A last-minute decision to withhold "The Last Emperor" from more than 150 theaters at Christmas has triggered a business war between Cineplex Odeon, one of North America's largest movie theater owners, and Tri-Star Pictures, scheduled to merge shortly with Columbia Pictures, the film's distributor.
According to a number of industry sources, Cineplex and other exhibitors were notified a week ago that Columbia no longer wanted most of the theater dates it had requested earlier for the Bernardo Bertolucci film. The decision hurts theater owners who had reserved their best theaters in many markets for the movie, which has been drawing strong crowds in limited release.
According to the sources, Cineplex Chairman and Chief Executive Garth H. Drabinsky telephoned Tri-Star Chairman Victor A. Kaufman to object vehemently and vowed that his theaters would refuse another scheduled Columbia film, "Leonard Part VI," starring Bill Cosby.
"Garth went crazy," said one industry executive, explaining that "it's a big deal to lose your Christmas picture." Because of the words reportedly exchanged, Drabinsky and Kaufman are refusing to do business with each other in the foreseeable future, the executive said.
Neither Drabinsky nor Kaufman returned reporters' telephone calls late last week. A Tri-Star spokeswoman said the company would not comment.
But their silence has not quieted an industry debate over which company will suffer most as a result of the rift.
Cineplex, ranked as the fourth-largest theater circuit in the United States, dominates Chicago and owns more screens in Manhattan than any other chain. Cineplex is 50%-owned by MCA, the parent company of Universal Pictures, but MCA executives appear to have stayed out of the fray.
Tri-Star, for its part, owns the Loews theater chain, which has 16 screens in good Manhattan locations. Nationwide, however, Loews has just 301 screens to Cineplex's 1,003.
Tri-Star and Columbia Pictures are expected to combine shortly to become one of the nation's largest entertainment companies, to be renamed Columbia Pictures Entertainment with Kaufman serving as chief executive. Coca-Cola, which owns Columbia and is Tri-Star's largest shareholder, expects ultimately to control 49% of the combined company. Coca-Cola also supplies soft-drink syrup to Cineplex theaters.
Until now, Drabinsky has been a major customer for Columbia, accounting for about 35% of its business, according to one former Columbia executive. Another source noted that Columbia films are distributed and exhibited in Canada solely by Cineplex.
But one knowledgeable source said Drabinsky has clashed before with certain Tri-Star executives and may have expected to lose Columbia as a supplier after the merger takes place.
Film Maker Not Annoyed
Industry sources said the decision to slow the release of "The Last Emperor" could be defended strategically.
John Daly, chief executive of Hemdale Film Corp., which made "The Last Emperor," said "it does not bother me" that Columbia changed the release plan to greatly reduce the number of theaters at which it will be shown during the Christmas holiday.
Under the revised plan--which Daly said "has merit"--the picture will open in 90 to 100 theaters on Dec. 18, instead of 270, and "go wider still" in January, the Hemdale executive said. The changed plan was presented to him by Kaufman and other top executives of Tri-Star/Columbia, he said. "I accept it as correct," he said, adding that they are "doing what they feel is the best plan for the picture."
Daly said the support for the movie thus far is "quite staggering," and he expects it will receive Academy Award nominations.
Guessing at Motive
"It's not going to be one of those (films that plays) two weeks, three weeks and then it's gone. I believe the picture has great staying power. It's getting stronger each week."
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Daily News quoted unidentified industry sources who speculated that Tri-Star executives wanted to minimize the film's success because "The Last Emperor" was picked up by Columbia during the brief regime of studio Chairman David Puttnam, who resigned two months ago after the proposed combination of Tri-Star and Columbia was announced.
Puttnam, reached Friday, said he does not consider the move to be retaliatory. "I certainly don't think so, because I have a good working relationship with Victor Kaufman and it wouldn't make sense," he said, adding that, in his view, decisions to change play dates are made in "a strange nexus: partly legal, partly moral, partly common sense. It's a judgment call."