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Dawn Steel, New Columbia Boss, Faces Dilemma

October 29, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

There's no limit to what a man can do if he doesn't mind who gets the credit. --Robert Woodruff, former chairman of the board, Coca-Cola Co.

The quotation is inscribed on a plaque hanging over the door of outgoing Columbia Pictures Chairman David Puttnam. Unless Puttnam takes the plaque with him, which seems unlikely given the bad aftertaste he must have after 18 months with Coke, it's going to present a dilemma for incoming studio boss Dawn Steel.

Does she dare edit Woodruff's aphorism to neutralize the gender?

Does she toss it into the trash basket, along with whatever scripts she finds laying around about nuclear disasters in the Soviet Union and political upheaval in the Ming Dynasty?

Or, does she wrap it up and send it to Victor Kaufman, the New York-based Tri-Star Pictures chairman who will be her boss when Coca-Cola's new Columbia Pictures Entertainment company is formed?

After reading details about the appointment of Steel, the 41-year-old former production president of Paramount Pictures, one might suggest that she leave Puttnam's office vacant. The person she is actually replacing is Columbia production president David Picker, and Picker's office doesn't have a plaque.

Whenever a woman is given a job that no woman has held before, it is a moment to observe--especially in Hollywood, where chief executives are traded like penny stock. But the significance of Steel's appointment is tempered by the facts that she will assume neither the titles nor the autonomy of Puttnam.

Puttnam was chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia and could put films into production without seeking approval from his superiors. With Coke's new umbrella entertainment company being sandwiched between the studio and the Coke bosses in New York and Atlanta, the ability to "green light" projects--the power that distinguishes executives who run studios from those who just work there--will be reserved for Kaufman.

What Kaufman appears to be doing is setting up a studio with two divisions, much like an auto company, which will produce different models using the same engine and chassis. It wouldn't make sense for either of the two film executives that Kaufman reportedly wanted--Disney's Touchstone Films chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner Bros. president Terry Semel--to take a job that would have less freedom than they have now.

There are other questions. How long will Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star remain separate, carrying the enormous overhead of two studio operations? How would a new chief executive position himself or herself for the possibility of the studios merging? After Puttnam's experience, who can trust whom?

When Puttnam was signed to head Columbia 18 months ago, his position against agency packaging and his taste for sophisticated themes were well known by Coca-Cola executives who publicly endorsed them. But Puttnam, who has been criticized even by his supporters for talking out too freely, was squeezed out when Coke decided to merge its two studios. His resignation was announced before his first movie had been released.

According to insiders, Kaufman expects to be overseeing an operation that will eventually distribute up to 40 movies a year. They say that what he needed after failing to attract an established chief executive for Columbia was a tough, savvy production person with strong relationships with major stars and film makers.

In the news stories and press releases announcing Steel's appointment, she was credited with involvement in some of Paramount's most lucrative films--"Flashdance," "Beverly Hills Cop II," "The Untouchables," the current "Fatal Attraction." These are certainly the kinds of movies Kaufman would like to have coming out of either Tri-Star or Columbia.

How much Steel actually had to do with those films is a subject of hot debate among her detractors, some of whom delight in that part of her biography where it says she once marketed designer toilet paper. It may seem frivolous and unimportant, right there with mink belly-button warmers for consumer whimsy, but marketing designer toilet paper seems as good a background for success in Hollywood as anything else.

One thing that is agreed on by most people who know Steel--her detractors and her supporters--is that she is a bright and tough executive who is not likely to be bullied by either film makers or her bosses. Whether she will be anything more than a production traffic cop at Columbia remains to be seen.

There is no limit to what she might do if she doesn't mind who gets the credit.

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