THE LONG-SLUMBEROUS MCA LOT seems to be pulsing with nervous energy these days. Wherever yougo, harried-looking men are taking measurements or studying architectural renderings. The sedate Black Tower is bursting with too many people; piles of wood and other discarded material are stacked in the once immaculate, if uninviting, lobby. It’s been just one year since Edgar Bronfman Jr. took command at MCA, and the pace of change at the company has steadily accelerated. This week, with Frank Biondi Jr. at last in place as CEO, that pace should pick up still further. Arguably, no other corporate culture in the entertainment business has been reshaped more radically. Under the five years of Japanese ownership, MCA’s growth was stunted as management’s proposals to buy first CBS, then Virgin Records were ignored. Now the Bronfman team seems intent on making up for lost time. The chiefs of virtually every sector have been replaced. And now, symbolically, a new master plan for the 415-acre lot will be developed with a new corporate headquarters replacing the Black Tower. Not surprisingly, it’s been code-named the White Tower.
THE MAN AT THE CENTER of the storm, Bronfman Jr., has remained remarkably composed through it all, never losing his aura of thoughtful gentility. Indeed, Bronfman is not so much an entrepreneur as a prince; he represents that rarity among North Americans, a third-generation billionaire. As such, it is remarkable that he would allow himself to be the man on the spot or, indeed, invite that condition. Bronfman knows he has something to prove — to investors, to the showbiz community, even to his family. When Seagram sold its huge stake in DuPont to buy MCA, DuPont stock was hovering in the mid-$ 60s, later rising to $ 85 a share (it is now about $ 79). MCA shares over the past year have been essentially flat, as have the shares in most other entertainment mega-companies. Thus, Bronfman faces the challenge of jump-starting a company that the Japanese allowed to languish. Clearly, Bronfman is someone who believes in actions, not pronouncements. He does not place much stock in statements about a “corporate vision.” An occasional songwriter, he endorses John Lennon’s line that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” At the same time, associates note that he has lent his support to some macho dealmaking. MCA, once heavily reliant on Steven Spielberg for product, has forged first-look deals with the likes of David and Jerry Zucker, John Singleton, Demi Moore, Jersey Films and others. It also closed the somewhat infamous Sylvester Stallone three-picture deal at $ 20 million per picture. Sources at the studio assert, however, that this deal is was widely misunderstood — that it represents merely an agreement to try to find three projects, but that the only “hard money” to change hands will be $ 350,000 a year for Stallone’s company.
AMONG THE REALITIES FACING BRONFMAN is the fact that neither the movie business nor the wine-and-spirits business has had a good year. Indeed, Bronfman , like Hollywood’s other “owner-managers,” has resigned himself to the reality that this is a lousy time to be in the film business, where margins lurk around the 6% level. The difference is that while some of the other owners resent movies as a necessary evil, Bronfman is truly attached to them and is intent on restoring their profitability. Other sectors also loom large in his plans. Associates say he is fascinated by the success of CityWalk and is determined to re-create these entertainment environments in other parts of the country. With Biondi rounding out his management team this week, insiders are eager to see how responsibilities are realigned within MCA. Bronfman himself is known to feel little reshuffling will be necessary. Both Biondi and Ron Meyer, president of MCA, know each other well. Both are conciliatory types who understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Both, too, have long worked with bosses who have a strong sense of self — Biondi with Redstone, who fired him, and Meyer with Ovitz, whose public persona all but buried him. Now they must figure out how to work with one another, and with a still-youthful billionaire who believes strongly in delegating authority. Certainly Bronfman, in his first year in office, has not acted like someone who wants attention focused on himself. While making obligatory appearances with his glamorous wife at the appropriate charity functions, mainly in New York, Bronfman has hardly been a fixture on the Hollywood scene. You don’t run into people who say, “I’ve had dinner with Edgar” or even, “I’ve just had a meeting with Edgar.”
INDEED, BRONFMAN HAS FOCUSED on running his two huge businesses and on working with his executive staff. Associates credit him with being hard-working and conscientious, with nonetheless a billionaire’s bent for occasionally being late for meetings. “He can be a bit like Robert Redford,” says one associate. “He can be a few hours late, but, while Redford will simply start the meeting as if nothing had happened, Bronfman is the epitome of graciousness, full of apologies, as though he were the employee and not the boss.” No doubt there were many occasions during the past year when Edgar Bronfman Jr. wished he were back writing songs or, like John Lennon, trying to live life rather than making plans. But he has set his course and clearly is determined to see it through. “There are big chips on the table,” says one friend. “Edgar knows better than anyone that they’re his chips and he intends to take care of them.”