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Tough as Steel : Columbia Pictures' President Runs Her Studio With the Style of Hollywood's Old-Time Moguls

October 30, 1988|NINA J. EASTON

Flashback to 1973: Dawn Steel, who began by answering telephones and now dreams up merchandise tie-ins for Penthouse magazine, notices that amaryllis plants take on a phallic look just before blooming. She hires an artist to exaggerate the effect and writes her own copy for the ad: "Grow your own . . . All it takes is $6.98 and a lot of love." The plant is so popular that Penthouse can't keep it in stock.

Fast forward to 1979. Steel has moved to Hollywood to develop product tie-ins for Paramount Pictures' films. Her first assignment is "Star Trek," the movie. But production is a mess, and there's no film to show McDonalds or Coca-Cola or anyone else that might put the starship Enterprise on their cups and commercials. So Steel stages her own show on the Paramount lot: She is "beamed down" on stage and "Star Trek's" stars materialize at her side. The retailers get the point: Soon Klingons are everywhere on TV, eating Big Macs and drinking Coke.

Fast forward again, to 1982. Steel has moved into film production. She's at the bottom of the totem pole, but she makes sure that everyone upstairs knows exactly who she is; one former colleague recalls this as Steel's "in-yo-face" strategy. Steel also has a script she wants produced, and she makes sure everyone knows that, too. Eventually the blue-collar musical epic called "Flashdance" grosses $95 million at the box office.

One year ago, at age 41, Dawn Steel got a chance to run her own studio when she was tapped as president of Columbia Pictures. The anomalies of that appointment remain the talk of Hollywood--the fact that Steel was the second woman in history to run a studio (Sherry Lansing was the first), that she wasn't a lawyer or an MBA or a film aficionado and yet she followed in the footsteps of David Puttnam, the British film maker with a lofty reputation.

Steel wasn't even one of those Hollywood producers who had majored in literature at Radcliffe. She never finished college. She was known as the one who sold toilet paper stamped with the Gucci label. In that sense, though, Steel is throwback to Hollywood's roots. Her track record at Columbia remains to be seen. But in taste, temperament and background, Steel is reminiscent of the old studio moguls who packed mainstream America into their theaters. Before they made movies, Samuel Goldwyn hawked gloves and Louis B. Mayer sold junk.

Today, authors write admiringly of how tough, aggressive and rude the old moguls were. Steel draws some of the same adjectives, though not always in admiring tones. "Steelie Dawn," her detractors call her. There aren't many shades of gray in Steel's operating style. Probably her two most common responses to film proposals are "no" (said often and abruptly enough to generate some enemies in town) and "it's a no-brainer" (an enthusiasm that, translated, means a film idea has the makings of a commercial hit).

Unlike other Hollywood players, "it doesn't even occur to Dawn to be afraid to say no," says producer and longtime friend Lynda Obst. "That's critical for a studio head." Obst points out that male executives in Hollywood aren't criticized for being too tough.

It's too early in her tenure to predict whether Steel will turn around Columbia. The studio has been in turmoil for years, and last summer's Hollywood writers strike seriously set back Steel's efforts. "No one should blink over Ms. Steel's performance for three years, and then they should only look at the projects she has in development," says Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller.

Moreover, with reports circulating that Coca-Cola is anxious to sell off its 49% share in Columbia, there's some question as to whether Steel will get a chance to rebuild Columbia. (See related article on Columbia Pictures in Business section.) And rumors persist that her future there may be short-lived anyway. Columbia's current dearth of films was highlighted when its only major Christmas release, "Old Gringo" (starring Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Smitts), was pushed back until next year. Studio officials say the $24 million epic is not yet complete. Steel is enthusiastic about the film, even though it caused the studio some embarrassment early in production when Burt Lancaster sued Columbia after the studio dropped him from the film. Columbia had been unable to secure cast insurance for the aging actor.

But Steel says she is secure in her position. She points to the the whole-hearted support of her boss, Victor Kaufman, chief executive of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, and Herbert A. Allen, an influential Coca-Cola board member. "That relationship is going to remain very stable," Steel says, "I feel very comfortable about that."

Just as important, early in her tenure Steel wisely forged ties with Ray Stark, godfather to many of Columbia's most prominent films. The powerful producer was instrumental in Puttnam's fall from power. Now Steel's regime is producing his film, "Revenge."

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