HOLLYWOOD — Six weeks after studio head Mike Medavoy resigned from TriStar Pictures, execs keep on shuffling at both TriStar and its sister studio, Columbia Pictures. The changes are fueling speculation that Sony Pictures Entertainment is either looking for a passive investor in the studios, stalking a strategic partnership or trussing up TriStar for a potential sale.

On March 3, Columbia executive vice president Sid Ganis and president of production Lisa Henson were promoted to vice chairman and president of the studio, respectively. Together with a cadre of sharp young executives, they will run the studio on a day-to-day basis and report to chairman of Columbia-TriStar motion picture companies Mark Canton and motion picture group president Jonathan Dolgen.

The day before their promotions became official, William C. Soady, TriStar’s president of domestic distribution, quit to take the chief executive slot at Showscan Film Corp.

And near the end of February, Ken Lemberger, formerly vice chairman of TriStar Pictures and Mike Medavoy’s old second in command, was tapped to oversee a new corporate development group whose mission is to engage in long-range planning for Sony’s motion picture, television, theatrical exhibition and studio facilities divisions.

Meanwhile, Sony’s TV side also underwent a major reorganization late last month. All TV production was consolidated under TriStar TV prexy Jon Feltheimer. And much like TriStar’s Medavoy, Columbia TV president Scott Siegler has been in the process of settling out his deal there. This lean-and-meanification of Sony occurred at the same time that its parent company retained Furman Selz to entertain offers for part of the operation.

“Obviously, some of the microchanges involving personnel at the studios are related,” said a Sony spokesperson. “But are all these pieces part of a master plan? Definitely not.”

Serious speculation

Maybe not. Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Peter Guber has been telling intimates that the company is looking for strategic partners. Some execs on the lot feel SPE would appear to be cutting costs because, in the words of one Culver City source, the brass wants to “make everything nice and glossy for Wall Street.”

One high-level Sony exec feels the recent firings and consolidations mean either a percentage of SPE is being prepped for a major sale or Peter Guber simply prefers to have more “collegial execs” in the top slots, where he previously had to butt heads with toothsome tigers like Medavoy and Frank Price.

Thrifty move

With several high-level executive positions removed from the hierarchy, the studio may be looking at considerable savings in payroll costs. The elimination of Medavoy’s slot, including various support staff, should result in a $ 6 million savings right off the bat. Earlier this month, several business affairs slots at Columbia TV were eliminated. Some TriStar marketing staff members may follow in Soady’s footsteps.

And Columbia Pictures has no plan to replace Ganis and Henson; the studio will function without a president of marketing or a head of production.

It may not need it. By moving Henson into the limelight, talent may flock there — especially now that execs are working in sync under Canton and Dolgen.

One area of concern for filmmakers when the Soady-Ganis shuffle first appeared in the March 3 Daily Variety was whether the two distribution arms would be folded into one creating the appearance of a larger market share. One rival studio’s head of distribution pointed out that TriStar released only 16 films last year, while Columbia chipped in 19. A single distribution apparatus could handle that volume of product — as evidenced by the recent efforts of Warner Bros. and Buena Vista.

But a Colpix exec, commenting on Soady’s departure, said there are no plans to combine marketing and distribution at the two Sony studios. Having both TriStar and Columbia distribute product means the full-court press can be implemented on every film — which helps keep A-list directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Mike Nichols happy.

Sid Ganis, 51, is no stranger to marketing tricky product or working with top talent. He has toiled at Columbia since March 1992, when he relinquished his executive VP duties at Sony Pictures Entertainment to take over Colpix marketing and distribution. Ganis previously greenlit movies as president of Paramount Pictures motion picture group from 1988-90. He was often interested in developing new talent, including the first Hollywood overture to Italian director Carlo Carlei (“Flight of the Innocent”), who last year got the greenlight on MGM/UA’s “Fluke.”

His fellow rising star, 33-year-old Lisa Henson, is being promoted just eight months after taking the president of production job at Columbia. During her tenure, the former Warner Bros. executive has been involved in the acquisition of director Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” the greenlighting of director Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women,” the $ 1.5 million acquisition of the book “The Juror” and the acquisition of Julie Talen’s spec screenplay “A Tale of Two Brides.”

And while a number of agents and producers expressed enthusiasm about dealing with the new and improved Sony Pictures Entertainment, more wizened industry execs argue that the recent changes lookeerily familiar. Said one, “Sony is starting to look a lot like what TriStar was like before (TriStar founder) Victor Kaufman hooked the Japanese.”

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