Sony struggles with problem child TriStar

They shoot winged horses, don’t they?

For TriStar Pictures, the studio defined as much by its flying equine emblem as by its films over the last few years, parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment is apparently considering everything but that.

The producer of such pics as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Hook,” as well as the distributor of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Cliffhanger,” is itself treading close to the edge and facing a major restructuring.

In the last two years, TriStar had only two legitimate hits in “Philadelphia” and “Legends of the Fall.” That’s a far cry from the $100 million-plus performances of such TriStar-produced pics as “Look Who’s Talking,” “Sleepless” and “Hook.”

Losing independence

Equally troublesome for the studio is the loss in the last year of its independent distribution and marketing arms. Dozens of TriStar employees were sent packing when the divisions merged with sister studio Columbia’s. And then there’s debate over TriStar prexy Marc Platt, a soft-spoken player who has drawn SPE criticism for the studio’s less-than-stellar performance. There is reportedly personality friction between some SPE execs and Platt.

“The Platt situation is dysfunctional right now,” says one high-ranking exec. “He’s not getting as much product through the pipeline as Sony would like.”

Some of last year’s pics, such as “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” and “It Could Happen to You,” were modest after international B.O. was added in. But this year, the studio already tipped its hand about the Julia Roberts starrer “Mary Reilly,” which was pushed back to a Christmas release. Only the Yuletide release of “Jumanji,” starring Robin Williams, is garnering good buzz.

“Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen to TriStar, but everyone knows it’s going to be something major,” says one industry maven.

Originally named Nova, the 12-year-old TriStar was formed as a joint venture of Columbia Pictures, Home Box Office and CBS. Under original chairman Victor Kaufman, TriStar hatched such hits as “Steel Magnolias” and the “Look Who’s Talking” series. Before it was swallowed up in Coca-Cola’s voyage into showbiz in 1987, Kaufman’s company released “The Natural” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

In 1989, Sony bought the company from Coke and set it up with ColPix under chairman Peter Guber.

Where it’s headed now, only senior SPE-ites and Sony Corp. of America wonks know. And none of them – including SCA chairman Mickey Schulhof, exec veep Jeff Sagansky, SPE topper Alan Levine and Col/TriStar Motion Picture Group chairman Mark Canton – is talking on the record. Canton, in Gotham last week, was reportedly discussing the dilemma with Schulhof and Sagansky.

But quiet conversations outside the public arena have fueled immense industry speculation about the fate of the studio and its execs.

* Rumor: Platt and production president Stacey Snider had been shopping a personal production deal at Disney recently for fear of being released.

Fact: Platt and Snider met with Disney topper Joe Roth to discuss several possible coventures on pics. In fact, that meeting was in keeping with the Sony Corp. mandate from Sagansky that split-rights packages were the way of Sony’s future.

* Rumor: TriStar’s production execs will be folded into the Columbia Pictures team, following the lead of distrib and marketing teams. Fact: TriStar’s “physical” production unit is merging with Columbia’s. But TriStar physical production chief Ron Lynch has always reported to Columbia president of production administration Gary Martin. Creative production, under Platt and Snider, will continue on its own, if only because TriStar has output deals with pay cable services like Showtime. Says one TriStar exec: “There are a million reasons why TriStar should maintain its independence as a label. It does have some value as a brand.”

* Rumor: Several young turk execs around town have been talked to about high-ranking jobs at TriStar, including Warner Bros. exec veepees Lorenzo DiBonaventura and Billy Gerber, as well as Columbia prexy of production Barry Josephson.

Fact: Sources say there have been no official talks with anyone just yet. Sony recently reupped Platt’s and Snider’s lucrative deals stretching sometime into 1998. The pair had been toying with the idea of a production deal somewhere, but that was before they re-upped.

One Sony regular predicts massive structural change by September. Another says little is likely to happen this year.

A likely scenario – set forth by a Sony exec – has the studio being pared down to six to eight pics per year (from the current 10-12 per annum) with the slack being made up for Sony by new releases from Peter Guber’s Mandalay Entertainment, as well as the production deal with, ironically enough, former TriStar president Mike Medavoy.

Mandalay president Adam Platnick recently said that a good deal of Guber’s product would be released under the TriStar label. But it makes little difference whether Col or TriStar puts its name on indie pics from Guber or Medavoy because Sony Distribution handles all the distrib chores anyway.

TriStar execs were miffed when Guber poached some of TriStar’s premiere product – including “Desperate Measures,” a big-budget actioner that would have been the studio’s main 1996 release. But Guber had smartly negotiated into his deal with Sony Corp. of America that he could glean some of the projects from the production coffers of TriStar and Col.

TriStar has a history of struggle against big brother Columbia. Ever since Canton, former chairman of Columbia, took over as chair of the Col/TriStar group, execs at TriStar have lamented that Col was the “favored son.” Canton has said in the past that this was ridiculous. But it’s not hard to find instances where Col took precedence in a deal for a star, helmer or project over TriStar. In what had initially been expected to be a Jean-Claude Van Damme starrer, “Afterlife,” Col won out over its fellow studio, even though producer Ned Tanen usually worked with TriStar. Instead, the pic was given to Col for Tanen to produce with Denise Di Novi.

After “The Babysitters Club” – a $6.5 million pic from Scholastic Prods, for Beacon Communications – was promised to TriStar, it was suddenly and mysteriously yanked away to fall under the ColPix banner.

Heroic abstinence

Even before Canton was on the scene, TriStar was apparently – and luckily as it turned out – told to stay out of the bidding for “Last Action Hero.” Just looking down the list of 1995 releases shows most of the big-budget potential blockbusters are at Columbia, including “First Knight,” “The Net” and “Money Train.”

In the midst of all the psychological morass, TriStar execs continue to pound their beats every day. The studio has two pics – “Mrs. Winterbourne” and “Race the Sun” – headed into production in the next two months and one – the Rhea Perlman starrer “Sunset Park” – in post-production. It’s also on the verge of making deals with megastars like Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt for future pics. Even the monster-size-budgeted “Godzilla,” which looked as though it had been shot down by Air Force jets after director Jan De Bont ankled the project, reportedly has a new script draft that is out to at least one A-list helmer.

As the studio heads into another difficult season, TriStar is dancing as fast as it can.

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