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Power Brokers Merger Of Media Titans Worries Some Film Makers

The more power show business executives amass, the more they typically interfere. The challenge for the mighty leaders of the merged Turner-Warner Bros. studios is to learn to butt out.

Time Warner Inc.’s pending takeover of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. will yield the world’s largest media conglomerate, a sprawling movie production stable capable of annually turning out up to 70 movies - far more than any existing studio.

With such vast output, however, comes the very real risk of micromanaging the subsidiary film businesses into oblivion, as was nearly the case at Sony Pictures. Unlike the rest of corporate America, obvious duplication - even face-to-face competition between sister companies - can make sense in Hollywood: It’s more mines digging for gold.

Turner already owns four film units - New Line Cinema (“Seven,” “The Mask”), Castle Rock Entertainment (“In the Line of Fire,” “A Few Good Men”), Fine Line Features (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Player”) and Turner Pictures (“Gettysburg,” “Angus”).

Warner Bros., consistently among the market share leaders of all studios, is on track to release 25 movies this year. The Warner films range from “The Bridges of Madison County” to “Batman Forever” to the upcoming “Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls.”

When the merger is completed in several months, Ted Turner and Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin will face several critical decisions. Among them: Should the separate film units, all fighting to court the same moviegoers, be left alone or merged under one giant production-marketing-distribution umbrella?

The heads of the affected studios, all of whom say they support the merger, want to continue operating as they have been - as independent entrepreneurs, not lost cogs in some giant wheel. “We expect to maintain the autonomy that makes the best business sense,” says New Line Chairman Robert Shaye.

New Line, like Castle Rock, has thrived as a self-ruling creative enterprise. From its early origins as a brash exploitation house (the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films), New Line now makes an eclectic mix of low-budget genre films and multimillion dollar star packages. The former home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lists Demi Moore, Brad Pitt, Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis, Geena Davis and Julia Roberts on its current talent roster.

If New Line’s two dozen annual films are more concept-driven, Castle Rock’s movies are more director-oriented. One of Castle Rock’s founders is the director Rob Reiner (maker of the company’s highly touted upcoming release “The American President”). Even when Castle Rock misses - as it did with director John Boorman’s “Beyond Rangoon” - it fails by aiming too high, not too low.

Castle Rock’s 12 films a year are now distributed by Columbia Pictures in a deal that expires in December 1997. It’s unclear if New Line or Warner Bros. will distribute Castle Rock’s films after that, since Castle Rock has no distribution apparatus of its own.

Alan Horn, Castle Rock’s chairman, says he is confident whoever ends up sending Castle Rock’s films into theaters, he and his colleagues will be free to make the movies they want to make, as they want to make them.

“I have been assured by Gerald Levin and Ted Turner that everyone will come out of this pleased and happy,” says Horn, who is not convinced combining all the sister companies makes sense. “There are obvious efficiencies, but there is no inefficiency with having two distribution entities.”

Just as a soap company can make both Dove and Ivory, the Turner-Warner giant may not suffer with so many cooks in its Hollywood kitchen. The odds of spitting out hit films are increased when more people are making critical creative decisions.

And while the merged companies pledge to not bid against each other for the same scripts, a little friendly competition may help: It keeps everyone hungry.

“We are competitive people and we want to win,” Horn says.

If Turner-Warner puts all of its decision-making power in just a few people’s hands, it risks repeating the Sony debacle, especially if the person in charge has no commercial touch.

Under the failed direction of Peter Guber, Sony Corp.’s Columbia and TriStar studios lumbered through the 1990s with a top-heavy roster of high-paid executives. The Columbia and TriStar studios theoretically operated independently of each other, but their expensive film slates were strikingly similar - and equally rejected by moviegoers.

Guber has left the company, but not before Sony took a staggering $2.7 billion write-off.

As the newest member of the Turner-Time Warner family, Turner Pictures has the most to prove. The upstart company’s name has been attached to only two movies so far - 1993’s “Gettysburg” and this fall’s disappointing “Angus.”

In less than a year under new President Amy Pascal, Turner has developed an ambitious production slate, heavy on stars and big-name directors. Two films should be released next year, with about eight titles ready for 1997. Among the planned films:

“Michael,” with John Travolta playing a street-smart angel pursued by tabloid reporters. It’s due next Christmas.

“Edwards and Hunt: The First American Road Trip,” a comedy about two bungling Lewis and Clark rivals. Starring Chris Farley, it could be out next year.

“The Jetsons,” a live-action version of the animated TV series. It is among several films (including “Scooby Doo” and “Johnny Quest”) made with Turner’s Hanna-Barbera library.

“Jackie Robinson,” with Spike Lee directing Denzel Washington as the historic baseball player.

- “City of Angels,” a remake of 1988’s “Wings of Desire.”

“The Fountainhead,” director Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel.

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