Movie Article

A Tristar is Reborn

With new movies like ''Sleepless in Seattle'' and ''Philadelphia'' coming out, the once-falling studio is staging a comeback -- but is chairman Mike Medavoy to thank?

Not long ago, the word on the street about TriStar Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy and his beleaguered studio was so bad that on Jan. 10 The New York Times reported that he had been ''relieved of his duties.''

As it happened, the report of Medavoy's professional demise was greatly exaggerated. Not only did the Times have to run a correction, but just three months later, TriStar — with a full production slate, deals with some of Hollywood's hottest filmmakers, and a strong roster of summer/fall releases — seems to have engineered a stunning turnaround.

Among the projects to be released under the tutelage of Medavoy:

Cliffhanger This action thriller, shot in the Italian Alps and directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), stars Sylvester Stallone and Janine Turner and opens May 28.
Sleepless in Seattle On the strength of test screenings, which showed the film could compete nicely with the summer blockbusters, TriStar has rescheduled Nora Ephron's romance starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for a late-June release.
Philadelphia Jonathan Demme's fall drama about an HIV-positive lawyer (Hanks) who sues the firm that fires him is the first major studio film to tackle AIDS; it also stars Denzel Washington and Mary Steenburgen.

TriStar has similarly prestigious projects in development, most notably Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh (and perhaps starring Robert De Niro as the monster); Get Shorty, based on Elmore Leonard's best-seller, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and starring Danny DeVito; Mary Reilly, an updated Jekyll-Hyde story directed by Batman visionary Tim Burton; and The Mirror Has Two Faces, a Barbra Streisand project.

Whether this resurgence can be credited to the 52-year-old Medavoy (whose job may still hang in the balance) or to stepped-up involvement by Peter Guber, 50, who heads TriStar's parent company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, is hotly debated within the industry. ''This place is rife with rumors,'' says a TriStar source. In either event, the comeback is startling. TriStar had a paltry nine movies in release in 1992, and among those were three box office failures: Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, the expensive biopic Chaplin, and the sailing misadventure, Wind. There wasn't much in the pipeline as little as six months ago; the only release in the early months of '93 was Sniper, which was postponed from last year. Carolco, a major supplier of the studio's movies, was in financial turmoil. And TriStar's share of domestic box office revenues fell sharply, from 10.9 percent in 1991 to 6.6 percent in 1992. Things looked grim for everyone but the lawyers.

Because parent Sony already owned another studio (Columbia), many industry insiders questioned the need for TriStar's continued existence. And on top of all that, the buzz around the Sony commissary was that Medavoy was spending more time on the presidential campaign, gunning for a Clinton administration cabinet post, than on making movies.

Through it all, Medavoy, one of the founding members of Orion Studios in 1978, has stayed remarkably unrattled. What is being perceived as a ''rebirth,'' he says, is simply a matter of projects and deals long in the works coming to fruition. TriStar's lackluster '92 performance, he insists, was due to a delay in development that occurred when he installed a new production team, headed by Marc Platt, 35, formerly of Orion, and Stacey Lassally, 31, formerly of Guber/Peters Entertainment. ''What motivated me was not going too fast,'' he concedes, ''and maybe I went a little too slow.'' He also blames the halt of production at Carolco, which had given TriStar about four movies a year, including Basic Instinct.

To fight back, Medavoy has spent the last six months lobbying — and signing — some of Hollywood's biggest talent. ''The plan has always been to have important filmmakers here and to have at least 12 to 15 pictures a year, but we are being much more aggressive about developing sources for our movies,'' he says. ''There's no question about that.'' He has a deal in the works with producer Scott Rudin (Sister Act, The Addams Family), as well as additional projects with director Demme (who worked with Medavoy at Orion), and writer- director Ephron.

Medavoy not only has their deals — he apparently has their respect, too. Ephron calls Medavoy, Platt, and Lassally ''dream people to make movies with because they come from the let-the-filmmaker-make-the-film school.'' She says that despite rumors that Medavoy is under Guber's thumb creatively, she had no involvement with Guber until she met him at a test screening of Sleepless; before that, ''the only thing I'd heard from Peter Guber was the word duet.'' As in: He wanted one in Sleepless, preferably one with high music-video potential to help sell the film. ''It got sort of comical,'' says Ephron. ''It was relayed to us about every eight days in case we'd forgotten. One thing you have to know about Peter is that when he gets an idea, he gets an idea.''

Demme says the regard he developed for Medavoy at Orion is what brought him to TriStar. After Medavoy left Orion in early 1990, ''I was anxious to see him reestablish himself as quickly as possible,'' he says. Analyzing TriStar's revival, Demme adds, ''A Haitian proverb comes to mind: Little by little the bird builds its nest.''

Some industry sources say that other deals — specifically Rudin's — never would have happened without Guber negotiating them. ''Although,'' says one, ''if you ask Guber that, he'll run for the hills.''

''I absolutely do not get involved in deals with filmmakers,'' retorts Guber, who claims to leave the creative decisions to Medavoy. ''I think the sense of renewal at TriStar is internal. It's their own willingness to believe in themselves, to reinvent themselves. Being a winner doesn't mean you don't get knocked down. A winner is somebody who gets knocked down and gets back up again.''

Of course faith, in Hollywood, can have a short life span. With two years remaining on his contract and a summer of box office business yet to be tested, it will be a while before Hollywood knows whether Medavoy will be left standing — even if TriStar wins the fight.

Originally posted Apr 16, 1993 Published in issue #166 Apr 16, 1993 Order article reprints
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