Medavoy’s abrupt exit sparks Sony shakeup

Mike Medavoy’s exit from TriStar Pictures had been in the wind for more than two years, but the veteran executive’s abrupt resignation Jan. 7 became the catalyst for widespread changes at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Medavoy’s resignation came at least three months before SPE had planned a TriStar management change, forcing SPE chairman Peter Guber and president and chief operating officer Alan Levine to immediately consolidate movie authority under Motion Picture Group president Jonathan Dolgen and Motion Picture Companies chairman Mark Canton.

Several studio insiders say Dolgen and Canton will likely push Columbia and TriStar toward an increased number of low-budget comedies and action pictures — a personal favorite of Dolgen, who fancies both the international and video upsides of chopsocky fare and counts as his friend the kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Sources have also said that Columbia executive VP and president of marketing and distribution Sid Ganis will be elevated to studio president in the next 30 days. It is believed Columbia president of production Lisa Henson, named to the job Aug. 3, would retain the majority of responsibility over creative affairs.

SPE officials declined to comment on the future of Columbia and TriStar.

Perfect marriage?

The public face on the marriage couples Canton’s talent relationships with Dolgen’s almost legendary ability within Hollywood circles to crunch numbers and plot strategies.

But it may be a shotgun wedding.

It is still unclear how much authority Canton will hold in his new role, while Dolgen is widely acknowledged in the SPE family to be the executive most in control of the corporate purse strings.

One Disney executive goes so far as to predict that Canton and Dolgen will be “barely speaking by the end of the year,” as the free-spending Canton and the ever-thrifty Dolgen begin to square off.

Indeed, the personalities are markedly different. The best known of the two — Canton, 44 — is the son of a Hollywood publicist who rose through the ranks to become one of the first people WB chairman Robert Daly and president Terry Semel went to when they needed a star cajoled, a director convinced or a producer signed.

Dolgen, 48, is an attorney by trade who has demonstrated a keen ability to grasp the ins and outs of business from the get-go. After seguing from the Wall Street law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson to join Columbia Pictures in 1976, Dolgen moved quickly through the ranks and gained control of video and pay television operations just four years later. By the late 1980s he was Barry Diller’s right-hand man at Fox Inc. before returning to Columbia Pictures Entertainment under Guber and Levine in 1990.

“Most attorneys who become movie executives spend years playing catch-up,” one of Dolgen’s former colleagues said, “but Jon grasped (business) analysis almost immediately.” His critics, however, question his aggressiveness in applying statistical analysis to creative decision-making.

Higher profile

Many at SPE expect Dolgen to assume a higher profile at the company. To date, he has left the headlines to Guber, Levine, Canton and Medavoy, but few question his power.

In 1992, Dolgen was credited with slashing budgets by 30% and saving the company about $ 50 million, including a cut in movie marketing expenses from an average of $ 15 million per movie to $ 10 million.

One certainty: Under Canton and Dolgen, the Columbia and TriStar slates are bound to change, because neither studio has lived up to the expectations of former producer and SPE chairman Guber.

Columbia’s performance has been at best mixed since Canton’s ascent to the post on Oct. 3, 1991. One studio insider says Columbia’s only profitable 1993 movies at the point of the promotion were “Groundhog Day,””Poetic Justice” and “In the Line of Fire,” while “Remains of the Day” appears on target to eke into the black. But Columbia refuses to disclose returns from ancillary markets, thus making it impossible to compute their return on investment.

On the flip side, Canton has demonstrated an ability during his tenure to keep the Colpix pipeline full, and has been willing to take the whacks that go with the chairman’s job.

Rough going

TriStar’s performance has been equally tumultuous. When named chairman four years ago, Medavoy opted to keep the majority of the incumbent production staff in place and focus on a pair of big-budget pictures –“Hook” and “Bugsy.”

“He wouldn’t and couldn’t focus on anything else, which is why development slowed down so considerably,” said one production executive.

Ironically, a management change in early 1992 that placed former Orion executive Marc Platt in as studio president and former Guber development executive Stacey Lassally in as president of production led to such product as “Cliffhanger” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” It has also sparked a slate that includes “The Quick and the Dead,””Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,””Mary Reilly, “”Godzilla” and “The Foundation Trilogy,” which raises the possibility that Medavoy’s best slate will be in 1995 — a year after his exit.

“I think Mike saw what the movie business was becoming, and he didn’t want any part of it,” said one TriStar executive. “He didn’t want to be involved as a captain of industry in an industry where quality seemed to matter less and less.”

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