Can H’wood learn to go by the book?

When MCA announced its sale of Putnam Berkeley in November to international media giant Pearson, Bob Matschullat, vice chairman of MCA’s corporate parent Seagram Co., remarked that the sell-off was initiated because “we didn’t see substantial synergies” between MCA’s film studio and Putnam.

Matschullat was verbalizing what many in the film and publishing industries had thought for some time: the S-word has rarely worked between such disparate corporate cultures as publishing and film.

But new efforts under way at some companies are attempting to create genuine synergy between book purveyors and their Hollywood brethren.

Not surprisingly, the efforts come at a time when pressure is growing for the congloms to slim down their business lines. One money manager with holdings in many media companies advises that companies such as Viacom, News Corp. and Walt Disney should sell their publishing units to reduce debt and narrow focus.

Seeking new avenues

And despite the attention to books from Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood’s development corps, and a boom in the adult trade market from superstores, the past two years have seen unprecedented levels of returns and decreased operating profits. Publishers are struggling for new ways to sell and market their own products.

MCA bought Putnam in 1975, the same year Gulf & Western (later Paramount Communications) acquired Simon & Schuster – Viacom inherited Simon & Schuster when it bought Paramount Communications in 1994. News Corp. has owned Harper since 1987, then in 1989 acquired full control of Collins and merged it with Harper. And Disney already owned Hyperion, but acquired newspaper and trade publishing interests when it bought Capital Cities/ABC.

In most of those cases, the relationships between the book and movie people could best be described as cordial loathing. The loathing became uniquely uncordial when Par’s Martin Davis and S&S publisher Richard Snyder declared open war. Far from cooperating on movie-publishing efforts, the two barely spoke.

Changing relationships

That’s very different from the relationship enjoyed today between Fox and HarperCollins. By creating an office on the Fox lot here, HarperCollins prez-CEO Anthea Disney says she and Lucy Hood, who runs the office as senior VP of entertainment publishing, have provided an opportunity to “create brands across the company.”

“Basically Lucy and I have great relationships at Fox, so if we call them up they take us seriously,” Disney said.

Inside Disney world

Disney’s Hyperion book division is known to pay bonuses to authors who sell their film and publishing rights within the Disney fold. Disney also has appointed Lisa Kitei as the company’s vice president of communications and synergy, in charge of overseeing the synergy for the book and magazine publishing businesses.

HarperCollins is attempting to assimilate some of the marketing techniques that have worked so effectively for Fox this past year with the hit films “Independence Day” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Anthea Disney has invited Fox’s marketing mavens to New York to offer ideas HC can use from the aggressive film marketeers.

Book-to-movie skepticism

Much skepticism remains about the value of book-movie synergy. Joni Evans, a former editor at Simon & Schuster and now a literary agent and senior VP for William Morris in New York, said, “If we see a contract from Hyperion that says they have a right to show it to their sister companies, we won’t allow that. We don’t want our authors to get monopolized. It’s hard to impose any kind of synergy, because an author is a free agent.”

Whether the heads of the media conglomerates decide to spin off their respective publishing arms is up for speculation, but according to publishing execs like Disney, there are signs of accord, even if slight.

“Recently I took a group of publishers and editors to the Fox lot to meet movie execs,” Disney said.

“The day after the party, one of the publishing people said, ‘You know, Anthea, they were really intelligent.’ And then not long after I was on the phone to one of the Fox film people, who said ‘You know, Anthea, I was surprised, they were really very cool.’ ”

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