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TriStar Shake-Up: A Matter of Personalities : Analysis: Mike Medavoy's departure and Mark Canton's promotion have less to do with box-office grosses than with how well they hit if off with Sony Pictures Chairman Peter Guber.

January 12, 1994|TERRY PRISTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Medavoy seemed to have had a relatively good 1993, while Mark Canton, by any measure, had an awful year. Yet Medavoy is out as chairman of TriStar Pictures and Canton's domain has expanded to include both studios on the Sony lot.

Paradoxical as these developments might appear, they did not come as a shock to many industry insiders, who have been speculating for more than a year about just when--not whether--Medavoy would leave TriStar. Despite TriStar's success with such movies as "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Cliffhanger," it was no secret that Medavoy and his boss, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber, never hit it off. And increasingly, Guber was said to feel that Medavoy was not a loyal team player.

As a result, few observers believe that Medavoy left entirely on his own initiative, as both he and Sony executives maintain. "It's like when you know your boyfriend's going to leave you," said a director who knows the players well. "You pack your bags, leave and pretend that you're the one who made the decision."

More than anything else, Medavoy's departure and Canton's elevation--both announced last Friday--reinforced conventional wisdom that in Hollywood, personal relationships are everything. Canton, a longtime Warner Bros. executive who became chairman of Columbia Pictures in 1991, has been close to Guber for nearly a decade. Canton is also very friendly with TriStar production chief Stacy Lassally, a college pal of his wife, Wendy Finerman, who has a production deal at TriStar.

Before joining TriStar, Lassally, whose husband, Tom Lassally, is a Warner Bros. executive and tennis-playing buddy of Canton's, was a key executive at Guber's production company.

Partly because of the strain between Medavoy and Guber, TriStar released only a dozen movies last year, and some producers and agents have reported difficulties in getting their projects past the political roadblocks. "It's been slower going there than it should be at a major studio," said a prominent agent and Canton ally, who, like most people interviewed for this story, did not want his name used. "It's clear there hasn't been a specific program for getting movies put into production there."

TriStar has some promising projects coming up this year, including the Kenneth Branagh-directed "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" and "Cop Tips Waitress $2 Million," directed by Andrew Bergman. But some attribute that roster more to the aggressiveness of Lassally and studio president Marc Platt than to Medavoy's leadership. Platt and Lassally's frustration with Medavoy were well known to the people who worked with them. (Medavoy declined to comment.)

Yet Columbia's 1993 performance has been nothing to brag about, despite such hits as "In the Line of Fire," packaged and produced by Castle Rock Entertainment, and "Groundhog Day," which got the green light from Canton's predecessor, Frank Price. The studio, which had major costly flops in "Last Action Hero" and "Geronimo," plans to release only three pictures before June. In addition, Columbia suffered major embarrassment last summer after then-production president Michael Nathanson issued a statement through his lawyer denying involvement in a call-girl ring operated by alleged Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.

In promoting Canton to the newly created post of chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos., Sony officials said he will operate as a team with Motion Picture Group Chairman Jonathan Dolgen, a tough-minded and temperamental executive who is credited with curbing some of the studios' extravagant spending habits.

The team will report to Sony Pictures President Alan J. Levine, who said that they will oversee rather than direct the day-to-day creative endeavors of the studios. "This is a restructuring of the way we operate our motion picture business in order to strengthen it," he said. Producers will bring their projects directly to Platt and Lassally on the TriStar side, and recently installed production president Lisa Henson at Columbia, Levine added. Although Dolgen and Canton have often crossed swords in the past, they, too, have "developed a terrific friendship personally," as Canton put it earlier this week.

Dolgen said he is not troubled by Canton's most recent track record. "I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather be partnered with in doing this," he said. "You view somebody based on his skills and ability, not necessarily on whether his last three movies worked. Mark is possessed of appetite and enthusiasm. He's got a very steep learning curve."

Said Canton: "I long ago decided this is a big canvas, not a small one, and a long journey."

The power-sharing arrangement signals that Sony is imposing further financial restraints on the free-spending Canton. "If they just made Canton king of all he sees, they would come under such intense criticism that they couldn't do it," said an agent who is not among Canton's admirers.

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