Latest Goldwynism: Fiscal woes for last true indie

MEMO TO SAMUEL GOLDWYN JR. FROM PETER BART Say it ain’t so, Sam! Rumor has it that your company has hit some fiscal potholes and that you may be forced to sell. According to Hollywood lore, this town is supposed to rejoice when one of its players runs into tough times, but I think you’ll be the exception to this rule, Sam. The Samuel Goldwyn Co., after all, is not just your average company. Arguably, it’s the last true indie. Miramax is part of Disney now and New Line belongs to Ted Turner, but your company, Sam, proudly has maintained its autonomy. Only three months ago, Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the release of “The Madness of King George” marked “the culmination of a career — proof that, at age 69, Sam Goldwyn has fully come into his own.” And now your company is on the block! What kind of “culmination” is that? Which leads us to a more disturbing question: Is there really room any longer for a true “independent” in today’s turbulent film business? Is it possible to subsist without a sugar daddy? This question is especially germane given the transition of Miramax into a sort of supermarket for niche product. With 40-plus films on the release schedule, the brothers Weinstein have destabilized what was once a rather sedate industry. The irony, of course, is that Harvey and Bob Weinstein, in some ways, are reminiscent of the stubbornness and ferocity of your father, Sam — the remarkable Samuel Goldwyn Sr. Old Sam “came from the street,” as you like to put it, but he knew how to dream the big dream. He plied his trade the hard way, funding his own films and paying them off step-by-step, like a home mortgage. And what extraordinary movies they were –“The Best Years of Our Lives ,””Wuthering Heights,””The Little Foxes” et al. You chose to go it alone, too, Sam. As early as 1964 you were trekking from college to college, plugging your movie, “The Young Lovers.” Even as a kid you were winning prizes for documentaries that you shot in Europe.

THE GOLDWYN CO. TODAY can not only boast of some superb arthouse releases like “King George,” but also “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Mystic Pizza.” There are TV ventures like “American Gladiators” and, of course, your circuit of 126 specialized screens. So what went wrong? An assortment of number crunchers on Wall Street are even now trying to figure that out, since the asset value of your company apparently is somewhere in the area of $ 120 million to $ 140 million. Part of the problem, clearly, stemmed from some wrong guesses. While the Weinsteins rarely get into a pricey project unless their bets are covered by foreign pre-sales and other ancillary deals, you made a hefty $ 11 million bet on “The Perez Family,” and there were other write-downs , too, on “Oleanna,””To Live” and TV shows like “Why Didn’t I Think of That” and “Wild West Showdown.” Again, no corporate sugar daddy was there to cushion the blow. Then, too, the structure of your company is mind-bendingly complicated. Though you took a salary of only $ 155,833 in 1994, Sam, I’ll be damned if I can figure out the ramifications of the Goldwyn Trust, which, through its ownership of the old Goldwyn library, paid you some $ 6.4 million in fees over the past five years (albeit some of it deferred). Nor do I understand the arrangement with your president, Meyer Gottlieb, whereby he, too, has an outside company, Nightlife Inc., that produces movies and TV shows and that, according to documents filed with the SEC, has been “reimbursed” or advanced as much as $ 14 million since 1990 to cover various expenses. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything mischievous about these dealings — just that your company, while publicly owned, still seemed to some investors to be an odd mixture of public and private.

I SUPPOSE THE BOTTOM LINE, Sam, is that you were never “street” like your father. You are, in fact, “the last Hollywood Brahmin,” as one British friend put it. You live the regal life of the moguls of old, replete with fabled art collection and patrician habits. Still rangy and slim, with your splendid mane of silver hair, you are an elegant anachronism, trying to cope with the tough, mean-spirited commoners of a new epoch. Who else can spin stories over tea of sitting on Clark Gable’s knee, or can recall when your mother went to see “The Jazz Singer” with Irving Thalberg and he told her, “Sound is a passing fancy that won’t last.” Your competitors only know about last weekend’s grosses. I remember once having lunch with your father in his declining years, Sam, and I found him very gracious and a superb raconteur. At that time I was a reporter with the New York Times, and, after lunch, old Sam Goldwyn looked at me and said , “Well, son, we’ve talked about many things, but the Times always likes to write about ‘Goldwynisms’ and I haven’t given you any, have I?” “No,” I replied. “But we can make an exception.” “I don’t think I really said most of those things anyway,” he reflected. “But I always especially liked one of the ‘Goldwynisms’ attributed to me. I was looking back on my early days at MGM and supposedly said, ‘Forget about all that, we’ve passed a lot of water since then.’ I never said it, mind you, but that was a good one. The Times liked it, too.” So that brings us back to your present dilemma, Sam. When you founded your movie distribution company 15 years ago, it seemed like a great idea to go it alone. But, as the saying goes, we’ve passed a lot of water since then.

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