Film units joined under one banner

Sony Pictures Entertainment will combine Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures into one production unit that will churn out between 20 and 24 pics per year, the studio announced Monday.

Amy Pascal, prexy of Col Pix, will take over as president of the united studio. Chris Lee, TriStar’s prexy of production, will head production in the new Col configuration.

Lucy Fisher and Gareth Wigan will remain as vice chairman and co-vice chairman respectively, overseeing Pascal and all aspects of the Col Pix operation.

The combined studio will retain the Columbia Pictures title to take advantage of the brand-name status of the torch-bearing femme.

“I’ve had experience of working at studios with one unit, such as Warner Bros., and two units, such as MGM and United Artists, and, in my opinion, the single studio system is more rational,” said Sony president and chief operating officer John Calley.

TriStar, which was formed in 1982 and was bought by Sony in 1989, will be almost completely dissolved as a producing and releasing entity, though its Pegasus logo is expected to be used occasionally on some pics, sources said.

The unification comes just months after Sony enjoyed its best year ever with nearly $1.3 billion in 1997 domestic grosses, a figure boosted by the success of the TriStar films “Jerry Maguire,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “As Good as It Gets.”

TriStar is also responsible for the upcoming “Godzilla” from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, and the Susan Sarandon/Julia Roberts starrer “The Untitled Chris Columbus Project.”

Cooperative goal

Calley said the main reason for the merger was efficiency of uniting competing production divisions. Col and TriStar have long had a gentlemen’s agreement that they would never bid on the same projects, but the divisions competed nonetheless for pics and relationships.

” I don’t think that it was productive for both Columbia and TriStar to harangue the same agents for material,” Calley said.

The new arrangement will merge all production, business affairs and legal and story departments, and is effective immediately. Marketing and distribution have been together under the Sony banner since 1994.

“There are obvious efficiencies in the business affairs and story departments,” said Calley.

No layoffs expected

Although no layoffs are expected in the merger, Sony declined to renew the contracts of several junior production executives earlier this year.

“There won’t be any more attrition than there would be in the normal course of events,” said Calley. “This is not a cost-saving measure. We actually want to increase our output of pictures.”

Sony exec VP Bob Wynne said the shift would be completely internal, with no legal transfer or consequences related to the merger.

Output deals with such companies as Showtime, which has a pact that runs through the end of 1998 for TriStar pics, will still be fulfilled.

Wynne said TriStar’s assets are essentially its library of 200-plus titles and its development projects.

“All of the TriStar assets are still going to be retained in the same corporate entity in which they originally resided,” Wynne said.

History of success

TriStar’s 16-year run yielded more than 200 releases, including “The Natural,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Total Recall,” “Look Who’s Talking,” “The Fisher King,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Basic Instinct,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Cliffhanger,” “Philadelphia,” “Legends of the Fall” and “Jumanji.”

Robert Geary, who formerly ran TriStar’s business affairs division, will handle biz affairs for the new Columbia. Bryan Lee, who had run Col’s business affairs, will become exec VP for the Col TriStar Motion Pictures Group.

Liz Aschenbrenner and Roger Toll will jointly head the legal department.

Ken Lemberger will remain as president of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, handling all worldwide business, financial and administrative activities for the feature division.

Coming together

TriStar staffers, who are currently housed in the TriStar building on the west side of the lot, will shift into the Thalberg building to join Col execs.

Pascal explained Sony’s reasoning for the merger from a production standpoint. “Normally, when you have more than one company under a banner, it’s because you have those companies doing different types of movies,” she said. “We were doing all the same types of movies.”

Agreed Calley: “We had two entities doing the same thing.”

In his 18 months on the job, Calley has been whittling TriStar production deals — including Wendy Finerman’s — and adding producer pacts at Sony, including deals with Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (Centropolis), John Woo and Terence Chang.

With the departure of Mandalay Entertainment to Paramount, Sony will look to Phoenix Pictures, Centropolis Entertainment, Ray Stark’s Rastar Prods. and Stanley Jaffe’s Jaffilms to provide a substantial number of the 20-24 pics that Columbia expects to make each year.

Exec shuffle

Though internal structure could not be confirmed, sources said that in the new studio Amy Baer and Lauren Lloyd will continue as exec veepees of production. Col’s Matt Tolmach is expected to be moved up to exec VP level. TriStar’s Ricky Strauss will be upped to senior VP in the near future.

Andrea Giannetti and Walter Hamada, creative execs at TriStar, will become veepees for Columbia, joining Carrie Richman.

Columbia will be repped in Gotham now by Nan Shipley and Nina Phillips, who were formerly lit development execs for TriStar.

Sources said Sony wanted to announce the merger before the studio’s fiscal year ended today. The merger comes the year before Columbia preps to celebrate its 75th year in the business.

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