The Plot Twist: Canton Wins New Praise


While mingling at the premiere of mega-hit “Men in Black,” Sony Pictures chief John Calley had a ready quip for why the studio he’s headed for just eight months is on such a roll at the box office.

“Choose your predecessors wisely,” Calley said. “That’s what I always say.”

A few feet away, predecessor Mark Canton was attending his first Sony premiere since being dumped last September as head of the studio’s then-struggling Columbia-TriStar movie units. In a drawn-out public spectacle, Canton was fired on the heels of a long box-office slump with such films as “Multiplicity” and “The Cable Guy” and just before a remarkable roll that began with “Jerry Maguire” and continues with “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Men in Black.”


It was an awkward moment at the Cinerama Dome for Canton and Calley, as well as for the scores of producers, agents and studio executives whose loyalties lie somewhere between the two men.

Once the quintessential Hollywood player, Canton has been scarce at industry events, not for lack of invitations but to avoid such discomfort. While driving to the premiere of “Jerry Maguire” last December with his producer wife, Wendy Finerman, Canton got cold feet and turned his car around, heading instead to Jerry’s Deli for a turkey and pastrami sandwich. They were also last-minute no-shows at the Oscars, the first time Canton missed the event in 20 years. The transition from insider to outsider has been humbling, he says.

“It’s always weird when people come over to you all the time and say, ‘Are you OK?’ It’s the weirdest thing. I get asked that a lot,” Canton said in his first lengthy chat with the press since his ouster.

“For three months, I had no idea what was going on. I would go play golf . . . and there were days I would go to the Coffee Bean on the way to the Riviera [Country Club in Pacific Palisades] and I would feel totally lost.”

His state of mind today is dramatically different.

In the last few weeks, between the success of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Men in Black,” many of the same people who once trashed him are making congratulatory calls and various job proposals.

Just as a handful of hit films have turned Sony’s status from dismal to phenomenal, so too has Canton’s stature and public image begun a rehabilitation of sorts.

His comeback is one of the most unusual of all. For the five years he headed the studio, Canton was Hollywood’s punching bag, ridiculed by insiders and the entertainment press as an Armani-clad Dan Quayle--shallow, star-struck and clueless about running a business.

“What’s fair is fair,” said mogul David Geffen. “If we’re going to give him credit for all of the things that went wrong, how can you not give him credit for what went right? It turns out Mark did a great job. If they had let him stay one more year, he would have been considered a genius.”

Or, as Canton tells of how one filmmaker described it this week: “You’ve had a year like Forrest Gump. You’ve been both an idiot and a genius in the same year.”

Ironically, the executive who ran the two studios boasting of this year’s hottest films is currently unemployed.

“Self-employed,” Canton corrects. These days, he works out of a sparsely furnished temporary office 16 floors above Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood with two employees. He’s currently trying to round up money and partners for a production venture to make two or three movies a year. Another possibility is teaming up with producer pal Jon Peters.

Both Canton’s and Sony’s turnabouts say a lot about how quickly fortunes and perceptions can flip-flop in Hollywood. Last summer, Sony was the industry’s laughingstock. Canton was vilified for paying Jim Carrey $20 million for “The Cable Guy.” In 1994, Tokyo-based parent Sony Corp. posted a $3.2-billion loss on its film operation.

Buoyed by Sony’s current hot streak, which also includes the surprise hit “Anaconda” and the upcoming anticipated hits “Air Force One” and “Starship Troopers,” Canton, 48, agreed to talk, although with limits.

His settlement with Sony--valued somewhere between $10 million and more than $20 million, depending on whom you believe--includes a gag order prohibiting him from discussing specifics about the studio or its executives. He is said by friends to still be hurt and bitter.

He clearly relishes the fact that Sony this year has such a box-office lead--its market share is 21.6%--and that it might well set a record for total domestic gross, with its current take exceeding $650 million.

“It’s not that I feel vindicated,” Canton said. “I feel reassured again about my own abilities, whatever they may be.” He likes to think the work now speaks for itself.

“Honestly, I felt I had lost confidence,” Canton conceded. “I thought maybe I’m no good at this. Because, remember, there had been a year or two before where the press, including yourselves, was doubting whether I was talented. ‘He’s got a big mouth. He wears Armani suits,’ ” Canton said. He admits, however, that his biggest problem was more basic: “The movies weren’t working.”

To hear Canton tell it, these days he spends much of his time fielding congratulatory calls from such stars as Jack Nicholson and Will Smith and other industry heavyweights, some of whom have backpedaled after having been among his worst critics. He also still keeps score, readily rolling off the names of actors, directors, producers, agents and executives who graciously call him and lamenting those who haven’t.

He also is smarting from slights others might find trivial, such as not being invited to the premiere of the recent Sony release “Buddy,” produced by Jim Henson Pictures, a company he helped recruit to Sony. People close to Canton also say he was crushed when a nervous Tom Cruise thanked Calley but not Canton as he accepted a Golden Globe award for “Jerry Maguire.”

Nor has Calley and his new management team gone out of its way to publicly acknowledge Canton’s role in the studio’s current box-office run. Still, Canton says Sony’s success has boosted his own self-confidence to the point where he feels accepted and respected again.

“Obviously, the recent hits have changed some opinions,” says veteran Columbia producer Ray Stark. “It’s unfortunate for him that ‘Men in Black,’ ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ and ‘Anaconda’ didn’t come out while he was still at the studio.”

Still, there are the cynics who argue that the studio’s streak may have more to do with luck and the laws of probability than anything else.

“For him, like so many of us, success and failure are an inch away from each other,” says one former Sony colleague. “If you make enough pictures over a period of time, you’ll get some success.”

As usually happens in Hollywood when success strikes, Sony’s hits touched off a scramble of executives tripping over one another to grab credit. They see irony in the fact that Canton, who as head of the studio was known for being quick to credit himself for successful movies he was marginally involved with, is getting a comeuppance by not getting full credit for Sony’s new hits.

“His two big failings were that he had a big ego and he wanted acknowledgment all the time. And he didn’t give enough credit to other people. So a lot of what is happening now to him is what he did to others,” a top studio executive and close friend says.

Canton, however, says: “I have never, ever not given credit.” He used the word “architect” to describe his role in assembling a program of films, and says he readily praised executives who helped put the slate together.

These days, Canton seems more willing to share credit, acknowledging such former colleagues as TriStar chiefs Marc Platt and Stacy Snyder and Columbia executives Barry Josephson and Lisa Henson.

What he does own up to is a tendency to shoot off his mouth when not appropriate.

“Maybe I had too much bravado, and in a way maybe I came across as arrogant,” Canton says.

Of his reputation for bragging about projects, he says, “Well, I always figured I’d let it hang out a little.”

His eternally gushy enthusiasm got him labeled by Hollywood as an undiscriminating cheerleader. Said one studio chief: “He never saw a bad movie he didn’t like.”

Others, however, applaud him for such unshakable enthusiasm.

“Mark is an incredibly positive, enthusiastic and entirely decent individual who is totally in love with and committed to the motion picture business. A positive attitude is especially important in a business where you fail 60% of the time,” said Viacom Entertainment Group Chairman and former colleague Jonathan Dolgen.

Canton’s firing followed one of the most tumultuous reigns any studio head has endured. Recruited by former Sony heads Peter Guber and Peters, Canton entered a studio mired in politics and infested with executives continually jockeying for position.

“There were too many huge personal dramas being played out. It was more about kings and princes than about movies,” said director James L. Brooks, producer of “Jerry Maguire” and Sony’s upcoming Christmas movie “Old Friends,” with Nicholson and Helen Hunt.

Guber and Peters were booted out, leaving Canton at odds with their successor, President Alan Levine. Sources close to Canton say Levine ultimately did the studio chief in to try to save his own job. Those in Levine’s corner dispute that, saying Sony Corp. chief Nobuyuki Idei was fed up with Canton and ordered his firing. Levine was forced out weeks after firing Canton.

Canton landed at Sony after working as a top production executive at Warner Bros. for 11 years, where he was associated with such hits as the “Batman” and “Lethal Weapon” series. A native New Yorker, he grew up in the business, the son of publicist Arthur Canton, whose clients included directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean.

Canton, who at Sony occupied the office that had belonged to Hollywood legend Irving Thalberg, was giddy with excitement at meeting the stars and directors whose names were on his phone sheet. He even boasted to colleagues that the last four digits of his extension, “7100,” came before Guber’s “7200” extension and Peters’ “7300.”

Ironically, Canton found himself in a situation similar to Calley’s today. Just as Calley is riding high on films that predated him, Canton reaped praise for hits set in motion by his predecessor, Frank Price, such as “A League of Their Own” and “Groundhog Day.”

In his first year on the job, he engendered positive press. But the honeymoon ended with the 1993 debacle of the costly “Last Action Hero,” a muddled Arnold Schwarzenegger action comedy that Canton over-hyped and that underscored Hollywood’s over- indulgence of big stars.

“Mark was criticized for movies any studio would have made,” says friend and Universal Studios Inc. President Ron Meyer, who noted: “Everyone was envious that he put ‘Last Action Hero’ together. It looked like a great move at the time.”

Hollywood is still abuzz with stories about the infamous Canton era at Sony, as well as about his big payoff. He recalls being asked, while lunching at The Grill, a mogul hangout in Beverly Hills, “How does it feel to be so wealthy?”

Canton’s pain has obviously been cushioned by the millions he received. Now, he says, he wants to move on.

“You live like it’s going to last forever, and it doesn’t.”