Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood

Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood

by Nancy Griffin, Kim Masters

"Hit and Run" tells the improbable and often hilarious story of how two film packagers well known for spending other people's money and ripping off credit for other people's work went on a deliberate campaign to reinvent themselves as studio executives. With the exception of "Batman," Jon Peters and Peter Guber were barely involved with the most successful films they …  See more details below


"Hit and Run" tells the improbable and often hilarious story of how two film packagers well known for spending other people's money and ripping off credit for other people's work went on a deliberate campaign to reinvent themselves as studio executives. With the exception of "Batman," Jon Peters and Peter Guber were barely involved with the most successful films they 'produced.' Steven Spielberg wouldn't allow them on the set of "The Color Purple," and they were on the set of "Rain Man" only once, briefly. With the help of one of Michael Milken's top lieutenants, they succeeded. It was the most audacious sales job of their careers: This unlikely team got Sony to give them the richest deal in Hollywood history. Veteran reporters Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters chronicle the rise of Jon Peters, a semiliterate former hairdresser, seventh-grade dropout, and juvenile delinquent, and his soulless soul mate, Peter Guber—including all the sex, drugs, and fistfights along the way. They describe the incredible carelessness with which Sony walked into a breach-of-contract suit by Warner Bros., its decision to stay the course even after that suit was filed, and the ultimate triumph of legendary Time Warner chairman Steve Ross, who exacted a settlement worth as much as $800 million from Sony. Griffin and Masters explain the history of Sony, the forces that drove it to seek salvation in Hollywood, and some of the cultural traits that left the Japanese uninoculated against the Hollywood hustle.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This is basically the story of two boys who never grew up, but ended up running Sony-owned Columbia Pictures into the ground. Peters, whom the Los Angeles Times described as a "seventh-grade dropout and reform school graduate who began his show-business career as Barbra Steisand's hairdresser-boyfriend-manager," was a master at self-promotion; only semi-literate but able to count well enough to make it big in Hollywood. Bostonian Guber earned several academic degrees before "going Hollywood," somehow managing to indifferently run several studios and make high profits and only a few good films. This book will leave film fans drooling at charges that Peters hired Heidi Fleiss's prostitutes as gifts and that he either bedded or assaulted his numerous conquests (Jacqueline Bisset and Lesley Ann Warren, among others). Guber, the quintessential New Age yuppie, is seen heading off his divorce because it would cost him too much, and participating in hand-holding group-therapy sessions with business-partner Peters. The business side of this book is also intriguing, recounting internecine financial twists and turns that finally have a top Sony executive exclaiming: "Huh! You bankrupt Sony!" Griffin, the West Coast editor of Premiere magazine, and Masters, a reporter for the Washington Post, present a shocking read that will have readers gasping at the obscene overindulgence of Hollywood. Photos not seen by PW. Author tour. (June)
Library Journal
This unauthorized account of Tinseltown madness features the disastrous duo of corporate executives from Columbia Pictures and their alleged bilking of Sony. With the skill of a slick salesman, narrator Ron McLarty partially succeeds in palming off the hearsay testimony about Sony's ill-advised Hollywood venture. McLarty's off-the-cuff manner enhances the tantalizing, juicy gossip served up by authors Griffin and Masters. The convincing descriptions of the grotesque displays of wealth by the chairmen pitted against the staggering $3 million loss that Sony swallows will undoubtedly titillate some. However, the shock value this program packs can't make up for the lack of good journalism. Most libraries can pass on this one.Mark P. Tierney, The World Bank, Washington, D.C.
David Rouse
The pretension and behind-the-scenes machinations within the motion-picture industry can sometimes be more unreal or more entertaining than the actual products Hollywood creates. A perfect example is the story of Guber, Peters, and Sony. In an attempt to gain a foothold in Hollywood and with much hoopla, Sony hired the duo in 1989 to run its newly acquired Columbia Pictures. The two, after all, had produced--or been involved with--"The Color Purple", "Batman", "Rain Man", "The Way We Were", "Shampoo", etc. Chauvinistic fears that the management-savvy Japanese would come to dominate Hollywood in the same way they had Detroit soon vanished after initial successes gave way to expensive box-office duds. Through it all, Guber and Peters treated themselves lavishly--even by Hollywood standards--and, in all, Sony lost billions. Griffin," Premiere" magazine's West Coast editor, and Masters, "Washington Post" reporter and "Vanity Fair" contributor, provide the juicy details of what went wrong. Though it is tempting to look at this story as a modern-day version of David and Goliath, one cannot be sure who the Philistines are.
For those of us who watch while talented filmmakers get taken advantage of and good (or even great) films get tossed aside, there's nothing as satisfying as confirmation of how clueless the people in power really are. There's satisfaction in spades in Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters' Hit & Run, the story of how producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber angled to become the heads of Columbia Studios after it was purchased by Sony, and how their profligate ways wound up costing the Japanese corporation $3 billion.

With wicked deadpan wit, Griffin, an editor at Premiere, and Masters, a contributor to Time and Vanity Fair, trace the rise of Peters (a volatile, semi-literate hairdresser to the stars) and Guber (a success-hungry lawyer) as hotshot producers and their fall as faux moguls. Happy to take credit for the movies their names were attached to, Peters and Guber almost always left the actual work to other people. The pair's truest talent, Griffin and Masters tell us, was their knack for getting those in a position to offer them money and power to start salivating over the gravy, without ever producing the roast.

Of many hilarious moments, the best is perhaps when Guber summons Barry Morrow, the screenwriter of Rain Man, and tells him, "I've got this ending which is going to be really sensational ... Raymond will come back and his brother will get him to pitch in the Dodger game -- and he'll win the game for the Dodgers! And it will be big, it will be huge!!"

The trouble with Hit & Run is that Griffin and Masters don't know what's lousy about Rain Man to begin with. They know exactly how movies shouldn't be managed as a business; they show no indication of knowing how they should be managed as art. Movies are judged almost exclusively by their commercial performance. I don't wish to be unfair to Griffin and Masters. They are working here as business journalists, not critics. And this book, a model of clarity, readability and scrupulousness, is light-years from the publicist-driven pabulum that too often passes for entertainment reporting these days. But the movies have always gotten into trouble when they have been viewed exclusively as either a business or an art. Hollywood has more to fear from a handful of M.B.A.'s who have power but no instinct for what makes good movies than from a hundred conniving little Sammy Glicks like Jon Peters and Peter Guber. --Charles Taylor

Kirkus Reviews
From Final Cut to The Devil's Candy, there are any number of well-told tales of epic motion picture disasters, but they all pale in comparison to this detailed, devastating account of the grandest debacle of them all.

Even by the usual shoulder-shrugging "Nobody knows anything" credo of Hollywood, Sony's appointment of Jon Peters and Peter Guber to head up their newly purchased Columbia Pictures was a stunning act of blind faith. As independent producers, Peters and Guber had been responsible for a remarkable string of mediocre successes and outright flops, with Batman one of their few genuine hits. So disliked were they that Steven Spielberg even had a provision in one contract explicitly barring them from his set. But in a town where executives are perpetually failing upwards, it made a strange kind of sense that the two should become studio heads. However such dubious talent didn't come cheaply. Variety estimated that just to buy up Guber and Peters's production company, as well as settle their contract with Warner Brothers, cost Sony nearly a billion dollars. This was just the beginning. From a complete remodeling of Columbia's offices to overbidding on movie properties, the two men went on a spending spree of brobdingnagian proportions. A few minor flops and major embarrassments later, the volatile Peters was off the lot, multimillion dollar buyout in hand. But even as bad went to worse, culminating in such bombs as the Last Action Hero and I'll Do Anything, Guber hung on for almost five years. Despite some awkwardness in their characterizations (particularly of Guber), Griffin, the West Coast editor of Premiere magazine, and Masters, a reporter for the Washington Post, have done excellent spadework, providing a full, lucid, even gripping, account of everything that went so very wrong.

A dead-on, damning indictment of Hollywood cupidity, stupidity, and excess.

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Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.51(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.39(d)

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"If God didn't want them sheared, He would not have made them sheep." The Magnificent Seven

Walter Yetnikoff freshly out of drug rehab, found himself at the epicenter of a multi-billion-dollar deal.

It was September 1989, and the head of the Sony Corporation's successful music division was playing a pivotal role in the Japanese electronics giant's acquisition of a major Hollywood studio. For Yetnikoff, who expected to run the combined entertainment empire, the purchase would represent the realization of a long-cherished dream. But there was a hangup. If the deal were to "make," in the industry parlance, Sony needed managers to put in charge of the new studio. Under pressure to fill the vacancy, Yetnikoff had an idea: He would call his old friends, film producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters.

A few days after Yetnikoff contacted Guber and Peters, Sony confirmed a swirl of rumors that it was buying Columbia Pictures Entertainment. The cost, $3.4 billion plus $1.6 billion in debt, was considered high for an entertainment company that had been faltering.

The news of the acquisition was not welcomed in the United States. There was an outcry over the sale of a venerated and uniquely American institution to a foreign acquirer. Sony, seen as something of a brash upstart at home, was viewed by many in the United States as part of a rich and invincible army of invaders snapping up American properties, from Rockefeller Center in the East to the rolling resorts of Hawaii. The fact that Sony was willing to meet a rich price only inflamed American anxiety.

Sony expressed its regret over American reaction to the deal. But it wasn't concerned about the criticism that it had paid too much. The company had been mocked for overspending when it bought CBS Records in 1987, and the music division had flourished under Yetnikoff's leadership despite his substance abuse problems. Having made one successful foray into the entertainment world, Sony had every reason to think it could win again in the movie business.

Sony was hardly the first to fall into the Hollywood trap. The movie business has long attracted an array of hopeful outsiders, from insurance companies to purveyors of soft drinks. Many have learned the hard way that Hollywood is a world apart — a risky business where the uninitated are routinely shorn. It is a fantasy factory where the insiders are often more skilled at creating illusions about themselves than they are at spinning magic for the big screen.

On paper, Guber and Peters looked like genuine movie moguls. They were high-profile producers who had just made Batman, the largest-grossing film of all time, for Warner Bros. Their names were on such hits as Rain Man and The Color Purple. But the real players knew that Guber and Peters were hardly hands-on filmmakers. When Steven Spielberg made The Color Purple, he had a provision in his contract explicitly barring them from the set. Guber and Peters had visited the set of Rain Man only once, while the production chores were handled by director Barry Levinson's associate, Mark Johnson. When the picture won the Academy Award, Guber and Peters got to neither collect nor keep the Oscar. They happily took credit for the film and had themselves photographed jubilantly brandishing a statuette. But they had to borrow it from writer Barry Morrow, who had won for best screenplay.

Guber and Peters may have seemed an impressive pair, but their greatest gift was for promotion — especially self-promotion. What was lacking was any credential or experience that would qualify them to run a major studio. Peters, perennially known as Barbra Streisand's former hairdresser, had never worked as a studio executive. He was a seventh-grade dropout and a reform-school ruffian. Many said he could barely read, and he certainly had never quite learned to control his violent temper. The ponytailed Guber at least had a law degree and he had done a stint as an executive at Columbia in the seventies — until he was fired. He subsequently ran a fledgling production company financed by PolyGram. In short order, PolyGram lost $100 million and pulled out of the movie business.

The two men were hardly untalented; they had an eye for material and a genius for packaging and selling their projects. But in an industry where avarice is not uncommon, Guber and Peters distinguished themselves for greed. They were grabbers who snatched up material, credit, and money, leaving a swath of dazed victims in their wake. Their first loyalty was always to themselves. It was an ethic that Japanese executives — coming from a tradition of teamwork and long-term commitments to their firms — could hardly be expected to grasp.

Hollywood's surprise at Sony's hiring of Guber and Peters turned to stunned disbelief when the industry learned how much Sony had agreed to pay for their services. Warner boss Terry Semel said Guber confided that he wanted to "make more money than anyone in the history of the motion picture industry" and now he had come close. Aside from buying Guber and Peters's money-losing production company for $200 million — about 40 percent more than its market value — Sony gave the two a rich compensation package that included $2.75 million each in annual salary (excluding hefty annual bonuses), a $50 million bonus pool, and a stake in any increase in the studio's value over the ensuing five years.

As soon as the ink on the deal was dry, Warner slapped Sony with a billion-dollar lawsuit. Guber and Peters had just signed a generous contract with that studio, but Sony had failed to review the agreement when it negotiated with them. Forced into a settlement worth as much as $800 million, Sony found that the expense of hiring Guber and Peters had gone up dramatically. And many in the movie business suspected that Sony's nightmare was only beginning.

If Guber and Peters regretted that Sony had to cough up so much to hire them, they didn't show it by exercising restraint. They spent big from the start, setting off a round of inflation that is still taking a toll on the movie business today. Guber and Peters were about to take Sony on the wildest and most profligate ride that Hollywood had ever seen. For five years, Sony executives in Tokyo and New York would stand by while the studio lost billions and became a symbol for the worst kind of excess in an industry that is hardly known for moderation.

There were box-office bombs, lavish renovations, and extravagant parties against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, expensive firings, and even a call-girl scandal. The ill-advised pairing of a Japanese corporation with a couple of Hollywood's cleverest rogues would culminate, as one insider delicately put it, in "the most public screwing in the history of the business."

Copyright© 1996 by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters

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