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More disasters on the big screen for Sony

Sony was contemplating the wreckage yesterday from a turbulent few days at its film division which saw the ousting of Mark Canton as chairman of its Columbia TriStar pictures business, and a thoroughly public and embarrassing rejection of an offer to take the newly vacant job from Arnold Rifkin, a top Los Angeles talent agent.

Mr Canton's responsibilities have been handed over in the meantime to Lucy Fisher, a 46-year-old Sony executive who joined Columbia TriStar as a vice chairman only six months ago. Concerned for the welfare of her three daughters, Ms Fisher has made it plain that she does not want to take on Mr Canton's old title or the full weight of his former job, however.

The dramas are only the latest chapter in Sony's thoroughly troubled interlude in Hollywood, which began with the late-1989 purchase of Columbia Studios for almost $5bn (pounds 3.2bn). In 1994, after a particularly bad year at the box office, Sony was forced to write off $2.7bn from its investment. In its search for profits and stability, Sony has also suffered an unusually high turnover of senior executives.

The demise of Mr Canton is firing renewed speculation that the president of the Sony group, Idei Nobuyuki, may eventually be forced into at least a partial retreat from Hollywood, either by making a public offering, seeking a partner or selling his studios outright to a competitor.

Mr Canton, who is yet to negotiate the terms of his departure, apparently came unstuck because of a series of disappointments in Sony's 1996 film line-up. Most painful for the studio was the relatively poor performance of the film Cable Guy, conceived as a vehicle for the comedian Jim Carrey. There was collective shock in Hollywood when Sony agreed to pay Mr Carrey $20m for that single film.

Other flops this year have included The Fan and Multiplicity. The studio is none the less believed to have a fairly promising line-up for the coming months and can boast the two top films in the US box office charts this last weekend: Maximum Risk and Fly Away Home.

The offer of Mr Canton's job to Mr Rifkin was made by Alan Levine, the president of Sony Pictures. In a humiliating rebuttal, however, Mr Rifkin, who is the top talent agent at the William Morris Agency, turned it down in favour of a new, and presumably newly lucrative, salary at the agency.

Some observers believe that the Mr Levine may also find his job loosened by the unhappy episode, even though he has enjoyed the consistent support of Mr Nobuyuki in the past. The word is also out among analysts that Jeff Sagansky, the executive vice president of Sony Corp of America, based in New York, may also be negotiating to jump ship.

Last December saw the sudden departure of Michael Schulhof, president of the group's US operations. He was also seen as the victim of a series of studio flops, the most notable of them, The Last Action Hero.