Not as good as it gets

TriStar is folded into Columbia

TriStar tried hard.

But the studio responsible for “Jerry Maguire,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “As Good as It Gets,” not to mention this summer’s Sony tentpole, “Godzilla,” always existed in the shadow of its big sister, Columbia.

“It was almost a problem of real estate,” said one former TriStar chief, referring to the TriStar building’s location at the back of the Sony lot. “Working for TriStar you always felt ignored and treated like a second-class citizen, even when you were more successful than Columbia.”

And the success that TriStar had was almost despite its own management.

Remarkable turnover

In a turnover remarkable even by Hollywood standards, the troubled studio had five different heads between 1989 and 1997, when Chris Lee’s short, but relatively peaceful, tenure began.

“This (Columbia-TriStar merger) formalizes what everyone has always known,” said a source. “That is, they never knew what to do with TriStar.”

Sony’s policy regarding TriStar has certainly gone back and forth. In 1992, then-SPE president Alan Levine called TriStar “the heart and soul of Sony Pictures Entertainment and one of its most important core operating businesses.”

Two believed better

Saying that SPE’s two-studio approach contained a “major structural advantage,” Levine continued: “We believe that it is difficult for one creative team to successfully launch more than 12 to 15 pictures a year and virtually impossible for one marketing team to effectively market more than 12 to 15 films a year.”

The newly fused Columbia-TriStar entity will produce 20 to 24 pictures a year, per Sony.

As recently as last summer, Sony execs were adamantly denying that any merger was in the cards. Per Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group vice chairman Gareth Wigan, there were “absolutely no plans” to downgrade TriStar.

Beginning of end

It was the merger of TriStar’s marketing and distribution divisions with those of Columbia in 1994 that marked “the beginning of the end,” according to one former TriStar exec. And with the appointment of John Calley as SPE prexy and chief operating officer in October 1996, TriStar came one step closer to extinction.

“The writing was on the wall when Calley came in,” said a former TriStar topper.

Coming straight from an environment of two competing studios (MGM and UA), Calley had little enthusiasm for the dual strategy. He believed that the duplication of administration was wasteful and unnecessary, and the internal competition counter-productive.

“If you were forming a new film studio today, you certainly wouldn’t structure it with two sub-studios,” he points out.

Turbulent spells

Some executives who have spent turbulent spells at TriStar regard the studio as an essential, if uncomfortable, part of their resume.

“I felt liberated when I left,” said one exec. “But if you can get through boot camp then you can get through anything.”

Others look back more fondly on the startup studio: “Its identity was beginning to evolve,” said one. “It came into its own with ‘Jerry Maguire’ when it was the only studio nominated for a Best Picture last year. The company had talented executives and it was respected by the agencies. You don’t get Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks that easily.”

Many top Hollywood execs have had senior positions at the studio. They include: Mike Medavoy, the chairman and chief executive officer of Phoenix Pictures; Jeff Sagansky, until this January the co-president of SPE; Marc Platt and Stacey Snider, who now head production at Universal; and Bob Cooper, a top production exec at DreamWorks.

Founded in 1982

TriStar was founded in 1982 as a three-way venture between Columbia Pictures, HBO and CBS. Columbia Pictures Industries had assumed control from its partners by the time it was acquired by Sony Corp. in 1989.

Victor Kaufman, one of the founders of TriStar and its first chief, formed the ill-fated Savoy Pictures Distribution in 1992.

And while TriStar the company is dead, its name may rise from the ashes. Sources said that, in the near future at least, Mike Medavoy and Arnold Messer’s Phoenix Pictures will continue to release its pics under the TriStar logo.

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