Universal: The 1998 Studio Scorecard
The movie business has always been a rat race. Which studios are making strides, and which are just limping along this year?
1997 MARKET SHARE 9.9% // 1998 MARKET SHARE (TO DATE) 4.9%
THE STORY SO FAR War and Peace has nothing on Universal in the drama department. With Seagram beverage mogul Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s $5.7 billion purchase of Universal three years ago, the studio won a very active—and interested—new owner. But how enthusiastic can he be about fare like Blues Brothers 2000, Kull the Conqueror, and McHale’s Navy? In a year during which the studio has seemed destined for disaster, even the well-reviewed and much hyped Primary Colors performed below expectations. Apparently, the films weren’t the only thing disappointing Bronfman and his team (Ron Meyer, Casey Silver, and Frank Biondi): In April, production president Marc Platt, VP Howard Weitzman, and marketing chiefs Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones departed.
STRENGTHS Universal’s independent-production deals. On the studio’s payroll are Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, whose Imagine Entertainment has three Eddie Murphy movies (including Nutty Professor II), Psycho, and edTV in the pipeline; Danny DeVito’s well-regarded Jersey Films delivered Out of Sight; Tom Hanks chose Universal as the company at which to hang his production shingle.
WEAKNESSES Even if Universal makes a killing with the third Jurassic Park in 2000, it can’t begin to compensate for the loss of the guy who directed the first two: Steven Spielberg, whose Amblin Entertainment contributed not only cash but cachet. (A development deal with Jonathan Demme adds clout, but he’s not a whip-’em-out-for-summer commodity.) In the middle of such a chaotic year, Universal’s propensity for bad picks like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is all the more wince inducing; the possible derailment of the planned Brad Pitt vehicle Laws of Madness comes at an unfortunate time.
THE BIG PICTURE Bronfman is intrigued by movies, but his real passion is the company’s music division and the theme-park business. (Bronfman is apparently even less interested in television; his recent decision to sell the majority of Universal’s TV holdings to Barry Diller was met with industry disbelief.) That’s a lot of distraction when the studio is seen as being in desperate need of resuscitation.
CORPORATE CULTURE More Brooks Brothers than Versace, Universal is not known for being on the cutting edge of pop culture, either at the box office or in executive suites.
INDUSTRY TAKE “A horror show,” scowls the screenwriter, “it’s been one idiotic bomb after another.” “Bronfman knows just enough to get himself into trouble,” says the producer. “The studio has become extremely unstable and people don’t want to make movies there very much until it sorts itself out.” The former studio head sees the trouble lying in “poor choices in the top…Universal is in even worse shape than Warner Bros.” Still, the agent sees the bright side: “Everyone who leaves gets great deals!”
WHAT’S NEXT Universal’s upcoming slate hedges all box office bets, throwing the audience everything from hunks (Pitt’s Meet Joe Black) to hams (Babe: Pig in the City) to Oscar bait (Snow Falling on Cedars).
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