Six-time Oscar nominee Robert De Niro in a new thriller. The next Jim Carrey comedy. A kiddie film made by Danny DeVito. Demi Moore, unharnessed at last. And four Michael Keatons for the price of one. On paper, it looked like a great summer for Sony Pictures Entertainment. But while every other big studio ended the season with at least one $100 million hit to brag about, Sony seems to have developed a reverse Midas touch. Everything it produces — The Fan, The Cable Guy, Matilda, Striptease, and Multiplicity — turns to red ink.
Without a single hit since last winter’s Jumanji, Sony (which encompasses both Columbia and TriStar) has fallen to an ignominious sixth place in market share while weathering constant speculation about its future as well as some of the worst reviews in recent film history (”Utterly bankrupt artistically, psychologically and morally” said Variety’s Todd McCarthy of The Fan). But while audiences have turned away from Sony movies, Hollywood is closely watching Columbia and TriStar and perhaps learning from their mistakes. Even with Moore’s relentless promotion of Striptease and Carrey’s name above the title of The Cable Guy, it became clear that films do not live by expensive talent alone.
Expensive talent, though, seems to be the specialty of Columbia Tristar chairman Mark Canton, who sent movie-star prices skyrocketing when he paid Carrey a record $20 million for Cable Guy. A protege of big spenders Peter Guber and Jon Peters, whose notorious stewardship of Sony forced its Japanese owners to take a $3.2 billion write-off in 1994, Canton was made chairman even after he championed the runaway Schwarzenegger dud Last Action Hero. ”He’s star oriented, not material oriented,” says one competitor. ”Cable Guy isn’t that different from Last Action Hero. Both were made without reference to the material just because a major star wanted to do them.”
So why hasn’t Sony shown Canton the door? There’s no shortage of theories. One is that Sony president Nobuyuki Idei wants to proceed cautiously. Heavily criticized in Japan for the excesses of the Guber/Peters regime, Sony may prefer riding out its current losses to incurring the costs of bringing in new management, buying out existing execs, and enduring another costly upheaval.
Theory No. 2 — that Sony’s upper management just doesn’t get it — also has its supporters. Exhibit A: After helping the company lose billions, Guber was rewarded with a production deal that lets him produce the same kind of costly duds (like The Fan) that he okayed as chairman. Theory No. 3 posits that things are indeed changing — marketing head Sid Ganis recently left, and ex-HBO Pictures president Robert Cooper replaced Marc Platt as president of TriStar and now reportedly plans to focus on making small films.
That executive shuffle leaves Canton with even less insulation from finger-pointing. But so far, he’s shown no signs of spending less. Sony’s upcoming slate is filled with high-cost, high-risk films. Take Columbia’s cop drama The Devil’s Own. The studio reportedly spent $8-10 million to lure Brad Pitt, $20 million for Harrison Ford, and $6-7 million more for the one director, Alan Pakula, on whom both stars could agree. As shooting ran over schedule and screenwriters labored over endless revisions, the original $70 million budget is said to have approached $100 million. Will this be the movie that puts Canton’s head on the block? Don’t bet against him yet. Canton’s rivals may make better movies, reap bigger box office, and win more Oscars. But when it comes to survival, he’s No. 1 in his field.
In the next year, Sony will again bet on high-profile movies such as The Mirror Has Two Faces, above, with Barbra Streisand and Jeff Bridges. It will take more than one ace for the studio to save face.
The Mirror Has Two Faces
Due Out: November ‘96
Estimated Budget (Millions): 42
Due Out: December ‘96
Estimated Budget: 50
The Devil’s Own
Due Out: Winter/Spring ‘97
Estimated Budget: 79-100
Due Out: Summer ‘97
Estimated Budget: 95-100*
Men in Black
Due Out: Summer ‘97
Estimated Budget: 80
*Coproduced with Disney