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Hollywood's Dude

THE LATEST IN HOLLYWOOD IS golf lingo. Alpha male-of-the-moment Jeff Kwatinetz's priapic posse at The Firm incessantly use metaphors about "going into the bunker" to "tee up" another deal. The words represent a cultural marriage between the entertainment business and investment banking since Kwatinetz keeps growing his company by gobbling up other companies, from a defunct sneaker concern to Michael Ovitz's AMG. The problem is that his idols who run the media conglomerates (and who are playing Sun Valley's back nine during this week's Camp Allen investment conference) aren't making money anymore. Mergers and acquisitions are yesterday's news. And today? It's the product, stupid.

Or, in his case, it's supposed to be about the clients and their projects. But months of fighting off reporters asking drug questions is why Kwatinetz's former public-relations woman, Hayley Sumner, is now driving across country with her two dogs and reading to residents of Indian reservations. His new P.R.-meister, Howard Rubenstein, took over the task without even meeting Kwatinetz, whose office called in horror on June 27 to find out how to handle a Washington Post newswoman who had parked herself in the Beverly Hills lobby at 9100 Wilshire and declared she wasn't leaving until she'd seen The Firm's ruling "dude" (a word Kwatinetz uses every minute of every day). As tattooed and pierced mailroom guys stared wide-eyed, the reporter managed to hockey-check her quarry as he was getting into the elevator. Finally, Kwatinetz did sit for an interview, where he charmed her. But that Vanity Fair article branding him a drug-addled megalomaniac rankles.

"The last thing I want to look like," he complained to a caller, "is Walter Yetnikoff standing on desks, screaming at people, doing lots of coke."

Talk about a flashback. It was certainly the week for it, and Sony -- what with Michael Jackson, Tommy Mottola, Peter Guber, even onetime samurai Michael Ovitz, back in the media maelstrom. The movie studio itself is already on target this year to top $1 billion in domestic movie ticket sales, and closing in quickly on the $1.27 billion record which Mark Canton's slate of Sony pictures earned in 1997, a record that still stands today (though was narrowly missed by Warner Bros. last year thanks to Harry Potter). But for those without institutional memory, Yetnikoff was the onetime record hit man who, it can be said, single-handedly started the entertainment industry's Generation X string of takeovers.

An unlikely Japanese consultant, the hard-drinking, cocaine-snorting Yetnikoff had a relationship with Sony that went back 20 years. Like Kwatinetz, he was a lawyer with hot acts; what Korn and Limp Bizkit are to Kwatinetz now, so Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson were to Yetnikoff.

By the fall of 1989, Yetnikoff helped engineer Sony's deal for Columbia and convince it to hire Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run the studio. Long before today's outrageous corporate compensation became a subject of SEC and congressional concern, Sony willingly forked over between $800 million and $1 billion to land them. How over is that? Today, Vivendi Universal's Jean-Marie Messier is forced out without so much as a golden reserve parachute. As for Guber and Peters, they went from being all about product to being all about the deal, especially dealing for themselves -- and they failed. Now comes news that Guber's Mandalay production company is deep-sixed at Paramount and going it alone. Instead of conjuring up a new book about The Biz with Peter Bart, Guber needs to rewrite the movie magic that made him a mogul in the first place.

NOW, AFTER YEARS OF GARGANTUAN spending under previous managements and, yes, also the current one (Godzilla, anyone?), Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) has finally got it right. Did it take any special genius to do it? Well, John Calley and Amy Pascal decided, in the face of two possible strikes, and unlike the other studio heads, to effectively skip summer 2001's moviemaking and concentrate on this summer's slate instead. So they planned a schedule to release shoulder-to-shoulder four tent-pole films (including two sequels): Spider-Man on May 3, Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds on June 21, Men in Black II on July 3 and Stuart Little II on July 19.

To pack an even bigger punch profitwise, Sony speeded up the dubbing and subtitling process so it could simultaneously release all four pictures globally in May, June and July (thus eliminating a lag of from four months in Europe to a year in Japan). Not only does this mark the first time any studio has tried this, but the worldwide receipts could make any Sony spinoff of SPE to ease its Japanese banking crunch that much more lucrative. But it only happened when the product became more important than the public offering.

And that's the lesson to be learned. Over the next 20 years, the corporate owners of Hollywood studios will undoubtedly change, but the scenario will remain the same: the nonstop sucking sound of studios gasping for air as parent companies scramble to meet the unrealistic financial goals of Wall Street and their shareholders. Making movies and media is not the same as making mergers. Entertaining or informing the public isn't as predictable as a bell curve. Or, in The Firm's parlance, forget a hole in one. Just keep your eye on the ball.