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The Last Mogul | The Nation

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The Last Mogul

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Wasserman, meanwhile, steadily broadened his influence into the national political and labor arenas. His close relationship with Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan proved crucial, as did his canny utilization of Sidney Korshak. In 1966, Wasserman single-handedly installed LBJ aide Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and through Valenti he exercised enormous clout in Hollywood and Washington. Wasserman unilaterally executed many vital labor contracts and guild agreements from the 1960s into the 1980s, working with Valenti to handle the guilds and unions while relying on Korshak to handle the all-important Teamsters. And Wasserman's influence over tax laws and media regulations brought literally billions of dollars into the industry. Bruck is in her element here, tracing Wasserman's central role in brokering an investment tax credit deal for the film studios, and in convincing Reagan to call off the FCC in the one area of media regulation (which prohibited the networks from producing, owning or syndicating entertainment programming) that insured the studios' continued role as TV program suppliers.

About the Author

Thomas Schatz
Thomas Schatz, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas, is the author of The Genius of the System (...

When Hollywood Had a King is at its most compelling when tracing these avenues of Wasserman's "power and influence." Among Wasserman's more revealing statements in the book, and one that reveals as much about Bruck's own interests, involves the notion of power. "People misuse the word power," confides Wasserman. "They think it implies an abuse. I don't consider I have power. I have relationships." Bruck clearly concurs, and she delves deeply into Wasserman's relationships with Stein, Johnson, Reagan, Valenti and Korshak; in the process she shrewdly measures Wasserman's style, his personality and how he got things done. Bruck assesses other relationships as well, notably the Stein-Schreiber alliance in the late 1960s, which involved not only the coup but also the company's conservative Republican wing, a crucial factor during the Nixon years. (Taft Schreiber hosted a Nixon fundraiser on the night of the Watergate break-in, which Bruck relates in an amusing aside.)

One key relationship that is not examined quite as effectively, however, is that between Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg--no small matter, considering Sheinberg's role as president of MCA and his close association with Wasserman from the early 1970s onward. A number of vital initiatives, especially in the burgeoning home-video arena, went awry relatively early in the Wasserman-Sheinberg regime and signaled a downturn in the company's power--but receive rather short shrift in Bruck's account. In the late 1970s, MCA developed a video-disc system (a precursor to DVD), whose failure cost the company tens of millions, and cost it considerable credibility and prestige as well. In a related and equally ill-fated effort, MCA took the lead in a lengthy and costly lawsuit against Sony's Betamax VCR for copyright infringement. As the case worked its way to the Supreme Court in the early 1980s, the VCR became a household necessity in the United States and the source of massive revenues for the studios, rendering MCA's legal challenge a futile and somewhat absurd exercise. Remarkably, Bruck mentions the video-disc failure only in a parenthetical aside, and the Sony-Betamax saga is treated long after the fact, as a minor sidebar in the Matsushita buyout in 1990.

By the time the Sony case was resolved, MCA-Universal was essentially Sheinberg's company and Wasserman, now in his 70s, was becoming noticeably more cautious and conservative. Opportunities for favorable mergers with companies like RCA and Disney were squandered, due largely to Wasserman's insistence that Sheinberg run any merged entity. Rivals like Warner and Fox pursued cable and other new media prospects under Steve Ross and Rupert Murdoch, respectively, while MCA kept its focus on movies and television. "While Murdoch was building an empire and Warner diversified adventurously," writes Bruck, "MCA stuck to its knitting," and its huge competitive advantage steadily slipped away. But as the combined forces of deregulation, conglomeration and globalization transformed Hollywood, Wasserman eventually had to act. In the wake of the 1989 Time-Warner merger and Sony's purchase of Columbia-Tristar, Wasserman agreed to let superagent Mike Ovitz broker MCA's acquisition by the Japanese industrial giant Matsushita, whose VHS home-video system had vanquished Betamax and, like Sony, was looking to Hollywood for a "hardware-software" alliance.

The 1990 Matsushita deal left MCA-Universal intact with Wasserman and Sheinberg in control, but the marriage proved to be disastrous almost from the start. A severe "conflict of cultures" between the new owners and management was exacerbated by the collapse of the Japanese economy, and Wasserman's plans for expansion were repeatedly thwarted by the parent company. Soon the merger was viewed by all involved as less a blessing than a curse, despite a remarkable run of Universal films, including Cape Fear, Apollo 13 and Spielberg's back-to-back 1993 hits, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. In 1995 Matsushita cut its losses and sold MCA-Universal to Seagram in another deal engineered by Ovitz, but without Wasserman and Sheinberg's knowledge. New owner Edgar Bronfman Jr. dissolved MCA, cashiered Sheinberg and unceremoniously kicked Wasserman upstairs to "chairman emeritus" status--a title that allowed him to retain his office atop the Black Tower (now the Lew Wasserman Building) but gave him no authority or input into the newly configured "Universal."

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