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COCA-COLA--A NEW FORMULA AT COLUMBIA?

Times Staff Writer

This is a story that will either start rumors or scotch them, depending on how you read it. It’s either about how swell things are between Columbia Pictures and its parent, the Coca-Cola Co., or how the soft drink giant’s interference is dragging the studio down--again, depending on who’s speaking. It’s either about how Columbia chief Guy McElwaine has been promoted in hard times, or how he’s been moved up to be moved out, depending on whose scenario you accept.

It is a typical Hollywood story.

For weeks, there have been rumors that McElwaine, Columbia’s president since 1981, was going to be fired by Columbia Pictures Industries in New York, on orders relayed from Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, where profit-minded brass are said to be growing restless over its entertainment acquisition’s first extended box-office slump.

Despite the hands-off policy announced by Coca-Cola when it bought Columbia in January, 1982, most film people assumed it began tampering with the studio’s formula even before shocking us with a formula-change of its own.

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The rumors were fueled by talk of a potential Coca-Cola buyout of Embassy Communications (the deal was finally announced Monday), that would add responsibilities at a level where performance has been faltering.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the merger. McElwaine, 10 days into the hugely disappointing box-office run of the John Travolta film “Perfect,” learned he had been promoted to chairman of the board. It was the most surprising personnel news in Hollywood since Michael (“Heaven’s Gate”) Cimino got another directing job (“Year of the Dragon”), and the film industry reacted with a collective cocked eye.

“He’s being kicked upstairs to make room for someone else,” said one studio source. “You watch. In six months, he’ll announce he’s going into independent production with a multi-picture deal with Columbia.”

Says McElwaine: “It might be nice to be kicked upstairs, but they don’t do that in the movie business. I think it’s just a nice vote of confidence.”

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McElwaine says there is no room at the top, even though he’s vacated the title of president.

“I’m still making the decisions, and I always will,” McElwaine says. “I just didn’t want to keep both titles. . . . At the moment, I don’t have any intention of filling the job of president.”

There is one big job open at Columbia, though. In denying that Coca-Cola hired the headhunting firm that’s been calling on marketing people around town, McElwaine revealed that Ashley Boone, Columbia’s current marketing head, is quitting and will probably become a consultant to Columbia, and that he, McElwaine, turned the headhunters loose: “I don’t have time to look for a head of marketing,” he said.

(The headhunting firm, David Powell Inc. of San Francisco, was apparently learning on the job. One of the candidates said that the headhunter who called him could identify the job, but couldn’t explain what it was.)

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McElwaine won’t say why Boone is leaving, and Boone wouldn’t accept a telephone call to discuss it. But sources inside the studio say that both Boone and Marketing Vice President Bob Dingilian have been upset with marketing interference from Columbia Pictures Industries’ Peter Sealey, a former Coca-Cola marketing man, and are itching to join MGM/UA’s Alan Ladd Jr., for whom they worked at the defunct Ladd Co.

Sealey was not available for comment, but McElwaine said Coke does not interfere, “categorically never.”

“Because of the size and brilliance of the Coca-Cola Co., people just assume they’re going to meddle,” he says. “I promise you, on my children’s lives, they don’t do it.”

Maybe the problem is the definition of meddling, but several people who have either worked in Columbia’s marketing department under Coca-Cola, or who have worked with it, say Atlanta’s presence is palpable.

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Among the complaints: that Sealey has pulled the purse strings so tight it’s sometimes impossible to give a movie a fair launching; that by pulling back on the advertising budget after a movie fails to open big, they’re cutting exhibitors adrift and trading away their leverage for good theaters in the future; that Coke’s disdain for publicity (many key staff-level publicity jobs were eliminated earlier this year, with promotion people assuming those duties) ignores the uniqueness of film product.

“You can’t sell movies like so many cartons of Coke,” says one marketing man who’s been involved at Columbia under Coca-Cola. “But that’s what they’re trying to do.”

McElwaine doesn’t deny that Columbia has been cutting back on publicity and spending less on movies when they don’t open well. But he says those were his decisions, not Coke’s. On this point, he and his bosses in New York and Atlanta are of one mind: “The way some companies do business today is the same way they were doing business 30 years ago. That doesn’t make it right.”

FIRING THE BOSS’ WIFE: It’s a film producer’s dream: An unknown actor, cast in a key supporting role, is struck by celebrity lightning just as the film’s about to be released, and the producer is suddenly the beneficiary of a billion dollars’ worth of free publicity.

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For Steve Roth, whose Orion comedy “Secret Admirer” opened to cool business over the weekend ($2.4 million in 1,300 theaters), that dream is a wisp of what might have been. For four days, Roth had Julianne Phillips playing opposite C. Thomas Howell (“Red Dawn”) and Lori Loughlin (“Footloose”), but decided she was wrong for the part and replaced her with Kelly Preston (“Mischief”).

A few months later, Phillips married rock star Bruce Springsteen and gave the personality magazines a woman to woo besides Madonna.

“She looked too sophisticated,” Roth says of his decision to fire Phillips. “She was terrific, but she just didn’t look right with the other kids.”

She’d look perfect now.

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‘CLUE’ MYSTERY: Exhibitors were buzzing last week over rumors that Paramount is planning to release “Clue” this Christmas with four to six different endings. The idea, exhibitors reported, is to rotate the various versions, giving mystery-game junkies a reason to keep coming back.

Debra Hill, the film’s producer, says the rumor is false, but she does have a clue as to how it started. To keep the cast and others from knowing who the real killer is, a script was created with four optional endings.

“At this point, we have no intention of shooting more than one ending,” she says. “We just want to get one good movie done. But, if we got five or six good ones . . . hmmm.”


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