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THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Sony Rumors Are Today's Soundtrack

August 02, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

Sony Pictures' movie chairman, Mark Canton, has been more scarce than usual around the studio's Culver City lot, so say some company insiders.

A producer on the lot described the normally high-profile Canton as being uncharacteristically low-key.

Rumors continue to persist about the tenuousness of the movie chief's future, as they do about his boss, Alan Levine, Sony Pictures president and chief operating officer.

And at Sony Corp.'s East Coast headquarters, rumors continue to dog executive vice president Jeff Sagansky, who has been trying to persuade top Sony executives that he should be running the company's entertainment enterprises. Sources say Sagansky hasn't been winning support in Japan and may soon be headed out the door himself.

Studio sources say the relationship between Canton and Levine, never idyllic, has deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks, particularly since with the disappointing results for the summer movies "The Cable Guy," "Striptease" and "Multiplicity," for which Columbia had high hopes.

A highly placed source at the studio said Canton is fed up that Levine has in recent weeks cut him out of the loop. The source said Canton was upset recently when Levine refused to give him just five minutes of his time.

"The relationship seems particularly frayed," said the executive. "They're avoiding one another."

The source suggested that Levine feels betrayed by Canton's eternal optimism about the potential commercial nature of Sony's releases. Canton, the source said, is an effective cheerleader "who's never objective about the business prospects. He'll always tell you that 'everything's great.' "

Canton, Levine and Sagansky would not be interviewed, and Sony spokesman Peter Wilkes declined to comment Thursday. Top Sony executives are known to be angry at continued press reports about turmoil at the studio, which can hurt employee morale and make it more difficult to do business with the Hollywood creative community.

Sony's box-office dry spell predates this summer. In fact, the studio has not had a major hit from either its Columbia or TriStar studio for seven months, ever since last year's "Jumanji" and "Sense and Sensibility." Its most profitable movie so far this year is the low-budget May release "The Craft," which grossed just more than $24 million. Two of the studio's most expensive movies, "The Juror" and "Mary Reilly," which each cost more than $40 million, bombed, and the $47-million Jim Carrey comedy "The Cable Guy" will fall way short of expectations even if it does manage a small profit after video and foreign revenues eventually flow in.

Putting added pressure on Canton right now is the long-troubled production of "The Devil's Own," a suspense thriller directed by Alan Pakula and starring Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt, which has gone wildly over schedule at an estimated cost of $80 million-plus.

Even though Sony Pictures this week posted a profit for its fiscal first quarter, the earnings jump came from a foreign licensing deal with the Kirch Group; from home video revenues from "Jumanji"; foreign box office returns on "Jumanji" and "Sense and Sensibility"; and continued success in television from game shows such as "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy," the syndicated series "Seinfeld," daytime soaps that include "The Young and the Restless" and "Days of Our Lives," and the "Ricki Lake" talk show.

Levine and his corporate development team can certainly claim credit for making the Kirch deal, which eventually could bring the company as much as $1 billion.

Clearly, Canton has to be held accountable for his part in selecting the movies. And by distancing himself from Canton, Levine may be able to deflect blame for Sony's current box-office malaise.

But can Levine absolve himself of responsibility any more than he shrugged off liability for Sony's astounding $3.2-billion write-off in 1994? It was on his watch as chief operating officer that Sony experienced the biggest financial debacle in Hollywood history.

Sony spokesmen have contended that Levine is bringing a new, levelheaded approach to the business--in contrast to the company's extravagant spending under Peter Guber and Jon Peters. What often gets overlooked, as it did in a recent BusinessWeek profile of Levine, is that he was in fact one of the top corporate officers of the company during those years. The former attorney was one of the first executives hired by former client Guber.

"Levine is the antidote to Sony Pictures Entertainment's old regime," BusinessWeek wrote.

Levine can legitimately claim credit for cutting overhead by about 10% and generally curbing production costs. No doubt that's helped the bottom line. And Sony Pictures has shown six profitable quarters since the huge write-down.

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