere around half a billion dollars, he would achieve these varied objectives: He would hugely bolster his film library for the Turner cable networks. He would become an important player, through New Line, in the video business as well as in film distribution. He would also latch on to two of the most respected managements in the entertainment industry.

But we’re talking Ted Turner here, and nothing is that simple. Deals of this magnitude cannot be made without the acquiescence of Turner’s two “shadow partners,” Gerald Levin of Time Warner and John Malone of Tele-Communications Inc. Some insiders predict they will approve one deal but not both.

Clearly a lot of agendas would have to be accommodated for any of these deals to work. Time Warner, which owns a 20% stake in Turner Broadcasting and has three seats on its board, would like to prod Turner into utilizing its own film distribution mechanism and also supplying Turner programming for other TW units. Time Warner, most of all, would like to “monetize” its stake in Turner, which in English means “cash out”– an aim that could ultimately cost Ted Turner more than $ 1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, Sony owns 45% of Castle Rock, and Peter Guber, whose frenetic energy level matches Turner’s, does not plan to sit idly by while Castle Rock wanders off into the night.

New Line, whose market value totals about $ 284 million (prexy Bob Shaye owns 27%), covets the capitalization and protective shield of an entity like Turner. But the company, which has shown its marketing prowess with franchises like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” clearly has earned the right to steer its own course.

GIVEN THE COMPLEXITY of these machinations, one might well ask, “Why would Ted Turner put so much at risk to gain entry to a business which is itself a high-wire act?”

Porter Bibb, the astute investment banker whose biography of Turner will be published next month, observes that Turner’s motivations extend beyond mere business strategy. Sure, he needs to build his library of films, but Turner also sees moviemaking as a vehicle for expressing his cosmic views. “We’re talking about a remarkable man who is still searching for himself,” says Bibb, whose book is called “It Ain’t as Easy as It Looks — Ted Turner’s Amazing Story.”

According to Bibb, who has known Turner since 1974, Turner does not envision himself as another Michael Eisner. He’d rather play the role of the provocateur, the idea man, the philosopher-king.

One top Turner exec say’s he’s also noted his boss’s growing hunger to make movies that have a point of view on the world, “that speak to larger issues about humanity.” While Turner understands the validity of “meat-and-potato” films, he abhors displays of violence and coarse sexuality, his associate observes.

Significantly, Turner had been eager to finance “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and his wife, Jane Fonda, will shortly produce a made-for-cable film about a Native American woman — her first producing effort. The pair still give as many as three speeches a week before all sorts of civic groups expressing their points of view on social and political questions. Among their close friends in Hollywood are Paula Weinstein and Sydney Pollack — two members of the filmmaking community who are known for conscience as well as commerce.

AMONG TURNER’S ABIDING frustrations is that, despite acquiring MGM/UA from Kirk Kerkorian, he never actually got to greenlight a picture during his brief time in control. If Turner manages to achieve his present goals, he would joyously greenlight an abundance of projects, which would make Castle Rock happy , since the company has lacked sufficient capital to fund high-end projects like “In the Line of Fire.”

One big question: How would the present managements of New Line and Castle Rock cope with Turner’s zealous input? As one Turner exec put it this week: “Ted never calls up and barks, ‘Do this or you’re fired.’ But he may call four times a day, deluging you with ideas and opinions.”

To be sure, Ted Turner has calmed down a great deal over the past couple of years. His marriage to Fonda has been one factor. At the same time, as Bibb reminds us, Turner has effectively moderated his mood swings through the use of lithium. If Turner succeeds in negotiating his way through the maze of Malone and Time Warner, associates believe he will prove a prudent and considerate leader of his newly acquired Hollywood toys.

And many in Hollywood would welcome a fresh input of both prudence and leadership.

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