The promotional posters for Paramount Pictures' next movie, "Funny About Love," feature a big clock and the words: "Tick, tick, tick . . ."
It's supposed to be the sound of Gene Wilder's body clock. But Hollywood is abuzz with speculation that time is also running out for Paramount's troubled lineup of film executives.
For several weeks, Paramount insiders and others who deal closely with the company have watched what many are calling a classic power struggle between Co-President Sidney Ganis, the company's chief film production officer, and David Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick joined Paramount from Disney as executive vice president of the film group in July. The studio, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.
As the insiders tell it, however, Kirkpatrick quickly spread the word last month among key producers and agents in Hollywood's tightly knit creative community that he is assuming much responsibility for filmmaking, under a mandate from studio Chairman Frank Mancuso. Ganis tried to draw the line, counting on support from some filmmakers as powerful as Francis Ford Coppola, whose "The Godfather, Part III," is set for release Nov. 21 by Paramount.
The resulting standoff has muddled the studio's lines of authority and created unwanted distractions as the company heads toward the conclusion of a year that has brought a roller coaster ride of hits as big as "Ghost" and misses as embarrassing as "The Two Jakes."
The turmoil, coming amid what appears to be a banner year at the box office for Paramount, also highlights the peculiarity of big studio economics, in which big grosses don't necessarily mean big profits.
Paramount ranks No. 2 among the studios so far this year, just behind Walt Disney Co., with more than 13% of total ticket sales. "The Hunt for Red October" was a major hit, with over $120 million in sales since it opened last March. And "Ghost," with over $133 million in sales to date, has been the biggest grossing film of the summer season.
But the bottom line in Paramount's film division softened as big-budget pictures such as "Days of Thunder," "Another 48 Hours" and "The Two Jakes" came in below expectations.
Paramount doesn't separate film and television results. According to a quarterly report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week, however, entertainment division profit dipped 4% to $55.1 million for the quarter ended July 31, even though TV results were up.
According to the report, the company took unspecified writeoffs for both "The Two Jakes," which was a box-office disaster, and "Days of Thunder," which grossed a seemingly respectable $80 million but apparently cost too much to turn a profit.
The mixed results have led to some intense positioning over credit and blame for the films--an exercise that has been complicated by Paramount's unusually collegial executive structure.
Ned Tanen, a 59-year-old former studio president who remains on the lot as a consultant, clearly gets much credit for "Hunt."
He bought the Tom Clancy novel for the studio and then saw the picture through some hair-raising post-production problems with its complex submarine special effects.
But Tanen also bears responsibility for putting together "Another 48 Hours," a big-budget movie that didn't do as well as expected, and "Days of Thunder," for which Tanen, a race-car buff, was a major advocate.
Ganis, meanwhile, appears to get the lion's share of credit for "Ghost," a movie he backed heavily from its inception.
"He deserves a lot of points on that project for his enthusiasm and support," says David Nicksay, a former Paramount senior vice president who is now president of Morgan Creek Productions.
Still, Ganis was also responsible for "Crazy People," which disappeared quickly at the box office. And he's had his problems with Eddie Murphy, who has made no secret of his intention to leave Paramount when his current contract is up, and with producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who are said to be unhappy about executive confusion at the company.
Ganis, a likable 49-year-old, has been something of an outsider in Hollywood, having spent the early 1980s working as an aide to filmmaker George Lucas on his Marin County ranch.
According to one Paramount insider, Ganis, who came to the studio as marketing chief in 1986, got off to a rough start when he took the co-presidency two years ago because he was instructed by Mancuso to hang tough with producers and agents, in the face of spiraling demands for big salaries and rich perks. "He was told not to deal with the agents," the insider said. (Marketing and distribution head Barry London is the other co-president.)
Kirkpatrick, 37, is a consummate insider. He previously oversaw an ill-fated film slate for the tottering Weintraub Entertainment Group and, during an earlier stint at Paramount, was largely responsible for the studio's relationship with Eddie Murphy.
Supposedly, Kirkpatrick was ordered to patch up Paramount's relations with the creative community.
But at least one rival executive believes that Kirkpatrick may have overreached a bit in executing his mission.
"David's a superb executive, and I love him. But I think he's gone too far, and it may backfire on him. Sid is becoming a martyr. Everybody's talking about it," the executive said.
The matter was further complicated when Disney sued Kirkpatrick a week ago, claiming that he had violated a contractual release by trying to raid film projects and executives from Disney. An attorney for the executive strongly denied the claims, and Paramount has said it would defend him.
Ganis, meanwhile, is said to have been wooed by Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures Entertainment unit and has had to fight a tide of speculation that he might be forced to leave Paramount.
But several executives contend that the studio, thanks to the success of "Ghost," might be reluctant to let him go, despite Kirkpatrick's arrival. Paramount also has high expectations for "Godfather III," a key Ganis/Mancuso project that Coppola says is currently budgeted at about $51 million. Despite rumors of delays, studio officials say the film is still scheduled to open in time for Christmas crowds and Academy Award consideration.
Apparently, big hits didn't figure in the betting when the executive shuffle started two months ago. In the words of one Paramount insider: "Nobody counted on being No. 1."