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JACK MATHEWS

Will Things Go Better With Vic?

September 11, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

The most interesting detail to come out of the recent announcement that Coca-Cola plans to merge its Tri-Star and Columbia studios and put current Tri-Star Chairman Victor Kaufman in charge was that Columbia Pictures Chairman David Puttnam learned about it from his morning newspaper.

When your superiors don't mind if your paperboy knows the fate of your company before you do, you have to figure that you are not the most coveted member of the team.

The insult was compounded a day later when Coke Chairman Roberto Goizueta was quoted as saying that he and Coke President Donald Keough were in Los Angeles to "spend 10 minutes" with each of the company's five West Coast operational heads--including Puttnam--to "let them know how this will develop."

Well, 10 minutes grew into an entire breakfast for Puttnam, but with all the gloating and thigh-slapping the news had already prompted around Hollywood, neither the food nor the explanations could have been very easy for him to swallow.

Had Coca-Cola informed Puttnam earlier and given him assurances that he still had support for his agenda at Columbia, he would have been spared the embarrassment and it would have been harder for his many detractors to leap to the conclusion they now relish.

From a purely management standpoint, Kaufman is an obvious choice over Puttnam to run the new company. Kaufman, 44, is a former lawyer and a career executive. He figures to be around, brand loyal, for a long time. Puttnam, 46, is a film producer and a self-proclaimed Hollywood transient. He has said he will run Columbia only until his current contract expires (in late 1989 or early 1990, depending on whether Coke exercises a six-month option).

But the differences between Kaufman and Puttnam go far beyond the work history on their resumes.

Kaufman represents the establishment way of doing things. Although Tri-Star has a unique pedigree (it was formed by HBO, CBS-TV and Columbia), the studio has hued to the same commercial path as all of the other studios--preferring star vehicles, dealing for agency-packaged projects and concentrating on broad audience subjects.

Tri-Star, by any measure, is no great success. With few exceptions, it has put out mediocre product and during its fifth year, its share of the total American box office was only 7%. Kaufman has managed to alienate a few people, but only in the traditional sense that wherever high-stakes games are played, bitter losers emerge.

David Puttnam has alienated a lot of people--probably most film people--by his maverick style and by what established players regard as naive and self-indulgent intellectual pretensions. For sure, there is not another studio head who would seriously consider making a movie about Chernobyl.

To the entrenched, Puttnam is being watched like a new boarder who is reorganizing the refrigerator.

He disdains the sequels, pop-top comedies and cartoon adventures that in recent years have been the staples of major studio's diets. He thinks the $17-million average cost of a movie is too high and he has criticized the greedy varmints--producers, stars and agents--whom he feels are mostly responsible.

These things have the Kennedy-esque ring of Camelot to the ears of film critics, film students and others anxious to believe that movies can--as they often did years ago--rise above mass entertainment to reflect social or human conditions and even (gulp!) aspire to art.

To the film Establishment, however, Puttnam announced his goals in Hollywood with all the subtle self-righteousness of Wyatt Earp promising to bring law and order to Tombstone.

During a luncheon speech not long after he got here, Puttnam reportedly used Bill Murray as an example of the kind of person who exploits the film industry for quick riches, then puts nothing back into it. The comment, which Puttnam denied making, drew howls of outrage in the industry, and it was about that time that one of the major agencies circulated a white paper among its staff about the threat posed by this British interloper.

For Puttnam to say that Murray has put nothing back in the business would be impolitic, to say the least. Murray received the major share of credit for the phenomenal success of "Ghostbusters" and the long-proposed sequel, featuring the same stars, was the only major creative asset that Puttnam inherited.

But that shouldn't detract from the fact that the statement was essentially true. Murray did make a fortune on "Ghostbusters," but his only starring film role since was in "The Razor's Edge." If Hollywood regards that as "putting something back in," New York should send its sewage barge out here.

The "Puttnam slate" hasn't arrived in theaters yet, so it is too soon to judge his theories--among them, that the expanding over-40 audience will respond in sufficient number to provocative films to make them profitable in the face of major studio overhead.

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