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Company Town | THE BIZ / JAMES BATES and CLAUDIA ELLER

Columbia Pictures' Latest Sequel: Good Help Is Hard to Find

September 17, 1996|James Bates and Claudia Eller

"While it may sound self-serving, it does bear repeating that one of the problems I have had in surfacing good people, and in eliciting even initial interest among others, has been the uncertainty regarding the management situation here at Columbia. In virtually every case, the first question from potential candidates concerns the status of my own position. While I have attempted to be glib in terms of an answer, most of the people are smart enough to realize that there is no present resolution. This certainly has not helped in terms of attracting and/or negotiating with potential candidates."

Here's a hint about who wrote that confidential memo. It was an executive named Alan who was overseeing Columbia Pictures and who had unsuccessfully tried to hire the William Morris Agency's top movie agent to run the studio.

No. The author isn't Sony Pictures Entertainment President Alan Levine, but rather former Columbia Pictures Industries Chief Executive Alan Hirschfield nearly 20 years ago when he was having trouble finding a successor for studio chief David Begelman in the wake of the Begelman check-forging scandal. (See Page 427 of David McClintick's best-selling 1982 book, "Indecent Exposure.")

And the Morris agent? It's not Arnold Rifkin, but the late Stan Kamen.

It sometimes seems that Hollywood handles management crises the way it produces remakes. Every few years, a new version comes out with a different cast and a few changes in the plot line. But the basic story remains the same.

That's especially true at Columbia, now owned by Sony. Just as it was 20 years ago, the studio is the last place to shop your resume because of the chronic uncertainty and management turmoil.

Judging by the rumors, spurning overtures from Sony has become something of a badge of honor for top Hollywood executives, ranking up there with closing the deal to buy a resort home in Sun Valley or getting your kid into the Brentwood School. Indeed, Sony Pictures Vice Chairwoman Lucy Fisher, who as an interim move will assume the responsibilities of ousted Mark Canton, declined the chairman's title at Columbia and TriStar Pictures.

No doubt Fisher is concerned about having enough time to spend with her husband, Sony-based producer Doug Wick, and their three daughters. But a major part of her reluctance is also said to be the uncertainty about Sony's management situation, especially Levine's shaky status.

"Who'd want to go into that mess?" asked one industry veteran.

A number of candidates, including producer Brian Grazer, have reportedly turned down the Canton job.

Not only does Sony need a new movie chairman, but also rumors persist that the company may be looking to replace Levine as Sony president or to fill the vacant Sony Pictures chairmanship slot once held by Peter Guber.

Castle Rock Entertainment partner Alan Horn is one of those being bandied about, though that would be complicated because Horn is currently involved in negotiations to sell Castle Rock, possibly to Sony. If he is hired as an executive there, he could be vulnerable to criticism that he made a Castle Rock deal that benefited himself more than his company.

The name on everybody's lips Monday for either Canton's or Levine's job was that of Scott Sassa--the 37-year-old Wunderkind president of Turner Broadcasting System's entertainment division who is expected to resign today after having lost an internal power struggle with executive vice president Terence McGuirk for more turf in the proposed Time Warner-Turner merger.

In the bigger picture, Sony President Nobuyuki Idei is still without somebody running the Japanese giant's entire U.S. operation, the job once held by deposed Sony Chairman Michael Schulhof, who was fired last year after the studio took an astounding $3.2-billion write-off.

A seemingly big missed opportunity to fill that post was Sony's not snatching Frank Biondi Jr. off the market the day Sumner Redstone fired him in January. Seagram chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. called Biondi the day he was fired.

It wasn't until a month later, in February, that Biondi met in New York with Idei and Sony Chairman Norio Ohga, but nothing came of it.

Biondi's investment banker, Bruce Wasserstein, had pitched the Sony executives on Biondi as someone they should hire. Sources familiar with the meeting said Biondi was asked his opinion about various Sony executives as well as a lot of questions about the company in general. The Sony chiefs told him they had a specific timetable, a source said, and that if he was still available when they were ready to act, they would chat again.

The time was, and still is, thought to be sometime in October, when Ohga is expected to retire.

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