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Outside money: passing the hat for H’wood

The Backlot

I HAVE NEVER BEEN very good at matchmaking. Whenever I’ve introduced a man to a woman, convinced I’ve found a good fit, they usually end up not only hating each other, but hating me as well.

Having said that, I’m tempted to try my hand at a little corporate matchmaking. Here’s why:

On the one hand, I look at the global entertainment companies, all of which have convinced themselves that the only way to do business is with other people’s money. As Martin Peers pointed out in the Feb. 17-23 Variety, the corporate decisionmakers think it’s ridiculous to deploy their own resources on risky showbiz projects when they can summon up vast sums from outsiders.

The trouble is that, with everyone chasing outside money, there suddenly doesn’t seem to be enough to go around.

THAT’S WHERE SOME skilled matchmaking may help. At the very time that Hollywood is shy of cash, the rest of corporate America seems to be all but drowning in money — so much so that they can’t figure out what to do with it.

A survey by Business Week found that General Motors is swamped with $17 billion in cash reserves, billions more than it had planned to accumulate. Ford has ended up with some $15.4 billion in cash and Microsoft with $9.2 billion. Even relatively small players like Novell, a software producer, and Amgen, a biotech company, find themselves with stashes in excess of a billion dollars.

Is this good news for the companies? Not necessarily. The fact that American Airlines had stashed away nearly $3 billion in cash encouraged the unions to take an ever more militant bargaining stance. Other companies realize they’ve become takeover targets because of excess cash.

MY SOLUTION TO THE DILEMMA? Clearly corporate America is missing a big opportunity. It’s time to invest in showbiz!

I realize, of course, that many “suits” in mid-America are wary about investing in movies and TV shows. The time has come to cast aside these inhibitions.

Supporting Hollywood should be considered a form of corporate beneficence, like granting tax credits to the ethanol industry or dispensing subsidies to the agribusiness oligopoly. Since the government practices corporate welfare, why shouldn’t corporations practice Hollywood welfare?

Corporate welfare, after all, was one factor that helped the big corporations build up these huge cash reserves. There were other forces at work, as well. Companies have been ferociously cutting costs for several years now, downsizing staffs and re-engineering workers into oblivion. At a time when earnings are rising sharply, millions of workers have found themselves becoming temps, with reduced benefits, especially health care.

These policies have proven so effective that, as Michael Metz, chief investment strategist for Oppenheimer & Co., puts it, corporate America is “awash in cash.” American capitalism, it seems is working almost too efficiently for its own good.

HENCE, BEFORE THIS SITUATION gets out of hand, my matchmaking proposals should be given serious consideration. The apparatus could be relatively straightforward.

* The big automakers like GM and Ford could each finance a disaster picture at one major studio — a new volcano epic, for example. Think of the chances for product placement — all those shiny new Chevys buried beneath the lava flow.

* Given its maverick reputation, Microsoft could channel its cash to Fine Line, funding a sequel to “Shine” in which an angry father bullies his son until he masters the skills of cyberspace.

* Fast food companies like McDonald’s and Burger King, which already are spending millions on advertising tie-ins, should take the financial plunge. Too many food-centered pictures such as “Big Night” or “Babette’s Feast” are made for the art crowd; the people at Big Mac have the savvy to reach a broader market with the foody message.

The lesson for Hollywood is clear: If you want to use other people’s money, it’s out there — huge amounts of it. There are hundreds of embarrassed CFOs around the country, desperately trying to hide their stashes.

Patriotic to its core, Hollywood has always come to the country’s rescue in times of need — witness its morale-boosting efforts during World War II. It’s time now for the nation’s corporate leaders to come to the aid of Hollywood.

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