Company Town : Sony Lot Suddenly Breathing Easier


Last week, the biggest collective sigh of relief since “Legends of the Fall” generated decent box office numbers in January was heard coming from the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot in Culver City.

The reason was that “software-friendly” Nobuyuki Idei, 57, was pulled out of the depths of parent Sony Corp.’s management ranks, vaulting over 11 other executives to be named president and chief operating officer of the Tokyo-based electronics and entertainment giant. He’s also the clear heir apparent to Sony Chairman Norio Ohga after a slow transition that could take one to two years.

To say that the people in Sony’s much-maligned entertainment sector were relieved that the dark horse Idei was tapped is about like saying that the company would rather do another Brad Pitt movie than “Road to Wellville II.”


The fear all along had been that the position might go to one of Sony’s hardware technocrats, many of whom are said to be skeptical about the electronics company’s stumbling efforts at blending its electronics business with movies, television and music. All told, Sony is estimated to have sunk about $6 billion to $7 billion into building an entertainment business since 1989.

More important, Idei has been a frequent visitor to the Sony lot, and he knows a number of Sony’s entertainment executives. He is also on record as saying he believes in the mixing of electronics and entertainment, and that he realizes that it could take a long time--maybe three years--to fix things. Idei’s other strengths include a cosmopolitan style and the facts that he puts a high priority on improving the company’s battered image and is one of the few top Sony executives who speaks excellent English.

Some people close to Sony, however, caution that company executives might want to contain their glee for the moment. They suggest that it could be months before firm signals come from Tokyo as to what will happen, adding that Sony’s hard-liners haven’t disappeared from the scene and still need to be won over.

Others suggest Idei’s appointment may mean that Tokyo could take a much more hands-on role in the running of the studio operations, rather than go through layers of executives and Sony’s top American executive, Michael P. Schulhof, as the company has done the past. Idei’s English skills could play a major role.

“Idei can pick up the phone, call the studio and say, ‘Should we really be making this $50-million movie?’ ” one executive close to Sony said. In other words, it could be less likely that Sony will be blindsided by a “Last Action Hero” or “I’ll Do Anything” debacle.

Sony executives say privately that they expect Idei to be an even more frequent visitor to the lot.


Still, it’s clear that for Sony executives, Idei’s appointment was the best of all scenarios. Within hours of the news, Schulhof, who has been under the gun in the wake of a $2.7-billion write-off on Sony’s movie business last fall as well as a $510-million operating loss, circulated an in-house memo that hardly concealed his joy.

Schulhof said in the memo that the appointment will “reaffirm Sony’s strategic vision to be a fully integrated electronics and entertainment company, powerfully positioned for the future.” He further said that Idei has been “our colleague and friend for many years and has been fully involved in the evolution of all of our businesses.”

Until Disney’s troubles exploded last summer, Sony had been Hollywood’s main soap opera. The company has been plagued by rumors that it may be sold or gutted, or that a housecleaning is in the works at its movie operations following some big disappointments last year that included “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Rumors have been particularly strong that the movie business, led by Columbia-TriStar Pictures Chairman Mark Canton, will be overhauled soon, something Sony executives strongly deny.

Skeptics note that this same Sony consistently denied talk that executives such as Mike Medavoy and Peter Guber were departing practically up until the time the moving vans pulled into the parking lot. Sony also has yet to clearly define to Hollywood the mission of Jeffrey Sagansky, the former top CBS executive who was brought in under Schulhof last year as a strategy specialist but who is clearly taking an increasingly active role in the studio business.

The film executives’ reaction of glee is to be expected. Sending out signals of calm is critical to any Hollywood company that wants to assure talent, producers and agents that things are stable.

If nothing else, the events surrounding the Sony announcement--as well as the current tensions between MCA and parent Matsushita Electric Industrial--show that six years after Japan made a splashy entrance into Hollywood, the entertainment community is still struggling to figure things out.



Family fare? Here’s further evidence that Hollywood continues to stretch the definition of what it considers “family” entertainment.

One of the three nominees in the favorite movie category for the upcoming Nickelodeon “Kids’s Choice” awards show sponsored by the cable network aimed at children is a movie that no one under 17 is allowed to watch unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The movie is “Speed,” which got an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America for violence and language. Also nominated were the film’s stars, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

A spokeswoman noted that kids can attend the movie with their parents and that it is out on video. “Kids love Keanu Reeves,” she said.

For the record, the other two nominees are the G-rated “The Lion King” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which had a PG-13 rating.