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Sony Still Making Movies but Removes Its Name

Times Staff Writer

With all due respect to Hollywood, Sony Corp. is getting its name out of the motion picture business--for now.

Just three months after launching its New York-based Sony Pictures unit, the Japanese consumer electronics giant has quietly decided to rechristen the division SVS Films. The idea is to avoid some of the grosser embarrassments of moviedom and also end some confusion about the company’s possible emergence as a big-time film maker.

“The thing (has been) an incredible headache. It’s caused people to have some very wrong impressions,” Sony Corp. of America Vice Chairman Michael Schulhof says of the film unit’s record so far.

Indeed.

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The particular embarrassment that started it all, apparently, was “Party Line,” a low-budget film that is slated for release in Los Angeles this month.

“Party Line,” which cost under $3 million to produce, deals with dial-a-date murders. It might politely be called exploitative. “Some talk. Some listen. Some die,” promises an advertising poster, which depicts a blond woman swathed in black lingerie and a red telephone extension cord.

That was enough to raise some serious concern about corporate identity among Sony executives, acknowledges John O’Donnell, president of Sony Video Software company, a subsidiary that launched the movie unit in July.

“The Sony name is like the Disney name,” O’Donnell came to realize. “We just can’t put ‘Sony Pictures Presents’ on a movie in which naked ladies get their heads cut off.” (Disney, in fact, uses a separate name, Touchstone, for its mainstream films.)

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But the breaches of taste didn’t stop with “Party Line.” The closer Sony executives looked, the worse it got.

“In one picture, we had a big shot of a Panasonic TV,” says O’Donnell. “In another shot, there was a Samsung radio, God forbid. Then I had a Japanese guy say to me, ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t have that Jesus Christ picture?’ (The “Last Temptation of Christ”). And I kept thinking, I’d love to have that picture. . . .”

By then it was clear to all concerned that the Sony name had to go.

To compound the mess, however, O’Donnell’s relatively modest unit, which expects to make up to 10 low-budget films a year, had already become confused with the parent company’s recent inquiries into the possibility of buying a major studio such as MGM/UA or Columbia.

Producers and agents--lured by a hyperbole-tinged press release in which Sony Pictures said it would become “fully involved in all phases of the production and distribution of high-quality ‘A’ type features--mistook O’Donnell’s venture for the big play and quickly deluged the little unit with more than 800 scripts.

“We were flabbergasted,” says O’Donnell.

So was his boss, Schulhof, who complains that the new movie unit’s public promise to make “major motion pictures” went far beyond its authority.

“Those people have all the bad habits of Hollywood,” says Schulhof, who engineered Sony’s $2- billion purchase of CBS Records, and would presumably be a key player if the parent company ever decided to buy or build its way into the Hollywood mainstream. (Schulhof declines to comment on those plans.)

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Under the SVS label, at any rate, O’Donnell expects to have full creative freedom. “Now we can have naked ladies, we can have guys swearing, we can even have Panasonics,” he says.

And the new company did manage to squeeze out one release, “Tiger Warsaw,” under the Sony Pictures name. A working-class melodrama, it stars Patrick Swayze (“Dirty Dancing”), and doesn’t seem particularly embarrassing--unless you count the movie’s reception at the box office. In four weeks, the film has only grossed about $200,000.


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