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Wasserman and Sheinberg: The Clock Is Ticking : Hollywood: Both could leave MCA next year in feud with Matsushita. It would deal a serious blow to Japanese parent.


An inconclusive meeting in San Francisco with their Japanese bosses heightened a Hollywood drama Wednesday for MCA Chairman Lew R. Wasserman and MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg, as the two venerable executives faced the prospect of ending their long careers at the entertainment company.

After the two sides returned to Los Angeles and Tokyo from five hours of secret talks Tuesday, officials at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. held out the possibility of further meetings to resolve a dispute over strategic control of MCA.

But the clock is running for Wasserman and Sheinberg, not only on their contracts--due to expire in late 1995--but more immediately on their business association with music mogul David Geffen and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Without clear assurances that Sheinberg will remain at MCA, Geffen and Spielberg and former Walt Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg have declared that they won't affiliate their much-anticipated new film studio with MCA.

And the absence of the talent-laden threesome would deal a serious blow to Matsushita, which acquired MCA for $6.6 billion in 1990 but whose oversight of the company has caused Wasserman and Sheinberg to chafe ever since.

"We're interested in building our studio from scratch, and if Sid and Lew are there (at MCA), we intend to be allied with them," Geffen reiterated Wednesday. "If they are not there, we will not be there."

According to some news reports from Japan, the MCA executives were rebuffed Tuesday at a meeting in San Francisco when they requested total control in running the entertainment company.

But on Wednesday, Matsushita spokesman Setsuo Mizoguchi said merely that "the meeting produced little," but added that "the issue has yet to be resolved, possibly through further meetings in the near future."

Other sources say there is still an outside chance that Matsushita will decide to sell a minority stake in MCA, or the entire company. In an auction, however, the company could slip from the grasp of Wasserman and Sheinberg to a higher bidder.


So unless the Japanese relent on the issue of control, Hollywood observers suspect, the Wasserman-Sheinberg era could conclude next year, ending one of the town's longest-running dynasties at a major studio. Wasserman, 81, has served as MCA's chief executive since 1946, and Sheinberg, 59, has been chief operating officer for 21 years.

Both men reiterated their tough positions Wednesday. Sheinberg, reached by telephone Wednesday, said tersely, "If (the problems) cannot be resolved, I've told them I'm not re-signing" a contract.

Separately, Wasserman said, "They have asked me to sign a new five-year contract at the end of '95 and I have not agreed."

Wasserman's failure to agree to a new five-year contract was apparently the basis for a news report from Tokyo on Wednesday that Matsushita had accepted Wasserman's "resignation." That was flatly denied by a Wasserman aide, who added that the executive has not decided whether to sign a new contract.

Wasserman declined to discuss the meeting or its outcome other than to say, "Keep your options open; that is the password."

By all accounts, the two argued for total control at MCA in order to allow them to manage the asset more successfully for the Japanese owners--but they did not propose to buy financial control.

"This is not a normal industrial situation," one MCA insider said, contending that the cultural differences between the Japanese industrial concern and its U.S. entertainment operation have fueled the unorthodox push for control by MCA's top brass.

Privately, both men are said to be distressed by events that led to the meeting, and the resulting distraction to MCA's work force headquartered in Universal City.

In the last three years, MCA has been curbed by Matsushita in its efforts to acquire Virgin Records or a stake in a broadcast network, and it has even been limited in the scope of its plans to build a theme park in Osaka, Japan, where Matsushita is located.

"You can't take a company and leave it in suspended animation," said one MCA executive.

If Wasserman and Sheinberg depart, no one is certain who the Japanese would enlist to run the giant conglomerate. As one possible candidate warned: "The problems don't go away simply because you change the management."

Several Hollywood observers suggest that Matsushita might promote Tom Pollock or Charles S. Paul, currently MCA executive vice presidents who are said to be close to the Japanese. However, Paul and Pollock are also described as intensely loyal to Sheinberg, who brought both executives to the company.


Speculation also centers on QVC Chairman Barry Diller, who was thwarted over the past year in a hostile takeover attempt of Paramount and a merger between QVC and CBS in which he would have emerged as chief executive. People who know Diller do not believe, however, that he would work for the Japanese, which means he would have to enlist with a backer to mount a bid for the studio.

One possible backer: the acquisitive John C. Malone, who heads Denver-based cable TV giant Tele-Communications Inc.


Times staff writer David Holley in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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