Sony mulls pix mix

Studio developing plan to merge Col, TriStar

Sony Pictures Entertainment is developing a plan to merge Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures by the end of the 1998 into a single studio that will churn out around 20 pics per year, studio insiders confirmed Monday.

If all goes according to plan — and this is but one of several consolidation schemes — Columbia and TriStar would be united under a single Columbia/TriStar Motion Picture Group banner, a marquee which already exists corporately, but not as a production entity.

But feature pics may still carry independent Col or TriStar labels on the actual print, depending on their ultimate destination, theaters, TV or homevideo.

Col prexy Amy Pascal is expected to take over as president of the joint studio, with TriStar prexy of production Chris Lee serving as president of production.

Some attrition in the development ranks is expected to result. But those recisions will not be made until 1999 at the earliest. Unification of Col and TriStar production divisions must wait on the close of an output deal that TriStar has with Showtime, which will lapse at the end of 1998.

Existing over any such combined entity, however, would be the vice-chairs of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, Lucy Fisher and Gareth Wigan, both of whom do and would continue to exert significant control over selection, budgeting and ultimate destiny of any given Col/TriStar property.

And above Fisher and Wigan remains the four-person SPE ruling council, of which prexy/chief operating officer John Calley would remain the deciding voice on all matters of production and development.

The plan, however well-drawn, is but one of several that Calley, SPE co-prexys Bob Wynne and Jeff Sagansky and exec VP Yuki Nozoe are considering at the moment. But sources said that a marriage of the longtime siblings is probably likely.

Sony denied that any plans were official. “This is a rumor that has floated around off and on for the last five years. The whole issue has remained highly speculative. Nothing has changed from the last time these rumors cropped up,” said SPE spokesman Peter Wilkes.

Sony is looking for between three or four “tentpole” pics per year from the combined companies, such as 1997’s “Men in Black,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Air Force One” or 1998’s “Godzilla” and “The Mask of Zorro.”

Additionally, sources on the Culver City lot were unanimous in the feeling the current two-studio SPE mix still best suited third-party agreements, such as those with producers, production companies, talent and the like.

“However much they duplicate each other, they each still have a flavor,” one lot-based producer said. “They’d be crazy to get rid of that.”

In 1997, Sony released 37 pics through Col and TriStar. This year, the studio is expected to issue 29 pics.

The new combined unit would include up to 20 pics from the studios, with another 10 to 12 from indie co-financers like Peter Guber’s Mandalay Entertainment, Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures and Stanley Jaffe’s Jaffilms.