TV takeover jolts film

Memo to: Gail Berman

From: Peter Bart

re: The film game

As you well know, here’s the first question the town is asking: Can a creature of television run a film studio? The answer, of course, is, why not? It’s all entertainment, isn’t it?

Well, almost.

Let me tell you about a meeting I had with Brandon Tartikoff 13 years ago. Glib and cunning, Tartikoff had just taken over as president of Paramount Pictures (the job you are about to occupy) after a terrific run at NBC. Over lunch, Tartikoff was brimming with confidence and said he hoped Variety would run a piece about his blueprint for the studio.

This was his plan: Make modestly budgeted film versions of TV shows such as “The Addams Family.” Use TV talent to shoot quickies like “All I Want for Christmas.” Most important, don’t get caught up in the chase for big stars and glitzy projects.

I listened to his magic formula, dumbfounded. “If that’s your plan, go for it,” I said finally. “But do you really want to be quoted saying these things? You’ll be ridiculed by movie folks.”

Tartikoff did not balk. “I’d like you to run the quotes. Let people know where I stand.”

I argued with him for a few more minutes, Gail, but it’s hard to debate a man who helped foster TV hits like “The Golden Girls,” “Cheers” and “L.A. Law,” not to mention “The Cosby Show.” Though only 43 at the time, Tartikoff felt he had the answers.

He lasted only 15 months in his new job. To be sure, there were other obstacles, including a serious injury sustained by his 8-year-old daughter. Then, too, Tartikoff had to report to a thuggish CEO named Martin Davis, who did his best to stomp on all his executives. Still, Tartikoff’s rigid approach to the film studio was wrongheaded, and his short tenure was an abject failure.

The good news, Gail, is that anything is possible at a film studio. They’re dream factories, right? But when you and Brad start setting your agenda, give a fleeting thought to poor Brandon (who died in 1997). He was right that TV and movies are the same — they’re entertainment. But different entertainment.

* * *

Back in the days when I, myself, worked at a movie studio, a veteran business affairs executive told me, “If a deal starts to drag out, either close it or kill it.” His belief was that drag-ass deals resulted in drag-ass films.

I wonder what he would say about the Disney-Miramax negotiation, which surely will go into the record books as the deal from hell.

“This deal will close any day now,” was the advisory put out months ago by the usual “informed sources,” but these “informed sources” may end up in the Motion Picture Home before the talks finally come to fruition.

Of course, the deal in question entails more than the standard corporate divorce. It’s also a distribution deal, co-production deal, library deal and myriad other interrelated agreements, each with complex tax repercussions.

But the talks have taken so long that they’ve created their own mythology. Is Disney saying “bye-bye” to the Weinsteins or are the Weinsteins now trying to buy Disney? Is Pixar joining with Miramax in a sort of palace coup? Has Michael Eisner finally been Miramaxed out and will now let Bob Iger mediate the whole affair?

Or, more probably, are the temperaments of the principals such that a negotiation inevitably will be lengthy — and the legal fees precedential? Stay tuned — and remain patient.

* * *

The lexicon of Wall Street shifts with great alacrity. Witness the reactions of the media guru-analysts to the proposed Viacom de-merger.

Viacom’s actions, they suggest, presage a coming trend of “hot” companies, representing the new media, to cluster together, thus separating themselves from “cold” companies representing the old media.

That sounds profound until you start defining your terms. Only a couple of years ago radio was “hot” (if you didn’t believe it, Mel Karmazin would remind you) until it became “cold.” Animation was an old and “cold” business until Pixar and DreamWorks Animation came along and it got redefined as “hot.”

Under a possible Viacom de-merger, Les Moonves ends up with “cold” businesses like radio and billboards along with CBS, but his units generate more revenue than Tom Freston’s, whose units nonetheless reflect a greater worth. But Freston has MTV, the ultimate “hot” business, which has endured its “cold” periods as well.

The new Viacom, it’s suggested, may set the pattern for other companies to divide themselves into “hotness” and “coldness.” That is, until the “cold” companies become “hot” again, and vice versa. And since investment bankers have the most to gain from mergers and de-mergers, it’s in their interest to keep redefining the terms.

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