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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Power! Prestige! Bucks! And No Job Security Whatsoever!

September 13, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

So you want to be a studio head? Well, guess what: It's not all it's cracked up to be.

Sure there are the Gulfstream jets. Sure there are huge bucks, stock options, mega-bonuses and, of course, those irresistible golden parachutes. And yes, you'll have power and status--or at least the perception of power and status. People will call you and grovel all day long, and you'll have the power to say yes or no. And you'll probably get an even better seat at Morton's than you used to.

But what you won't have is one iota of job security.

"Why would anyone want this job?" asked a top studio executive, referring to the possibility that longtime agent Arnold Rifkin would take over for Mark Canton as head of Sony Pictures.

It still isn't clear that Rifkin will get the job.

As of late Thursday, no formal offer had been made by Sony, and sources cautioned that a deal might not materialize. Rifkin is under increasing pressure by the Morris brass, which is doing everything it can to keep him at the agency. Sources say Rifkin, who is head of the motion picture division, is being offered a big promotion and a fat, long-term contract to stay.

Sources said Canton will be fired within days. They said Sony Pictures President Alan Levine has concluded meetings in New York with Sony Corp. President Nobuyuki Idei without resolving whether to hire Rifkin.

Levine is weighing various options, including putting Lucy Fisher, vice chairman of Sony's Columbia TriStar unit, temporarily in charge after Canton is let go.

It's unlikely Rifkin will wait long before he walks away from the talks should they drag on.

Meanwhile, a well-placed source said Jeffrey Sagansky, Sony Corp. executive vice president, made a final play for an expanded role over the studios but was rebuffed by Idei and will leave the company when his contract is settled.

The turmoil at Sony underscores the kind of perils Rifkin would face in choosing the path of studio moguldom.

After 25 years as an agent, and staring the age of 50 in the face, Rifkin is at a natural crossroads in his life to consider a career change.

But is he prepared for the pressures that come with heading a studio?

Canton is being ousted because too many of the movies he put into production have either flopped or fallen way short of his over-hyped promises. And Canton is one of the luckier ones. He's managed to survive at Sony five years.

Many in comparable positions have lost their jobs a lot quicker.

When was the last time you heard of the head of a Hollywood talent agency being fired because his star client's movies weren't working at the box office?

Historically, the agency business is far more stable than that of the studios.

There's a long legacy of top agents like Lew Wasserman, Guy McElwaine, David Begelman, Freddie Fields and, most recently, Creative Artists Agency's Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Mike Marcus jumping over to the corporate side, but it's a relatively select list.

Typically, agents stay agents for a long time. Rifkin himself has been an agent for 25 years, as were Ovitz, Meyer and Marcus.

Most agents who have left the profession say they do so because they're sick and tired of the so-called servicing jobs--being called at 6 on Sunday morning by a screaming actor who's furious that there are cigarette butts in his or her trailer.

But a veteran studio executive cautions: "I hate to say it, but these jobs are very similar. You're still in a service business in a way. You're having to say 'No more' and make choices, which can be very hard at times, ... but these jobs are hard to resist."

One agent-turned-studio executive, who asked not to be identified, disagreed: "Being a good agent is the toughest job there is. You're blamed for mistakes and not credited for success. You're at the mercy of clients all the time. At least in this job you have more control of your own destiny."

Marcus, who left CAA in 1994, where he represented such superstars as Tom Cruise and Robin Williams, to become president of MGM, says that despite the fact that he's still "shocked that I would give up the security of a great client list" to take a studio job that offered no such security, "I'm thrilled I did it and have never regretted it for a minute."

Talk about no job security: Marcus and the entire MGM/UA team nearly found themselves on the street this summer when the studio they run was almost sold out from under them.

Marcus believes that a person gives up one profession for another, even one less stable, "because it's a great challenge and you believe in yourself that you can do the job."

If anyone subscribes to that way of thinking, it's Rifkin, whose motivational style is to encourage people to believe in themselves and achieve all they can.

The irony for Rifkin is that the possible sea change comes at a time when he's in the prime of his career as an agent. Particularly since Ovitz and Meyer left the agency fold last year, Rifkin has come into his own, getting high marks not only at the Morris office but throughout Hollywood for transforming a demoralized agency into a place where agents and clients are once again proud to be.

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