“Hit and Run” is such a page-turner that it seems petty to quibble about the subtitle co-authors Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters chose for it: “How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood.”
It’s not that the book doesn’t deliver what the subtitle promises; it does, with the satisfying jolt of a front-end collision. It’s that the story the authors tell in their efficient, journalistic prose is larger than Guber and Peters. It’s about what Guber correctly called “the perception of power” and what happens when the only goal of power is laughing all the way to the bank.
Greed, it turns out, knows neither limit nor nationality. As Griffin and Masters turn over the rocks one by one to reveal what crawls beneath, it’s like a tour of the reptile tank at feeding time. You start hoping everybody will get what he or she deserves, but by the end your eyes roll heavenward, not in disbelief, but because golden parachutes blot out the rising sun. You want to man an anti-aircraft gun.
Is this fair? Is this nice? Maybe not, but it’s juicy as all get-out and persuasive to boot. Most of the big narrative events in “Hit and Run” are well-known. First was Sony’s $4.7-billion purchase (including debt assumption) of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, which included TriStar. Then there was the $200-million buyout of Guber-Peters Entertainment, such a money-drainer that one astonished and grateful stockholder was heard to exclaim, “Those people at Sony have to be the dumbest bastards that ever lived!” Finally, and most entertainingly, Steve Ross, head of Time-Warner, forced Sony to pony up another billion or so in cash and real estate so Warner could set Guber and Peters free and unload them on Sony. “Pearl Harbor Revenged,” one wag called it. Within five years Sony declared a loss of an additional $3.2 billion.
The authors are smart, no-nonsense journalists (Griffin was West Coast editor of Premiere magazine and Masters was with the Washington Post). They have written a book about victims on both sides of the Pacific, and a colorful cast of accomplices who helped subject Sony to what one studio head called “the most public screwing in the history of the movie business.”
Griffin and Masters intelligently assess Sony’s motivations in acquiring Columbia as a software supplier for its electronics hardware business. “Synergy” was the buzzword in Tokyo and was supposed to remove the sting of humiliation and losses Sony had suffered in its failure to make Betamax the world-standard video recorder format. With a software component to drive Betamax, all that might have gone differently, they thought.
Sony even showed some wisdom in deciding that its American studio acquisition should stay in American hands. The problem was that, through Sony’s earlier purchase of CBS Records, the hands they were in belonged to Walter Yetnikoff, the New York music mogul who was, according to Griffin and Masters, “staggering toward collapse from substance abuse.” Yetnikoff got detox and rehab; Sony got Guber and Peters.
Guber and Peters, brought in to manage the newly purchased studio, didn’t spring full-blown from some Yetnikoff delirium. Separately or together they had been involved with such well-regarded pictures as “Midnight Express,” “A Star Is Born,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Batman” and “Rain Man.” They were seldom accused of actually producing them, but this is no more novel in Hollywood than credit-grabbing, at which they also appear to have been expert. Guber had studio experience at the old Columbia, and Peters, Barbra Streisand’s former boyfriend, had business experience as well (as a hairdresser). Both had chutzpah, ambition and corporate experience in running Casablanca Record and FilmWorks and working with the Dutch at Polygram (with whom Sony would have been wise to have had a chat). Major careers in Hollywood have been built on less.
Griffin and Masters document all this clearly and convincingly. They are especially good on the Guber-Peters dynamic, which turned out to be the real synergy. They quote a former associate that “one is like a machine, the other is like an animal. One is mind and the other is heart. And that’s why they’re so good together.” Cher, who worked for them on “The Witches of Eastwick,” had a different view: “Jon Peters at least would scream and yell, and you knew what he was thinking. . . . Guber--you never knew what was going on with him. I mean, he’d just smile.”
Somebody else notes “Peter needs a bad guy around him,” which director Rob Cohen expands with “Jon completed Peter. . . . If you can have your surrogate, your alter ego, destroy everything in your path so that you can walk in on rose petals, that’s a great thing.”
There’s more. Like director George Miller’s description of Peters as “genuinely thought-disordered,” Guber’s “peculiar habit of blurting out his sexual proclivities in graphic detail to women he hardly knew,” Peters on the set of “Rain Man” asking Dustin Hoffman “Are you playing the retard or the other guy?” There’s the Guber-Peters joint therapy sessions complete with hand-holding and declarations of love (Guber to Peters: “I love you. . . . No, I don’t love you--I feel like I’m in love with you”) right after Guber has allowed Peters to be dumped from the company--just as he earlier allowed Neil Bogart to be dumped from Casablanca. (Peters had been around for that; wasn’t he paying attention?)
Heidi Fleiss makes a wan and haggard appearance, and there’s even an allegation about the current resident of the White House being “a full-service president” to the wife of a movie mogul in the Sony constellation--but you can look that up for yourself (page 358).
Schadenfreude and Hollywood being what they are, the hills will be alive with the sounds of quotes and gloats for months to come. And the quote of quotes comes from Guber himself, who--standing in the billion-dollar debris he left behind when Sony looked at the balance sheets and strapped him into a platinum parachute--says: “Right now, I’m only dealing with me.”
He and Peters had plenty of help and lots of people got rich. The executive “victims” wound up with huge settlements, winners of the “Sony Lotto,” as getting fired was called. Nor were filmmakers innocent of greed; Guber and Peters depended on that when making the lavish deals that brought creative A-listers to Sony. They liked using the Sony jets, too; they liked the snow-jobs at Guber’s place in Aspen; they liked the over-the-top deals and budgets and salaries; and most of them--not all--were willing to accept the abuses that came wrapped in money.
It would be easy to view the whole Sony saga with a jaundiced eye and just say that the Japanese chose wrong, got outmaneuvered by the Yetnikoff/Guber/Peters lawyers. There’s evidence for this, with the lawyers positioning Sony so that it “would have only itself to blame.” Even Yetnikoff knew that Sony “paid for part of this shtick and theatrical stuff.”
One wonders how vigorously Sony insisted on all those private jets or carloads of antiques to decorate the workplace or the est-like facilitator-assisted sessions to cheer everybody up and remind them there was a business to run. The larger problem, as the authors see it, is that in giving Guber and Peters what they call “the richest deal in entertainment industry history,” Sony “set off a round of inflation that eventually touched everyone: executives, actors, directors, agents.”
Sony’s motives in acquiring Columbia were not altruistic, and Sony’s chairman, Akio Morita, did not build an empire by being Little Red Riding Hood. Sony fell--as a lot of Hollywood did--for Guber’s “perception of power” riff, without asking what all that power was for. An unidentified director who survived the Guber regime puts it this way: “The real problem was that nobody ever had a vision for the kind of movies they wanted to make.” The book suggests that was never the point. The emperor’s new clothes were real; it was the emperor who wasn’t.
Despite the book’s excellence, there’s a problem with “Hit and Run.” I don’t recall ever reading a book so richly and rewardingly dependent on quotations with so many unnamed sources. The authors acknowledge that “dozens of sources, including many top executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment, talked to us on an anonymous basis.” Is this discretion or professional courtesy? Is Hollywood afraid to offend hit-and-run artists they may need again in some ghastly future? Are they preserving their own deniability? Worried about lawyers? Stay tuned.
Not every voice in the book is condemnatory, nor every vice unprecedented. Guber and Peters may, in the long run, be just an aberration and quickly forgotten. The danger is that “Hit and Run” may become a how-to primer for all the Sammy Glick wannabes underlining its pages even now, looking for role models.
Hollywood has always been full of vulgarians, scoundrels, opportunists and eager victims. That’s what makes it so much fun. The depressing part about “Hit and Run” is that hardly anybody in it seems to care about making anything but money. All those old-style villains liked making money, too, but they also liked telling stories and some of them were actually passionate about making movies.
“Hit and Run” would make a terrific one. If only Erich van Stroheim, director of “Greed,” hadn’t already preempted the only possible title.
“Hit and Run” is also available on two audiocassettes, abridged, from Simon & Schuster; $18.