The Dance at TriStar: Who Is Leading? : Movies: Hollywood wags interpret the interest of Peter Guber as a vote of no-confidence in Mike Medavoy.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber has taken on an unusual new executive duty--creative spark plug at the company's troubled TriStar Pictures.

And in Hollywood, where studio politics--who's up, down, in or out--is a spectator sport, some observers take Guber's involvement as a public vote of no-confidence in TriStar Chairman Mike Medavoy.

A former producer who turned out hits like "Batman" and "Rain Man," Guber has, for the last few months, taken an active role in everything from soundtracks to film editing to ad campaigns.

Medavoy acknowledges that Guber is more of a factor these days, but says he's not troubled by it. He insists that he initiated the move and that he's not being shunted aside.

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"The big issue is whether my authority is eroded," says the 52-year-old Medavoy. "The perception is yes, but the reality is no. Peter didn't come in like a bull in a china shop. I invited him in and am comfortable with his presence. Those who know me know I'm a fairly strong personality. I'm not about to have someone dictate to me."

According to Medavoy, he first asked Guber for help late last year on the action-adventure film "Sniper," which he termed "unreleasable." Sources close to the studio say that Guber not only offered editing ideas but suggested ways to make the lead character more menacing. Guber and Medavoy deny that he made such a proposal.

Differing accounts are also given of the CEO's role in "Mr. Jones" starring Richard Gere and Lena Olin. Medavoy maintains that he and Guber were in agreement on how to solve the movie's structural problems and unsatisfying ending. Insiders say Guber forced certain changes after viewing the film at a screening.

On "Frankenstein," an expensive epic in which the monster role has been offered to Robert De Niro, the CEO has submitted extensive script notes. During a corporate trip to New York, Guber also sat in on a creative meeting with director Kenneth Branagh.

Guber was even more animated than usual after a screening of Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle," a romantic comedy with great word-of-mouth. "Does the movie have an important song to help it along?" he inquired of Medavoy. If not, wait and push the release back to June, he said.

Guber, for his part, publicly distances himself from the action, insisting that his involvement is both solicited and selective. Not only is it unbecoming to appear to be hovering, but layers of insulation can be strategically valuable. "Peter is quite concerned about the impression that he's running TriStar," says Medavoy.

Though the CEO attends monthly briefings on both marketing and production, day-to-day decision-making in those arenas, he says, is not his domain. He considers going to screenings of final cuts of almost every Columbia, TriStar and Sony Pictures Classics film part of his job.

"I'm not trying to use the tools at my disposal to dig myself in," Guber asserts. "I was head of Columbia in 1972 and would be the doofus of all time to go back to that job. But I'd be equally doofus--that's a combination of foolish and dumb--not to employ the talent and energy I used for 17 years for the benefit of the company."

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Guber and Medavoy, both non-confrontational types, call themselves "friends." But professional strains have taken a toll. During 1992, with only nine films in release, TriStar's domestic box-office share dropped to 6.6% from 10.9% the previous year. Compounding the problem was a marked lack of product in the development pipeline. In light of the Japanese recession and mounting competition on the hardware front, there's concern that Sony, who purchased the studio for $3.4 billion in 1989, wants a greater return on its investment.

"Peter's on an aggressive campaign to show Sony how successful he is," notes one former TriStar executive. "That's why he's stepping in to fill the void."

Medavoy, lighting up a cigar in his wood-paneled office on the Sony lot, says that the company--bolstered by the success of Carolco's "Basic Instinct" and "Hook" in the foreign market--turned a profit in 1992. Still, he concedes, the year was a "less than good" one.

The problems, he says, were threefold: The fiscal crash of Carolco, an independent production company that had provided the studio with three or four commercial films annually; the inability of the TriStar development department to generate strong material; and a major housecleaning in the top executive ranks that brought about a creative lag time and shifting professional allegiances.

In December, Medavoy met several times with the Sony top brass, addressing not only the state of the studio but speculation that, despite the two years remaining on his contract, his days were numbered.

"In 1992, TriStar did underperform both its budget and expectations," Guber acknowledges, "and Mike was disturbed that his performance wasn't up to snuff. Falling down doesn't make you a failure, though--and we're supporting Mike as he picks himself up."

The beleaguered studio chief received a much-needed boost on Dec. 14 when he was honored by the Motion Picture Pioneer Awards dinner. Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Michelle Pfeiffer joined him at the head table. Politicos such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and a former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton sent their best wishes on film. "The joke going around is that Medavoy is the only studio chief to be saved by an election," remarks one observer.

Guber, a lifelong Republican who contributed heavily to Clinton (even serving as a guide on the inaugural press bus), notes that Medavoy isn't Sony's only ally in the White House.

"What difference does it make, anyway?" he queries. "If Mike was Al Gore's brother, it wouldn't assure him of his position if he didn't produce good films."

More significant in the long run, says Medavoy, is the slate of TriStar's upcoming releases and projects in development, announced in early February--the first public disclosure of studio plans since 1990. "The public perception is that we've turned the corner," he says with visible relief. "Our engines are revved up."

Those close to the operation call that assessment premature. "Most projects in development are without scripts," says one. "Many were brought in before Medavoy arrived. A lot of directors attach themselves to a lot of things all over town but the commitments are very flimsy. Medavoy's announcement was perceived as a desperation move to give the appearance of activity."

A much ballyhooed Streisand project, "The Mirror Has Two Faces," is a case in point. Scheduled to go into production in early summer, it has been pushed back in the absence of a director and co-star.

TriStar also gained attention when it announced that Steven Spielberg would direct a remake of "Zorro." In reality, the megadirector only agreed to serve as executive producer, with Mikael Salomon ("A Far Off Place") in all likelihood taking the reins. Spielberg was said to be furious about the misrepresentation and called Medavoy to tell him so. Medavoy said that before announcing Spielberg's involvement he cleared it with the director. "I was under the impression he was going to direct," says the studio chief. "He never said, 'No.' "

Such controversy notwithstanding, colleagues say Medavoy seems happier these days, with bright spots such as "Sleepless in Seattle," the Sylvester Stallone thriller "Cliffhanger," and Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama "Philadelphia" on the horizon. And, for the first time in ages, the conventional wisdom has him sticking around for a while. Sony, the reasoning now goes, is unlikely to dole out more expensive and embarrassing payouts such as those received by Sony co-chairman Jon Peters and former Columbia chief Frank Price. And Medavoy is unlikely to walk away without one.

Medavoy has a "non-interference" clause in his contract and maintains that, thus far, it hasn't been violated. Some in the industry agree.

"Sony didn't hire Peter for his financial acumen and strategic thinking," says one high-powered film executive. "He's essentially a producer, a ball of fire whose strength is focusing a story and finding a marketing hook. Some may call it harassment. I call it doing his job."

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