IT WAS SIX YEARS AGO that Variety ran its first and only Japanese headline, which greeted Matsushita’s acquisition of MCA. The headline declared, “Buyer Beware!” The message turned out to be prescient. Matsushita’s bumpy ride with MCA ended last April when the Japanese giant sold 80% of its stake to Seagram for $5.7 billion, declaring a $1.5 billion loss resulting from foreign exchange losses associated with the deal. Meanwhile, Sony wrote off some $2.7 billion last year and has yet to prove it can successfully manage its American entertainment company. Arguably, had the two Japanese leviathans adopted a bolder commitment to their U.S. entities, both MCA and Sony could have emerged as vastly stronger players. Sony’s U.S. managers had viable deals in place to sidestep regulatory inhibitions and acquire NBC, not to mention the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings, two strong sports franchises. The titans in Tokyo would not go along with these plans. Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg at MCA, meanwhile, were eager to acquire CBS and Virgin Records, but they encountered a similar stone wall from their bosses at Matsushita.
THE NET RESULT IS THAT, in the brave new world of vertical integration, both Sony and MCA have found themselves at a competitive disadvantage compared to such rivals as News Corp. and Disney. Had the Japanese allowed their U.S. companies to capitalize on their moments of opportunity, temporary debacles like “Last Action Hero” or “Waterworld” would have been vastly diminished in importance. All in all, the Japanese misadventures in Hollywood could provide grist for a fascinating book. It was with some interest, therefore, that I picked up the new volume titled “Hit and Run” by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters. Here’s a quick advisory: “Hit and Run” is not that book. Subtitled “How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood,” the book is an object lesson in all that is wrong with recent showbiz books. Far from providing cogent insights into what went wrong at Sony, the volume is basically a compendium of every mean-spirited joke and gossip item about the studio — stories that are so well-traveled and, in many cases, so blatantly bogus, that the book becomes, as Newsweek puts it, “dull” and “numbing.”
EVEN MORE SERIOUS, “Hit and Run” clearly falls into a not uncommon trap: Like a number of recent books about politics and show business, it relies heavily on one basic source. In this instance that source is Jon Peters, the voluble hairdresser-turned-producer who clearly feels that Sony and Guber rudely tossed him aside when the going got rough. (He subsequently gained a measure of revenge by producing “Money Train” for Sony, which lost $40 million.) I realize that even David McClintick’s “Indecent Exposure,” which dealt with David Begelman’s check-kiting fiasco, relied heavily on Alan J. Hirschfield as its central source. Hirschfield, however, was a responsible investment banker who had a keen grasp of the subject matter. Even so, McClintick meticulously double-checked his every reference. Peters’ view of the world, on the other hand, is rather surreal, and there is little evidence that anything he disclosed has been scrutinized by unbiased third parties. The net result is that what “Hit and Run” delivers is simply a strong dose of unrelieved nastiness. As an example, while “Last Action Hero” is described again and again as an unmitigated disaster (it ultimately broke even), the reader is given little understanding as to what went wrong. Instead, we are offered inane generalizations: “Many industry observers felt that the movie was doomed by its cynical origins. ‘The Last Action Hero’ was born of studio executives’ greed rather than the passion of a filmmaker wanting to tell a story.” I’m not sure exactly what the authors have in mind here, but it’s been my observation that when studio executives greenlight an $80 million summer popcorn picture, there are dollar signs dancing before them, not ambitions to create another “Citizen Kane.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s next picture, “True Lies,” was remarkably similar to “Action Hero” in tone and content, but was a success — was it because of purer artistic aspirations?
BUT THEN THESE ARE the same writers who can say of Mike Medavoy, “He exuded a depleting depression,” or who can describe Guber as “ever fleet of tongue.” In chapter after chapter, we are led through the Guber-Peters pantheon of movies, from “Rain Man” to “Batman,” being assured in every instance that the two had essentially nothing to do with the hits while standing accused of contaminating each of the failures. The primary sin of the Guber-Peters regime, the authors tell us, was that they lavished millions on themselves and their offices, on renovating the studio, on providing fresh flowers for executive suites, and so forth. Certainly no one in his right mind would argue that the regime was a success in building Sony’s fortunes in Hollywood. On the other hand, executives at other studios also make astonishing amounts of money. Moreover, it’s impossible to visit other studios without realizing that huge sums have been spent by companies to renovate their lots — indeed, some look far more lavish than Sony. Clearly, there are other important forces at work that caused Sony to become essentially dysfunctional — forces relating not only to the personalities of Guber and Peters but also to Michael Schulhof, who ran the show from New York, and to the Japanese overseers in Tokyo. None of these forces is examined in “Hit and Run.” While the authors claim that all Guber and Peters wanted to do was spend, all Griffin and Masters want to do is dish.
AND DISH THEY DO — all sorts of smarmy stories attributed to “insiders” and “sources on the lot” and to other mysterious individuals. Some of the anecdotes are mildly amusing (the book provides a collection of vintage Mark Cantonisms), but are they valid? Since I figure in as one of the very minor supporting players in the book, I was not surprised that every reference to me is incorrect. I am even ineptly described as “short and stocky.” Surely I am the first 5-foot, 9-inch editor weighing 135 pounds ever to be characterized as “stocky”– but then, judging from descriptions of others, I wonder whether the writers of this book actually met anyone other than Peters.
ONE FOUR-PAGE INCIDENT describes in lurid detail how, crumbling before Sony threats, I suppressed publication of certain financial documents that had been delivered to Variety by a disgruntled executive –“the biggest pile of confidential studio documents ever to fall into a journalist’s hands,” the authors breathlessly assure us. In point of fact, the documents consisted principally of out-of-date budget data and an incomplete list of grosses, plus the compensation of several middle-management employees. Variety and Daily Variety, after verifying the accuracy of the data, did publish a good deal of the material regarding grosses and budgets in subsequent stories. The suggestion in “Hit and Run” that the material was suppressed is ludicrous, as is the assertion that I personally met with Guber 14 times in a two-month period to discuss the intrigue — that was 14 more discussions than actually took place. Again, it’s easy to write or repeat every rumor that one hears, just as it’s easy to vilify every player in the entertainment industry. I’m not quite sure exactly what all that accomplishes, however, other than to trivialize the practice of journalism. As for “Hit and Run,” the basic premise that Sony allowed Guber and Peters to spend themselves into oblivion misses the point. In fact, Sony would have done well to hire managers who exercised prudence and discipline, then encourage them to spend more money to diversify its U.S. empire and capture a unique moment of opportunity. It was the titans in Tokyo who must bear the ultimate responsibility.