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ONLY IN THE MOVIES : NONFICTION : HIT AND RUN: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, By Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters (Simon & Schuster: $25; 456 pp.)

June 16, 1996|Steven Bach | Steven Bach is the author of "Final Cut" and "Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend." His forthcoming biography of Moss Hart will be published by Knopf

"Hit and Run" is such a page-turner that it seems petty to quibble about the subtitle co-authors Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters chose for it: "How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood."

It's not that the book doesn't deliver what the subtitle promises; it does, with the satisfying jolt of a front-end collision. It's that the story the authors tell in their efficient, journalistic prose is larger than Guber and Peters. It's about what Guber correctly called "the perception of power" and what happens when the only goal of power is laughing all the way to the bank.

Greed, it turns out, knows neither limit nor nationality. As Griffin and Masters turn over the rocks one by one to reveal what crawls beneath, it's like a tour of the reptile tank at feeding time. You start hoping everybody will get what he or she deserves, but by the end your eyes roll heavenward, not in disbelief, but because golden parachutes blot out the rising sun. You want to man an anti-aircraft gun.

Is this fair? Is this nice? Maybe not, but it's juicy as all get-out and persuasive to boot. Most of the big narrative events in "Hit and Run" are well-known. First was Sony's $4.7-billion purchase (including debt assumption) of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, which included TriStar. Then there was the $200-million buyout of Guber-Peters Entertainment, such a money-drainer that one astonished and grateful stockholder was heard to exclaim, "Those people at Sony have to be the dumbest bastards that ever lived!" Finally, and most entertainingly, Steve Ross, head of Time-Warner, forced Sony to pony up another billion or so in cash and real estate so Warner could set Guber and Peters free and unload them on Sony. "Pearl Harbor Revenged," one wag called it. Within five years Sony declared a loss of an additional $3.2 billion.

The authors are smart, no-nonsense journalists (Griffin was West Coast editor of Premiere magazine and Masters was with the Washington Post). They have written a book about victims on both sides of the Pacific, and a colorful cast of accomplices who helped subject Sony to what one studio head called "the most public screwing in the history of the movie business."

Griffin and Masters intelligently assess Sony's motivations in acquiring Columbia as a software supplier for its electronics hardware business. "Synergy" was the buzzword in Tokyo and was supposed to remove the sting of humiliation and losses Sony had suffered in its failure to make Betamax the world-standard video recorder format. With a software component to drive Betamax, all that might have gone differently, they thought.

Sony even showed some wisdom in deciding that its American studio acquisition should stay in American hands. The problem was that, through Sony's earlier purchase of CBS Records, the hands they were in belonged to Walter Yetnikoff, the New York music mogul who was, according to Griffin and Masters, "staggering toward collapse from substance abuse." Yetnikoff got detox and rehab; Sony got Guber and Peters.

Guber and Peters, brought in to manage the newly purchased studio, didn't spring full-blown from some Yetnikoff delirium. Separately or together they had been involved with such well-regarded pictures as "Midnight Express," "A Star Is Born," "Gorillas in the Mist," "Batman" and "Rain Man." They were seldom accused of actually producing them, but this is no more novel in Hollywood than credit-grabbing, at which they also appear to have been expert. Guber had studio experience at the old Columbia, and Peters, Barbra Streisand's former boyfriend, had business experience as well (as a hairdresser). Both had chutzpah, ambition and corporate experience in running Casablanca Record and FilmWorks and working with the Dutch at Polygram (with whom Sony would have been wise to have had a chat). Major careers in Hollywood have been built on less.

Griffin and Masters document all this clearly and convincingly. They are especially good on the Guber-Peters dynamic, which turned out to be the real synergy. They quote a former associate that "one is like a machine, the other is like an animal. One is mind and the other is heart. And that's why they're so good together." Cher, who worked for them on "The Witches of Eastwick," had a different view: "Jon Peters at least would scream and yell, and you knew what he was thinking. . . . Guber--you never knew what was going on with him. I mean, he'd just smile."

Somebody else notes "Peter needs a bad guy around him," which director Rob Cohen expands with "Jon completed Peter. . . . If you can have your surrogate, your alter ego, destroy everything in your path so that you can walk in on rose petals, that's a great thing."

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