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MOVIES : COMMENTARY : Three Strikes--You're In! : Hollywood studio chiefs are like baseball managers--they're always being fired but somehow always wind up with another job

October 13, 1991|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is film critic for Newsday

In the entire history of Hollywood, there has probably never been a movie that was such a total creative failure--so badly conceived, written, cast and directed--that it didn't have at least one rabid fan. What makes the nearly universally panned "The Bonfire of the Vanities" special is that its most ardent booster has just been put in charge of a major studio.

"This is the best movie I've been involved with in the history of my administration," former Warner Bros. production executive Mark Canton reportedly said after seeing Brian De Palma's "Bonfire" late last year. "In my 10 years at Warner Bros. 'Batman' was my big commercial hit and this will be my big artistic hit."

Canton, whose ecstatic review of the woeful "Bonfire" is detailed in Julie Salamon's new book "The Devil's Candy," was appointed just the other day to the top job at Columbia Pictures, ending months of speculation that he would replace Frank Price in that position.

Why would a person with judgment that faulty, even in just that one instance, be qualified for a multimillion dollar job running a major motion picture studio? If they were looking for someone whose tastes were out of sync with moviegoers, they could have grabbed any critic who liked "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and saved themselves a bundle.

Of course, money is no object when it comes to overpaying film executives, especially those who either go to work for Sony Pictures, or are shoved out there. Dawn Steel, who was running Columbia when it was bought by the Japanese, unfurled a $7-million golden parachute when she left. Price, who endured months of on-campus gossip about his imminent departure from Columbia, is said to have received a settlement of between $15-million and $20-million. And Jon Peters, whose flamboyant style may have helped ease him out of Sony and into independent production, had his fall broken with an estimated $25-million cushion.

So much money, so few good movies. What could Canton bring to the party that Price didn't? We've ruled out good taste, so what is it? Why would Peter Guber, in a town where available ex-studio chiefs are $100 million a dozen, pick this guy?

Many people in the industry chalk it up to old-fashioned cronyism. Guber and Canton are longtime pals; they worked together closely on all of the Guber-Peters projects pumped through Warner Bros. over the last few years. Not only the hits "Batman" and "Rain Man," but such flops as "The Clan of the Cave Bear" and "Youngblood."

Others say Guber is setting Canton up as his alter ego at Columbia, where the kind of high-concept movies Guber-Peters always favored will be produced. Meanwhile, TriStar, whose seminal movies prompted one major film critic to suggest the name be changed to OneStar, could--under former Orion Pictures production chief Mike Medavoy--become Sony's premium label. Medavoy is well-respected by filmmakers and has already pulled off one miracle in getting a commercial hit ("The Fisher King") out of the fiercely independent Terry Gilliam.

The obvious analogy for recycling studio chiefs, especially at this time of year, is baseball, where managers are forced to take the fall for front-office blunders and for coddled, overpaid players who suddenly can't bat their weight.

The analogy works only to the extent that studio executives and baseball managers both have trouble disappearing gracefully. They tend to hang around after they've been humiliated, become independent producers or third-base coaches, show up to schmooze at premieres or All-Star games, serve as background sources for film or sports writers. Or move on to manage other teams or other studios.

Before Price was hired and fired at Columbia, where he had served in the same job when Coca-Cola owned it, he had been hired and fired at Universal. Stanley Jaffe, who recently replaced Frank Mancuso as head of Paramount, had run that studio's film division in the early '70s, then went into independent production. Guber followed the same scenario at Columbia. Ned Tanen managed the film operations at both Universal and Paramount, and now-independent producer Bob Rehme had spent 15 years at the top at either Avco-Embassy, Universal or New World.

In reality, studio chiefs are like baseball team owners, and baseball managers are more like film directors. The studio bosses and club owners oversee all aspects of their operations, take the credit and blame for what happens, and become millionaires many times over. Whether they know a good game or a good movie when they see one is beside the point. What are the standings? The grosses? How much money is left when the bills are paid?

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