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Company Town : Some at Sony See Guber's Wish List Leaving Them Holding Bag of Coal

November 15, 1994|ALAN CITRON

As Sony Pictures Entertainment tries to break out of its box office morass and move into a brighter future, some executives are still feeling haunted by the ghost of Sony past.

They allege that ex-Chairman Peter Guber, who left two months ago, is trying to circumvent management and snatch some of Sony's most promising projects for his own production company. Specifically rattling their chains are reports that Guber plans to lay claim to six or seven development projects at Sony's Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures divisions.

"That's caused a lot of anger," said one source. "It's a bit of a quagmire."

Guber, who has moved out of the chairman's suite and into director Francis Ford Coppola's old offices on Sony's Culver City lot, denied in a brief interview doing anything to cause alarm.

He said he has no intention of cherry-picking material and that all major creative decisions are on hold until he returns from a six-week vacation. But Guber defended his right to transfer to his new company "some" movie projects that he helped develop as chairman at Sony.

Guber also asserted that his production deal gives him an unusually large degree of autonomy at Sony.

"No one here is in charge of me, if that's the question," he said.

The hyperkinetic executive, who ran Sony Pictures for five years, was always a lightning rod for controversy. Some saw the company's massive early expenditures on movies, staffing and facilities as a direct reflection of Guber's go-go style. Guber said the moves were necessary to re-establish Columbia and TriStar as serious players, but he was ultimately undone by the poor performance of movies such as "Last Action Hero" and steady executive defections.

When he resigned in late September, Guber said he planned to form his own company with partial financing from Sony. Sources speculate that Sony has pledged roughly $200 million in start-up money to the unnamed company. Guber is also said to be seeking outside investors.

"His deal specifies that there may be certain things he's entitled to, or empowered to do," said one knowledgeable executive. "But that's an awkward way to do business."

Sony formally declined to comment on Guber, except to say on background that the relationship is running smoothly. But Guber's company is said to be a source of growing tension with Sony Pictures President Alan J. Levine, who inherited most of Guber's duties, and Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Cos. Chairman Mark Canton, who stands to lose control of the projects.

Sources refused to identify all of the material on Guber's wish list. But he is said to be mostly interested in TriStar properties, including "Elephants," a well-known project based on the true story of a circus performer who steals back two elephants he has sold to pay off his debts when he subsequently learns that they are being mistreated by their new owner.

Any transfer of projects to Guber would be taken as a slap in the face by the executives who developed the material. It's too soon to say how things will play out.

Sources say Levine and Canton are in the dark about the full extent of Guber's authority. Canton has privately promised colleagues that he will turn back any poaching efforts, and both executives have reportedly complained to Sony of America President Michael P. Schulhof, who negotiated Guber's exit agreement. Levine and Canton were en route to New York for corporate meetings on Monday, but it was unclear if Guber is on the agenda.

Sony's latest release, the disappointing "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," was a pet project of Guber's. Other losers this year include "I'll Do Anything" and "North."

Since Guber's resignation, executives have tried to put a better face on the company. Sony has stepped up production and is more aggressively bidding for material. On Monday, it also consolidated its three companies--Columbia, TriStar and Triumph Releasing--under one Sony Pictures distribution banner, which will give the company a higher market share rating.

Guber insists all the Sturm und Drang is unwarranted. He says he's "not even close" to completing his financing plan or to deciding how to proceed with his company.

"Basically, I'm not doing anything until after my vacation," he said. "That's when I will begin to formulate my plans, decide what my entry point is, how I populate my company and what I do with my life. . . . But right now, I'm only dealing with me."


See no evil . . . : This month's journalistic creativity award goes to the folks at house organ Warner/Report, who managed to print four full pages of in-house news about Warner/Reprise Records without once mentioning the volcanic upheaval at the company.

Stories about new releases from Madonna, Tom Petty and other artists took precedence over other developments--such as Danny Goldberg's recent appointment as the new chairman of Warner Bros. Records and President Lenny Waronker's decision to leave the label.

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