MEMO TO: John Calley
FROM: Peter Bart
FIVE YEARS AGO, WHEN I ARRIVED with friends at a tony restaurant in the small town of Washington, Conn., the maitre d’ led the way to an especially well-situated table. “This is the John Calley Memorial Table,” he assured me with a sly smile. “Memorial?” I replied. “I didn’t know Calley’d passed away.” “Not died, just disappeared,” the maitre d’ replied. “Apparently he was once ‘big’ in Hollywood but, pffft, it all faded away and now we don’t even see him around here much anymore.” I cite this anecdote, John, only to remind us all about how effectively you orchestrated your “disappearance” from Hollywood following the triumphant years at Warner Bros., and how equally effective you’ve been in orchestrating your resurrection at United Artists. My only concern is that now, once you’ve dipped your toe into the troubled waters at Sony, you might feel like disappearing once again.
I’M BEING FACETIOUS HERE, John, but, on the other hand, there are some daunting issues to be resolved at Sony. At UA and its sister company, MGM, you worked under the aegis of Frank Mancuso, a wise, albeit conservative, man who understands how showbiz works. It is still unclear whether the same can be said for the men who run the Sony empire. In acknowledging their decision to bring you aboard, John, the Sony seers indicated their intention to install a “Japanese style of management,” which apparently means some sort of committee system. Presumably both you and Jeff Sagansky, among others, would serve on this committee.
All this sounds appropriately collegial, but it raises one key question: Can a global entertainment company be run by committee? How would responsibilities be divided up between you and the very knowledgeable Sagansky, who has presided over both CBS Entertainment and the TriStar motion picture company during his career? Can a committee-run company make the tough decisions needed to overcome Sony’s structural and strategic problems? Or will you and Sagansky end up replicating the Daly-Semel sort of team that’s guided Warner Bros. over the last 15 years? As you well know, John, Sony’s had a tough run of it over the past seven years, its massive $ 3.2 billion quarterly loss in 1994 standing as its prime legacy. The company finds itself at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace because it does not command the diverse distribution platforms of a News Corp., a Time Warner or a Disney.
These vast megacompanies have redefined the economics of the movie business; the only way today’s expensive, effects-laden movies can recoup is through arcane ancillary revenue streams ranging from merchandising to satellite television. At UA, John, you proved that it was possible to pump life back into a dormant company thanks to such hits as “Goldeneye” and “The Birdcage,” but Sony, to say the least, presents a vastly more perilous playing field. For reasons I never fully understood, Sony’s remedy for its problems was to transfer responsibility from Peter Guber to Guber’s former lawyer, Alan Levine, as though the lawyer could accomplish what his client had been unable to achieve. Levine promptly invoked a series of much-needed economies, but his showbiz instincts were, to put it mildly, rather limited.
I remember sitting with him while he explained his “new criteria” for greenlighting motion pictures. Reduced to simplest terms, the formula consisted of adding up the various projections of Sony managers around the world involving potential revenues from video, TV and the like, based on cast, story and other elements. Proud of his formula, Levine seemed unaware that this method had been used many times before, especially by European-based companies, and had uniformly failed. Certainly, Sony’s recent slate of turkeys hasn’t done anything to validate it.
THE LESSON, JOHN, IS THAT, whether in film or TV, someone has to follow his “gut” and make the hard decisions about what projects to put out there. No lawyer around is going to make those decisions, and, so far as I know, no committee either. But you know all this, John, and no doubt you’re already at work sorting it all out. I knew you well during your banner years at Warner Bros. in the ’70s; you presided over that studio with a breezy informality and inclusiveness that brought out the best in the creative talent around you. Indeed, the place was so cool and casual that few noticed that tough decisions were being made and excellent, innovative movies being delivered movies like “Deliverance,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Klute,” “Dirty Harry” and “The Exorcist.”
Well, long-suffering Sony deserves the chance for a similar renaissance. The Japanese have lavished both hope and money on the studio and have received little in return except embarrassment. Having given you the ball, however, they now have to let you run with it. If they don’t, John, I happen to know about a restaurant in Washington, Conn., that is still reserving the John Calley Memorial Table for you. I’d be glad to meet you there anytime.