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William Morris Movie Chief Is in Talks for Sony Post

Entertainment: Arnold Rifkin tells staff that he is interested in job as head of Columbia and TriStar studios.

September 12, 1996|JAMES BATES and CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

William Morris Agency motion picture chief Arnold Rifkin is in talks to take Mark Canton's place as head of Sony Corp.'s ailing Columbia and TriStar pictures studios.

Sources close to Sony confirmed that Rifkin, one of Hollywood's most aggressive agents--he represents such stars as Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Whoopi Goldberg--has emerged as the only serious candidate for the job.

Rifkin acknowledged to his staff at a Wednesday morning meeting that Sony has approached him about the job and that he has told Sony he is interested. But Rifkin said he had not entered formal negotiations and had no offer.

If Rifkin, 49, takes the job, he would follow in the recent footsteps of such agents-turned-executives as Disney President Michael Ovitz, MCA President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer and MGM Pictures President Mike Marcus.

Sources said Sony is attracted to Rifkin because he has been credited with revitalizing the demoralized motion picture division of the William Morris operation. He rebuilt the business by stemming the exodus of agents and stars, and attracted such talent as Stallone, Goldberg and top-paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

Seven years after Sony entered the movie business, its studios are in desperate need of a stable management capable both of raising morale and picking successful motion pictures.

Some industry executives were puzzled that Sony would consider placing Rifkin in charge of rebuilding its movie division when he has no experience managing a studio. Sony recently hired another executive, former HBO executive Robert Cooper, to run its TriStar unit even though he has no major studio experience.

There is no assurance that any deal will be reached with Rifkin. For starters, it is unclear whether Sony President Nobuyuki Idei, who is currently meeting in New York with Sony Pictures Entertainment President Alan Levine, will agree to hire Rifkin. Sources doubted that Rifkin would be hired without first meeting personally with Idei, whom he has never met. Executives also speculated that the leaking-out of news of the Rifkin talks, reported in Daily Variety on Wednesday, may spook Sony executives, who are notoriously sensitive about Hollywood's practice of executive changes being played out in public.

Rifkin declined comment Wednesday. He told friends and colleagues that the matter will be resolved quickly. His lawyer, Harry M. "Skip" Brittenham, is expected to negotiate the deal, which sources said could be reached as early as next week.

Sources said Rifkin has held informal discussions with Levine over a period of several months, with talks turning serious during the last month. But it's not unusual for Hollywood hiring discussions to break down at the eleventh hour.

For Rifkin, acknowledging to his staff that he is interested in the job carries substantial risk. In effect, he has sent a clear message to clients, his staff and the entire Hollywood community that he is prepared to leave the agency business. A similar dilemma was faced by Ovitz after word leaked out last year that he had negotiated unsuccessfully with Seagram Co. for a top executive post at MCA Inc.

The agency business is built on personal loyalties and clients become vulnerable to being raided by competitors. Creative Artists Agency lost a number of top clients when Ovitz and Meyer left. Rifkin's clients earn tens of millions of dollars each year, which would cause a sharp financial blow to the agency if they left.

There is no obvious successor for Rifkin within the William Morris operation. Before Rifkin, the motion picture department was co-headed by agents John Burnham and Mike Simpson, who now report to Rifkin.

If the Sony job materializes, Rifkin would have to extract himself from his contract with William Morris, which has been known to hold personnel to their employment agreements. However, sources say Rifkin has less than a year left on his contract.

For Sony, a failure to reach a deal would be yet another public embarrassment. The company has suffered from chronic management upheaval and lately has turned out a string of expensive flops such as as "Multiplicity" and "The Fan."

Executives said Sony should act quickly because executive uncertainty can paralyze a studio. Top stars and directors, for example, are reluctant to make commitments to executives who may not be in their jobs for long.

In addition, the drawn-out management saga is starting to be viewed by some in Hollywood as a cruel spectacle, with Canton, 47, twisting in the wind as have several other Sony film executives before being forced out, including ex-Columbia chief Frank Price and former TriStar executives Mike Medavoy and Marc Platt.

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