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THE BIZ / JOHN LIPPMAN and JAMES BATES

Dolgen Considered Sharp in More Ways Than One

March 18, 1994|JOHN LIPPMAN and JAMES BATES

At Paramount, the afternoon growl has replaced the morning snarl.

Former Paramount Communications Inc. President Stanley Jaffe reportedly used to practice snarling in the mirror every morning as part of his routine to intimidate employees. New Paramount czar Jonathan Dolgen is known for growling during afternoon budget meetings.

Those growls are said to strike terror in the hearts of his employees. But, in tapping Dolgen to head Viacom Entertainment Group--which includes Paramount Pictures and other entertainment holdings--Viacom Inc. has landed one of Hollywood's most astute cost cutters and deal makers, and a man who inspires intense loyalty in those employees who survive his regime.

Dolgen's first task will be melding Paramount's and Viacom's diverse cultures. But he must also keep the film and TV factories churning at a time when the parent company is laboring to pay off the sizable debt assumed in the $10-billion acquisition of Paramount.

Dolgen's solid business skills are what attracted the attention of Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone and Chief Executive Frank Biondi, who have told Wall Street they expect to cut $200 million from corporate overhead in the wake of the merger. That's a task for which Dolgen is well prepared. As president of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, he brought film budgets into line, reduced overhead and even slashed peripheral expenses such as executive fruit basket deliveries.

On Thursday, Dolgen said the Viacom offer was too good to turn down. "If you've done what I've done for a living, it's a dream job," he said.

In his new capacity, he will oversee one of the largest production operations in Hollywood. The studio's businesses include movies, TV programming, TV stations and a proposed fifth broadcast network with Chris-Craft Industries.

Reporting to Dolgen will be Sherry Lansing and Kerry McCluggage, chairs of Paramount's motion picture and TV groups, respectively. In addition, Viacom's TV production and distribution divisions will be incorporated under McCluggage, who will stay on managing the combined $1.3-billion operation. Lansing, who said she was "thrilled" over Dolgen's appointment, is also expected to stay.

Biondi called Dolgen his first choice for the job, adding: "He's one of the three or four smartest people working out there. He's got no learning curve. He's basically redone two studios in the way they have run."

Neil Braun, president of Viacom Entertainment and a protege of Biondi, is expected to be offered a new post, perhaps head of the proposed fifth network.

Dolgen would not discuss his immediate plans at Viacom other than to "try to figure out how the company is organized and then start marching through." He also downplayed a suggestion that he would bring in his own team, saying, "That's not my M.O."

One area in which Dolgen is expected to become aggressively involved is in raising money to back film projects and scouting partners for alliances--activities that occupied much of his time at Sony and Fox and, before that, at Columbia Pictures.

Dolgen, a fast-talking executive whose style is sometimes likened to the wise-cracking delivery of comic Dennis Leary, has a short fuse that over the years has unnerved many subordinates--even driven one into therapy. Dolgen's office half-jokingly was called "The House of Pain and Suffering."

Dolgen is also known for a razor-sharp wit. He jokes that the damage to his house from the January earthquake was "within my price range." And he has a compassionate side: He once had an employee's injured son flown 4,000 miles at company expense to see a specialist.

Nonetheless, many of those who survived the Dolgen regime have gone on to high-level jobs in Hollywood. They include Fox Inc. Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey and Robert Kreek, president of cable TV network Comedy Central.

For all his reputation for toughness, several producers who have worked with Dolgen said they like him. They also predicted that he and Lansing will be able to work together, with Dolgen in effect playing the "bad cop" role Jaffe played to Lansing's "good cop."

Producers who have worked with Dolgen and Paramount said Redstone and Biondi no doubt wanted someone to keep spending under control. Cost is especially important, given the debt pressures Viacom will be under, and also because Viacom needs to assure Wall Street that it is watching every penny.

"These are East Coast guys suspicious of being snookered by the West Coast guys," said one producer who has worked with Dolgen. "They feel comfortable with a guy who knows this world well and who is extremely comfortable with the word no ."

Said another: "Sumner wants someone who is tough. There's a feeling that budgets have gotten out of control on some pictures."

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