How Sony got tony

THE MOVIE “AIR FORCE ONE” has “hit” written all over it. At the Hollywood premiere last week, I therefore expected to see the usual ritual of self-congratulation play itself out. Agents, producers and random sycophants would surround the filmmakers and studio executives responsible for the movie and remind them how wonderful they are.

But it was different this time. For one thing, no one could single out which Sony executive to suck up to. Moreover, there were so many producer credits that shaking all those hands would be a night’s work. No one could even determine for sure who put up the money for the movie or, indeed, for the party.

Welcome to Hollywood, circa 1997, where life just isn’t as simple as it used to be. No one company finances a movie anymore in Hollywood — they just pass the hat and see what turns up. And no studio executive is around long enough to collect his just desserts. He’s lucky to get an hors d’oeuvre.

But there’s a wonderful irony to the fact that the Sony name is all over “Air Force One,” adding to its recent string of hits. It started with “Jerry Maguire” and “Anaconda” and has stretched through “Men in Black” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

An innocent bystander would have a right to ask, What’s going on here? Why is the hottest company also the one that has experienced the most management turmoil?

SEVERAL THEORIES have been advanced. There’s the Revisionist Theory: Mark Canton, who was fired last September, was really a genius after all, despite his early mistakes and unfortunate mode of self-presentation.

Then there’s the Nihilist Theory: It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference who runs a studio. It’s nothing but a roll of the dice anyway.

My own explanation lies somewhere in the middle. I think Variety, along with everyone else covering the entertainment industry, devotes so much attention to executives, agents, managers and other “suits” that we forget who actually makes the movies. Namely, artists.

Hence, despite all the headlines about corporate convulsions at Sony, a number of very talented people have quietly been at work. A brilliant guy named Jim Brooks, whose deal dates to the Peter Guber era, was shepherding Cameron Crowe through “Jerry Maguire.” They got Mark Canton’s attention long enough to say “yes” to offering Tom Cruise $ 20 million — one of the most prudent offers in recent memory — and they turned out a terrific movie.

Meanwhile, that formidably productive writer, Ron Bass, was busily hammering out “My Best Friend’s Wedding” with the encouragement of Marc Platt and his colleagues over at TriStar — Bass never even got to talk to Canton — and, amid all the angst and turmoil at the parent company, the project just kept rolling. Canton ultimately found himself in the middle of a battle with his alma mater, Warner Bros., over release dates — Warners wanted to release its Julia Roberts movie, “Conspiracy Theory,” first.

With Canton out of the picture this time around, however, Jeff Blake, Sony’s stalwart distribution chief, held firm for a June 20 date against “Batman & Robin,” which proved the magic moment for the film.

SIMILARLY COMPLEX TALES surround the other pictures. “Men in Black” originally was a Sony project being developed by Walter Parkes. When he became production chief at Amblin, Steven Spielberg’s company, Spielberg’s name was appended to the project as executive producer in return for a percentage of the gross. Spielberg pictures, we all know, get a quick greenlight.

“Air Force One,” on the other hand, was a Beacon-Sony project from the outset (Beacon was a Guber deal). It was former Sony president Alan Levine who, nervous over his exposure, pieced together the complex co-financing mechanism. Disney ended up owning all foreign territories — with Sony and Beacon going 50-50 on the U.S. end, thereby sharply limiting Sony’s risk as well as its upside.

None of this is to suggest that Canton was the invisible man at Sony. His was a vigorous and enthusiastic presence; his detractors have heaped enough scorn on his shoulders.

Arguably, however, a case could be made in defense of corporate anarchy. Wonderful things can happen when a company’s executives are so preoccupied by corporate infighting that they can’t mess around too much with the movies gliding along their assembly line. Sony was fortunate to have a solidly professional team of executives at various levels — Gareth Wigan and Marc Platt in production, Bob Levin in marketing, Jeff Blake in distribution — who could provide guidance and discipline when needed.

That meant that all Sony had to do was pass the hat and throw the party and leave it for the cognoscenti to figure out whom to congratulate.

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