Sony’s sounds of silence

MEMO TO: Nobuyuki Idei

FROM: Peter Bart

SINCE TAKING OVER the job of overseeing Sony Pictures Entertainment, Nobuyuki , you have been a frequent visitor to Hollywood. However, I wonder whether you are aware of the two conflicting theories that are circulating about you in town.

One theory is that you don’t know. A second theory is that you don’t care.

All this may sound rather harsh, so let me explain: Those who feel you “don’t know” are referring to the urgency of the problems facing the studio. There’s a pervasive feeling in town that Sony is essentially dead in the water, with few if any important projects getting the greenlight. Talk to the town’s key agents and they’ll tell you that Sony is their last stop; they’d prefer to take projects to other studios where they might get a “yes” from an executive who will still be holding his job a few months later. Are you aware of all this, Nobuyuki? Do you realize how long it takes to bring a studio back to life once its momentum has been lost and its production line shut down?

MAYBE YOU KNOW but don’t care, consistent with the second theory. By “not caring,” I am not suggesting that Sony denigrates the importance of the “content” business. Rather, I am propounding the theory that the hierarchies ruling the big Japanese companies tend to make decisions at a very slow, deliberate pace relative to their American counterparts. There is always a five-year plan or a grandiose generational design that comes into play. Hence, Nobuyuki, while you may realize that Sony has hit some bumps in the road, you and your colleagues may be pondering some more intricate long-term solutions that we impulsive Yanks may not comprehend. But if this is the case, why are there so many major players in Hollywood who claim they’ve been approached to take top positions at Sony? And why are they all replying, “Please, not me.” Among those names that have been published or bandied about are Michael Fuchs, Bruce Ramer, Joe Roth and, of course, Jeff Sagansky, the very respected and experienced executive who presently occupies a shadowy enclave in the Sony hierarchy.

Again, there are two theories about these meetings, Nobuyuki. Either you don’t know or don’t care.

That is, you may be unaware that intermediaries are making these approaches — in some cases because they want to come to you with a new management scheme, in others because they want to acquire all or part of your content business. Or perhaps you know all this is taking place and don’t care to stop it, on the off chance that something interesting may turn up.

IN EITHER CASE, you must understand the negative impact that all this is having on the studio. On the film side alone, Mark Canton and his aides have been rocked by such recent disappointments as “The Cable Guy,” “Multiplicity,” “Striptease,” “City Hall” and “Mrs. Winterbourne.” Three respected executives have recently departed the studio — Marc Platt, president of TriStar; Lisa Henson, president of Columbia; and Sid Ganis, Sony’s marketing chief.

All this sends a message, Nobuyuki — a message of a company in distress. Now there are two theories about how you read this message. One is that you don’t know, the other is that you don’t care. In other words, perhaps the distress signals have not reached your lofty perch in Tokyo. Or perhaps, having been reached, it’s your feeling that the Americans deserve to wallow in their misery for a while. “Japanese companies like to watch their executives marinate,” one veteran of the MCA-Matsushita wars told me recently.

To be sure, you could clear all this up with some swift moves or some sage pronouncements, Nobuyuki. You could indeed announce a new slate of managers to run Sony Pictures Entertainment. You could sell the company to Polygram or another suitor. Or you could issue a statement enunciating your support for current management and your confidence in the future — something a little more persuasive than the rather curious missive sent out Aug. 8 under the name of a Sony deputy president named Ted Kawai, who is unknown to denizens of Hollywood.

Inevitably, some guess that you did not know about this statement while others speculate that you did not care. But then we’ve been through all this before, haven’t we?

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