Peter Guber and Jon Peters were determined to acquire a fleet of corporate jets for Columbia Pictures Entertainment that would rival that of Warner Bros., where they had last made their home.
Fine, the word came back from Sony headquarters in Tokyo, but the planes were to be used for internal corporate purposes, not jetting stars around the country like their idol, Warners chief Steve Ross, was fond of doing. Impossible, said Columbia's co-chairmen in Culver City. Who was going to tell director Ivan Reitman to find another way to get his family to Canada? How was Barbra Streisand to scout locations for "Prince of Tides"? How was Columbia going to treat its stars and directors to vacations in exotic locales?
"It was a huge point of contention," recalls one highly placed source.
But Sony gave in.
So much for the heavy hand of Tokyo management that Hollywood had feared.
It's been 16 months since the Japanese electronics giant installed this pair of hot-shot producers to run the studio it bought for $3.4 billion and took over on Nov. 16, 1989. But in many ways, last spring's debate over the corporate jets remains the defining moment in the relationship with Sony: Insecure in the alien waters of Hollywood, the company has been willing--so far, at least--to go along with the grand ambitions of its American managers.
Guber and Peters see themselves as more than studio chiefs--they're media moguls assembling a communications conglomerate. "The railroad industry made a big mistake in the 1930s," Guber says, "when it saw itself as being in the train business instead of the transportation business. It would be the same mistake to view us as being in the motion picture business, rather than the communications business."
Columbia, with its movie and TV production and chain of Loew's theaters, isn't in the same league as the gigantic Time-Warner Communications, where Ross is now co-chief executive. But that hasn't stopped Guber and Peters from spending mind-boggling sums of money to build the infrastructure for their budding empire. Having a plane or two on the lot for business meetings may be fine for most studios, but not for two aspiring media barons.
So that Columbia's stars would have some place to go on the corporate jets, Peters spent two of his 16 months on the job renovating his 22-acre Aspen ranch, using crews 24 hours a day to build guest houses and a main lodge (at his own expense, he says). He filled the grounds with reindeer and llamas, the house with Ralph Lauren and lace. Cher and Michael Douglas and Sylvester Stallone and Streisand all came and raved. There was even talk of a Columbia resort, modeled on Warner's famed Acapulco retreat, in Hawaii--a sort of halfway meeting point between Los Angeles and Tokyo.
Inside the troubled and gutted company they inherited, Guber and Peters hired staff. And hired more. Orion co-founder Mike Medavoy came in with a fully appointed staff to run Tri-Star. Former Columbia chief Frank Price brought in his people to run the Columbia side of the company. Guber and Peters hired one of their crack former lawyers, Alan Levine, as chief operating officer, and their other lawyer, Paul Schaeffer, as executive vice president for corporate affairs.
They hired financial whiz Jonathan Dolgen from Fox, gave him the title of Columbia president under Price, but put him to work upstairs as yet another executive plotting overall corporate strategy. When Paramount chief Sidney Ganis resigned, they squeezed him in, too. Now there are rumors that they want to hire Warner production chief Mark Canton, but with the executive offices already brimming, no one knows where he would go.
Guber and Peters paid their new executives salaries that set competitors' teeth on edge--from the $400,000 reportedly given to a 33-year-old vice president all the way up to their own $2.75 million plus a percentage of profits. They redecorated their historic Thalberg Building offices in elegant art-moderne. They planned the renovation of the tattered Culver City lot, which will cost $100 million in the next three years and hundreds of millions more over the next 15.
They paid top dollar for scripts and made deals with talent that were unprecedented in their size and cost: Top TV producer James L. Brooks, director Steven Spielberg, actors Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams. They set out making big-budget movies--like Tri-Star's $50-million "Hook" and its $40-million "Bugsy." They hired Michael Jackson to star in another lavish production, this one an action-musical, and in a few days they will announce that they are giving him his own record label. There were even whispers that Guber and Peters eventually hoped to take over Sony's record company.