By DAN TURNER
Alan Levine and Mark Canton of Sony Pictures Entertainment are having their best year ever at the box office.
There’s just one small hitch: Both men were fired last fall.
Levine, former president of Sony Pictures, and Canton, former chairman of Sony-owned Columbia-TriStar Motion Picture Cos., suffered years of box office failure during their tenure with Sony culminating with Canton’s ouster last September, and Levine’s two weeks later.
But in one of those ironic twists that somehow seem more common in Hollywood than anywhere else, Canton and Levine are suddenly looking like motion picture gurus. Sony is dominating the major studios in box office market share, and on April 6 it broke an industry record by reaching the $300 million mark earlier in the year than any studio in Hollywood history.
Because it typically takes about 18 months from the time a movie starts the development process to the time it is released, Sony’s recent box office success can’t really be attributed to its new management under new Sony Pictures President John Calley.
All the Sony films in current release were developed under Canton and Levine; in fact, nearly every picture the studio will release in 1997 was developed by the two former executives.
Hollywood executives didn’t seem very surprised over the turn of events.
“The same people who can make a group of successful pictures can also make a group of pictures that all fail. There are no perpetual geniuses in this business,” said Sidney Sheinberg, former president of Universal Studios Inc. and now partner with his two sons in the production company The Bubble Factory.
Sony’s strong record at the box office so far stems at least partially from the fact that it has so many movies currently in release. But its 18 films actually ties the number of current releases from Buena Vista Pictures Distribution (Walt Disney Co.’s distribution arm), which is running fourth in overall market share, according to Beverly Hills-based box office tracking firm Entertainment Data Inc.
“I’ve got to admit, market share only goes so far,” said Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing (the studio’s distribution arm). “It’s all about whether each individual picture is profitable. But we’ve had a string of very successful pictures this year.”
Of the year’s 15 top-grossing films, Sony distributed four, led by “Jerry Maguire,” which made $65.2 million between Jan. 6 and April 13 and has grossed over $148 million since its release last fall.
Other strong Sony-distributed pictures include “Absolute Power,” “Donnie Brasco” and “The Devil’s Own,” according to Tom Borys, EDI’s senior vice president.
To top it off, Sony’s “Anaconda” which was savaged by critics around the country was the highest-grossing film of the April 11-13 weekend, making an estimated $16.5 million.
Of course, Sony’s recent hits are no guarantee that the much-maligned studio will finish with a strong year. The first quarter is traditionally the weakest period in the movie business, and the real bragging rights won’t be doled out until after the studios release their blockbusters this summer.
Analysts say Sony’s performance so far probably isn’t causing anyone in Tokyo to regret last year’s decision to remove Levine and Canton.
“The true story is, the old regime blew an awful lot of money, too,” said research director Arthur Rockwell with Yaeger Capital Markets. “And I think there is still a lot of nervousness about the big-budget stuff (developed by Levine and Canton) that is still to come.”
Two of those big-budget pictures are Sony’s effects-laden science fiction/action movies, “Men in Black” (scheduled for release July 2) and “Starship Troopers” (which will hit screens Nov. 7). Of particular concern, Rockwell said, is “Starship Troopers,” which reportedly has had serious budget overruns and is believed to have cost more than $100 million to produce.
Rockwell said Calley also deserves some of the credit for the performance of the current slate of pictures, because their marketing campaigns were handled by the new regime.
“I think the marketing was definitely a factor in the success of ‘Anaconda.’ It certainly wasn’t Jon Voight’s dialog,” Rockwell said.
Blake believes this year’s slate is the strongest he has seen in his five-year career at Sony, and has particularly high hopes for this summer’s Julia Roberts romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” which he believes will attract strong attendance from women in the midst of all the action pictures that will surround it.
Meanwhile, he admitted that Levine and Canton played a strong role in this year’s success.
“I think John Calley would be the first one to tell you that Mark Canton and his team deserve a lot of credit,” Blake said.
Little has been heard from Canton and Levine since their ouster, and neither could be reached for comment last week.
Calley, the former president of United Artists Pictures, has been busy since taking over the reins at Sony six months ago. After replacing several of the company’s senior executives, he made the controversial move of shuttering Sony’s low-budget film production arm, Triumph Films, earlier this month.
Calley told reporters that the move was a strategic decision and not based on Triumph’s performance. The division has produced a few successes, such as “Sidekicks” and “Jury Duty,” but has also been responsible for flops like “Screamers” and “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday.” Some observers were critical of the decision to close the unit.
“I think (dismantling Triumph) is a mistake,” said Christopher Barrett, president of Metropolitan Talent Agency. “I would build that into another Gramercy (Pictures). I recently read that Miramax (Film Corp.) is worth about $1 billion, and I seem to remember that Disney paid something like $75 million for it four years ago. I think that’s a good buy.”
Sony isn’t the only big studio that is smiling about first quarter results. The overall box office was $1.69 billion through April 13, an 18.6 percent increase over the same period last year, according to EDI.
“You’ve got some really strong-performing films out there,” said Borys with EDI. “The ‘Star Wars’ trilogy in particular has done an amazing amount of business.”
The three “Star Wars” films have grossed in excess of $300 million for 20th Century Fox. Meanwhile, “Liar Liar” from Universal Pictures raked in over $120 million after only three weeks of release and is showing little sign of slowing.