HIGH POINTS: After a tumultuous year with an almost complete overhaul of its senior management staff, Sony Pictures Entertainment closed 1996 with a much-needed bang. TriStar Pictures’ “Jerry Maguire” opened Dec. 13 to an $18 million weekend and had already grossed $65 million by Dec. 31 (more than $83 million to date). At Columbia, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” drew boffo critical applause and is already on numerous industry shortlists for Oscar best picture consideration.
And this good news comes just in time. Both Columbia and TriStar had grown so ineffectual under former SPE chairman Alan Levine that stars, producers and directors were loath to set up projects there because it was akin to development hell.
Both on the Culver City lot and off, anticipation now is high for what former United Artists president John Calley can bring to Sony as newly named president and chief operating officer. Calley is restructuring the company to become a kinder, gentler Sony, and the studio is suddenly heating up again.
“It has literally turned on a dime,” Columbia president of production Barry Josephson said. “Everyone is very excited about working here. Producers, talent, agents are all doing business here now. It has literally turned around because of John’s presence.”
One of Calley’s first steps was to greenlight TriStar’s “Godzilla,” a big-budget event pic from the “Independence Day” duo of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin.
Just as quickly, he picked Amy Pascal up from the ruins of Turner Pictures (which was dismantled by Time Warner) and made her president of Columbia, filling the slot last held by Lisa Henson.
“We feel immensely optimistic about the industry response to our group,” Calley said. “And the success of ‘Jerry Maguire’ demonstrates Sony’s capacity to operate on an even basis with the entire industry.”
The company’s box office wasn’t stellar last year, but the studio had a few other highlights. “Fly Away Home” was lauded by film reviewers. “The Craft” was a no-star, low-budget pic that made a tidy profit. Even “Cable Guy,” the much maligned Jim Carrey pic that cost $47 million, crossed over the $100 million B.O. gross tally with its foreign revenue.
LOW POINTS: “Cable Guy” might have been the lowest point on the feature graph, even though it treaded water at the box office. After former Columbia TriStar motion pictures group chairman Mark Canton agreed to pay $20 million to Carrey to star in the pic and boasted about the fact, the film was saddled with such a performance burden that nothing short of a $100 million-plus domestic showing would ease the sting. It departed U.S. theaters with $60 million in the can and poor reviews. Canton also paid Tom Cruise $20 million for “Jerry Maguire.” The difference in reaction – both inside and outside the industry – was not surprising. Critically praised, “Maguire” looks set to take more than $130 million domestically.
Perhaps an equally painful black eye was the misguided attempt by Levine to save his job by covertly interviewing the William Morris Agency’s Arnold Rifkin for Canton’s Col TriStar chairman slot. After Daily Variety disclosed Levine’s plan, Sony Corp. president Nobuyuki Idei was apparently so incensed he barely gave Rifkin the courtesy of a meeting. Levine’s move made Sony look internally dysfunctional and showed he was grasping for job survival. It also nearly caused strife for Rifkin, who days later inked a multiyear deal to reassure WMA clients that he was staying put.
TRISTARRY NIGHT: Robert Cooper replaced Marc Platt as president of TriStar, and almost immediately after Calley came on board, Cooper suffered rumors that he was not long for the Sony universe because of reportedly unpleasant dealings he had had with Calley years earlier. Cooper, however, went on building up a complete TriStar staff with the addition of former Hollywood Pictures exec Lauren Lloyd as an exec VP and the promotion of senior VP Amy Baer to exec VP. He added two New York book scouts in Nan Shipley and Nina Phillips. He has taken a hands-on approach to virtually every aspect of the studio process, including a touchy marketing spat over “Jerry Maguire,” and so far has not made a misstep.
COLUMBIA, QUEEN OF THE … The studio was in flux with the departure of Henson, who now has a production deal with Janet Yang at Sony. But after Calley wooed Pascal back to Columbia (where she was formerly an exec VP), things were expected to settle down. Josephson will stay on as president of production, largely responsible for the big-budget actioners and thrillers that he likes to nurture, including “Men in Black” and “The Fifth Element.” Gareth Wigan was expected to be bumped from production to senior management as an adviser to Calley.
MANDALAY TURBULENCE: With all the sturm und drang that Sony suffered, Peter Guber’s Mandalay Entertainment had a relatively quiet year, though the company’s deal was restructured to cut down Sony’s investment. And Guber, the former SPE chairman, didn’t help his cause with TriStar/Mandalay’s “The Fan,” a Wesley Snipes-Robert De Niro starrer that was roundly denounced by critics and ticket-buyers. Even so, Mandalay has eight star-driven pics either in production or pre-production, and Sony will definitely need them in 1997-98 to fill its distribution pipeline.
CASTLE ROCK REDUX: Castle Rock’s distribution deal with Columbia Pictures lapses at the end of 1997, and Col is happy to see it end. Though it once provided Col with $100 million grossers such as “A Few Good Men” and “In the Line of Fire,” in the last year it’s been more like “City Hall” ($20.3 million), “Striptease” ($33 million), “Hamlet” (still playing) and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” ($3.1 million). Though Sony expects the Clint Eastwood starrer “Absolute Power” to be absolutely powerful at the box office, it may be a little too late. In the summer, Sony was interested in keeping Castle Rock, but now the company is expected to stay in the Time Warner fold in a slightly reduced capacity. They’ll put out four to six pics per year for Warner Bros. to distribute.
RISING SONY STARS: Chris Lee, an exec VP of production at TriStar, was a key element in Sony’s only real hit this year, “Jerry Maguire.” Lee has had considerable staying power at TriStar, working through regimes under Mike Medavoy, Marc Platt and now Cooper. He’s remained quiet and resilient in a chaotic place, and for that reason he handles the studio’s biggest projects. He nursed Barbra Streisand through “The Mirror Has Two Faces” and worked closely with Cameron Crowe on “Maguire.”
OUTLOOK FOR ’97: Columbia has big-ticket, star-studded pics coming up in “The Devil’s Own” (Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt), “Men in Black” (Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones) and “The Fifth Element” (Bruce Willis, helmed by Luc Besson). TriStar is tossing in “Donnie Brasco” (Johnny Depp, Al Pacino), “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (Julia Roberts), “Old Friends” (Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt) and “Starship Troopers” (directed by Paul Verhoeven). Sony’s former deal with Beacon Pictures, which moved to Universal, is providing “Air Force One” (Harrison Ford). And even Castle Rock may climb out of its rut with Eastwood’s return to a tough-guy role in “Absolute Power.”