New Day Dawns At Sony

January brought some belated Christmas gifts to Sony Pictures Entertainment, including the company’s first domestic box office market-share crown since December 1992.

“Little Women” and “Higher Learning,” from Sony’s Columbia Pictures division, and “Legends of the Fall,” from TriStar, all jumped out of the box in a big way, resulting in what Sony execs say is the “fastest sprint to $100 million” by any distributor ever.

The market share was suddenly through the roof at what the studio claims is 25.2% (though Variety clocks it at 23.1%). Last year, in the midst of corporate overhaul and a paltry release schedule, Sony’s market share had plummeted to a lowly 10%.

Now comes the newly reorganized Sony, replete with a $2.7 billion writeoff from its corporate parents, a more stable management team in place and three pictures last month that virtually no one in Hollywood – except possibly Sony distribution president Jeff Blake – expected to perform so well.

“Last month’s performance is nothing to boast about or crow about,” says Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos. “But it does give us a real confidence zone.”

Confidence has been in short supply on the Culver City lot over the past year. To say Sony is a company in transition is to call “Forrest Gump” a moderate hit for Paramount. Among the departing were former Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Peter Guber, former TriStar president Mike Medavoy and ex-chairman of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group Jonathan Dolgen. Add to the mix the writeoff Sony corporate had to swallow for the entertainment division, a difficult and emotional joining of the marketing and distribution staffs, and the fact that none of its movies hit paydirt.

Canton argues that the studios are finally settling down and getting back to the job of putting out pix. He says Sony isn’t that concerned in garnering market share. “We have a business agenda and it includes market share,” says Canton. “It’s a very important item in perception of the studio. But the truth is, we want to drive up our profits.”

The studio has a slate of 31 films due out in 1995 from Columbia (including Castle Rock Entertainment), TriStar and Triumph Pictures. Unlike past years when the company opted for blockbusters like “Last Action Hero,” Sony now looks to be treading a more measured path.

“The cost of our films is going down, which is important not only for us, but for everybody in the industry,” says Canton.

Canton won’t divulge operations budgets for Col and TriStar, but he says Sony is providing plenty of cash to keep the studios in business. He adds that development budgets are roughly the same as ’93-’94, but in the same breath praises Lisa Henson, president of Columbia Pictures, and TriStar president Marc Platt for monitoring those costs more closely.

Canton explains another money-saving technique. “We will be thinning out producer deals,” he says. “You don’t make as many movies and you end up paying for offices and staff.”

On the other side of that coin, of course, are long-suffering producers on the lot who tried to get pix into production but were met with a blockade during the last tempestuous year and took projects elsewhere.

“There was no point in bringing them anything because it certainly wouldn’t get made,” says one producer who gave up in frustration.

Insiders say the attrition is false economy at a company that’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars on big-name producers, who were previously dismissed from the company: Sony Corp. of America is already in business with former SPE chairman Peter Guber to the tune of some $200 million and SPE looks to be inking deals with Stanley Jaffe (an ex-Columbia prexy) and Medavoy.

Sources say the deal with Jaffe, who will bring with him some financing, is almost done.

Medavoy was looking at Paramount but will likely end up at Sony. Sources say he’ll provide at least 75% of the production costs on any given picture, keeping with the current Sony mandate brought in by Sony corporate exec VP Jeff Sagansky to co-finance as much as possible.

Though he claims his company is just now getting organized, Guber has already bid on several projects and involved staffs of both Col and TriStar. “He seems to want to be very collaborative with us even though his deal allows him a lot of freedom,” says one insider. “He talks to us and keeps us very involved in his process.

On the corporate front, the company has settled down under SPE chief operating officer Alan Levine, who replaced Guber last fall, though sources say it’s still unclear who ultimately decides things for the studio.

This much is true: Former CBS exec Sagansky was brought in to the Sony Gotham office as an adviser, but was suddenly appearing in Los Angeles observing daily operations, meeting with execs and looking at balance sheets.

“He’s been reading everything as far as I know – all the scripts,” says one source.

Sony is struggling to create a sense of stability for its companies. “We’re finally working in an environment where corporate distractions have been minimized and all of us are focused on our jobs and the development and production of successful motion pictures,” says Marc Platt, president of TriStar. “There’s a great feeling and there is a lot of energy and excitement throughout the company. You’re not opening up the paper and reading about something bad every day. That’s what I mean by corporate distractions.”

Sid Ganis, president of the newly combined Sony marketing staffs, says: “There’s a feeling of calm around here…. We’re not in a panic mode by any stretch of the imagination.”

Another source inside the company says Columbia and TriStar are working more closely together than they ever have. Gone are the backbiting and animosity that once existed between the competitive studios.

As for actual releases this year, TriStar offers up a slate of modestly budgeted pix that have some winning potential. A few highlights:

* “The Quick and the Dead,” which opens Feb. 10, carries a budget of between $30 million and $35 million. Platt has high hopes for the Sharon Stone-Gene Hackman Western.

* “Hideaway” stars Jeff Goldblum and Christine Lahti in the psychological thriller.

* “Mary Reilly,” at $38 million, could be a hit for Julia Roberts.

* “Johnny Mnemonic” was moved back from a January date to a summer slot, presumably on the notion that Keanu Reeves has become a marketable action star suitable for release in the hot months. Platt claims the film simply wasn’t finished.

* “Devil in a Blue Dress,” starring Denzel Washington and directed by Carl Franklin, may be TriStar’s best movie of the year, artistically. The period noir film is budgeted at $20 million.

* “Jumanji,” expected out at Thanksgiving or Christmas, has already cost the studio $15 million just for Robin Williams. But nearly every TriStar exec on the lot thinks it will make money. The production costs are expected to settle in the $50 million range. That’s a big hurdle, but with Williams playing a grownup kid, anything is possible.

Over at Columbia, execs are a little more confident of at least one big summer release: “First Knight.”

Pic is the age-old Round Table love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur, this time starring Richard Gere, Julia Ormond and Sean Connery. Cast bodes well, but budget is in excess of $60 million and some say has even gone as high as $80 million.

Other ’95 highlights for the studio include:

* “Bad Boys,” a $20 million teaming of black comics Will Smith and Martin Lawrence that Henson says has had “really strong response” from its test audiences. It opens April 7.

* “The Baby-Sitters Club,” slated for a summer or fall release, will cost only $6.5 million, which will be split by Col and Beacon Communications.

* “The Net,” skedded for the fall, brings back another “Speed” alum, Sandra Bullock, as a computer systems analyst who stumbles on the wrong program. Budget is around $20 million.

* “Money Train,” starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, is set for a winter release. Budget is already over $40 million and climbing.

* “Voices From a Locked Room,” helmed by Malcolm Clarke and produced by Cary Brokaw, is a $7 million drama set in London in 1930.

Col will also benefit from a Castle Rock Entertainment slate of pix that includes Billy Crystal in “Forget Paris,” Rob Reiner directing Michael Douglas and Annette Bening in “An American President” and Al Pacino in “City Hall.”

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