Sony's multiple fiefdoms overlap, puzzles many in town

In an age of corporate streamlining, Sony Pictures is moving in the other direction, with not one but three specialty divisions — Screen Gems, Sony Pictures Classics and TriStar Pictures. And this month United Artists joins the stable through the studio’s buy-out of MGM along with a consortium of investors. Sony also has a handful of never-heard-of limited release and home entertainment labels such as Triumph and Destination.

Sony’s more established divisions have familiar profiles — upscale artfilms at Sony Pictures Classics, carefully-budgeted genre fare at Screen Gems — but what does the year-old TriStar represent? Eleven months after the winged horse was lifted from label dormancy as an acquisitions and production entity, few in town can attest to its mandate.

When asked to define TriStar one manager paused before saying, “I’m not really sure. I guess they do what Screen Gems doesn’t?”

Needless to say, TriStar is not an exact replica of its former self. In the 1980′s TriStar was a significant player under the leadership of Mike Medavoy, releasing such mainstream hits as “Hook.”

Theoretically, TriStar is Sony’s answer to Fox Searchlight and seeks to “acquire or produce the kind of picture that is inexpensive, very cutting-edge and is in the best situation to break out commercially,” says Sony vice-chair Jeff Blake.

Part of the confusion over the label stems from TriStar’s multi-purpose staffing. TriStar prexy Valerie Van Galder also serves as head of marketing at Screen Gems, so she might be taking pitch meetings with directors and agents one minute, and attending marketing meetings for “Underworld 2″ the next. Van Galder’s TriStar staff, with the addition of Miramax vet Matt Brodlie, is her former Screen Gems staff.

“I’m somebody who can do a lot of things at once,” Van Galder says by way of explanation.

TriStar’s rebirth was the result of Van Galder’s desire to focus on films that didn’t fall into Screen Gems’ domain.

“I was really hungry on a personal level to work on additional kinds of films,” she says, adding that her sensibility was formed at Fox Searchlight, where she worked before Screen Gems.

“So this company came up with a paradigm where I could retain all my Screen Gems marketing duties, but augment my role producing and acquiring. It’s a tribute to Sony. They’re really flexible here about letting their personnel find their best roles at the company.”

TriStar’s first release will be “Lords of Dogtown,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke, due out June 3. Next will be Roman Polanski’s “Oliver Twist” this fall — what ostensibly could be a Sony Pictures Classics release — followed by an untitled Albert Brooks comedy, which sounds more like Columbia fare.

At a time when multiple markets provide significant revenue streams, from foreign box office to DVDs, having more than one distribution pipeline isn’t necessarily unwise.

Yet Sony’s multiple fiefdoms — including the studio’s mother ship Columbia Pictures — tend to overlap in a way that puzzles many in town.

“Whereas with Fox, if you have a certain project you know you go to Fox Searchlight, at Sony it’s much less clear,” says one agent. “You end up going to Columbia, and when they pass, you end up at Screen Gems.”

“Lords of Dogtown,” was originally developed at Columbia. With a TriStar release, the ’70s-set skateboard-themed saga can take advantage of TriStar’s tiny slate to focus on a more targeted campaign.

And while Screen Gems has traditionally been Sony’s go-to place for low-budget horror films, lately Col has entered the fray, with “The Grudge” and the upcoming “30 Days of Night.” Recently, the fright film “Priest” landed at Screen Gems only after Col passed.

Sony maintains that each division “has its own mission” and that there isn’t any line-blurring.

Blake adds that diversification lends itself to today’s broad marketplace.

“There’s a huge foreign market and more revenue coming out of DVD than any place else. While everyone still wants to be number one at the domestic theatrical box office, what is really a smart thing to do is to have a very diversified portfolio for all these income streams.”

Sony’s abundance of divisions may give the studio more options, but it also creates added overhead as well as competition.

It’s confusing not just on the lot — where there’s some frustration over Sony’s laissez-faire tendency to let things fall where they may — but at film fests, where Sony shows up with three teams that could potentially want to buy the same films.

Sony is not the only studio in town to dabble in diversity.

At Warner Bros. New Line, Warner Independent and Bob Berney’s new label could all end up duking it out for productions and acquisitions.

Blake admits that “We’re flexible.” Though he quickly adds, “But each group has a mission. The mission at Columbia is certainly the one that covers most bases.”

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