Anyone who has looked at Bronfman's management style would see that he is anything but passive. One of Bronfman's best friends, advertising executive John Bernbach, recalls dining with his wife at a New York restaurant a couple of years ago with Bronfman, Bronfman's wife, Clarissa, and Bronfman's mother-in-law. The party finished a bottle of Seagram's Mumm Champagne, so another was ordered. The waiter apologized, explaining that that was the last bottle in stock.
After the main course, Bronfman excused himself for 20 minutes before returning for dessert. The next day, Bronfman told Bernbach that he had walked into the kitchen to ask the owner why the restaurant had run out of his product. It turned out to be a supply problem on the Seagram end, he told Bernbach, so he fixed it.
On another occasion, Bernbach recalls, he and Bronfman were at a bar in which the bottle of Seagram's Chivas Regal scotch was in the second row of bottles, rather than in the front, where people would see it more clearly. Bronfman repeatedly asked that the Chivas be placed in front. "He wouldn't leave the bartender alone until he moved it," Bernbach says.
That kind of obsession for involvement couldn't contrast more with Matsushita's stony silence. "We now have an ownership that cares very much about what we are doing and wants to support us in doing it well. That is a big change from the ownership we had in the past five years," MCA Vice Chairman Tom Pollock says.
More important, Bronfman has the cash to do it. The same week he negotiated the agreement to buy MCA, he, in an unrelated deal, netted $7.7 billion for Seagram when the company sold its nearly 25% stake in chemical giant Du Pont back to the company. It was the largest such transaction in Wall Street history.
Bronfman says he has a singular goal: to use MCA to generate better than average returns for Seagram investors. He isn't spelling out yet exactly how he'll do that, although some steps are obvious. For starters, he needs to fix what's wrong. MCA has long depended too much on a handful of filmmakers, especially "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List" director Spielberg, whose Amblin production company has had a hand in most of MCA's major hits.
To that end, Meyer's hiring should go toward developing a broader range of relationships with Hollywood talent. Even so, some industry executives believe Bronfman needs another executive with an extensive corporate background. The early betting is that Bronfman himself will fill much of that role, raising questions about whether he will be stretched too thin across the Seagram empire.
When he's got the right people in place, he has another hurdle to clear. "Assimilating people into a united management is one of the most difficult things to do. First, you have the people who have been at MCA for years. Second, you have outsiders like Ron Meyer being brought in and, third, you have the Bronfman culture," one rival studio chief notes.
Bronfman's goal of making MCA "talent friendly" doesn't provide much in the way of guidelines. Asked whether MCA would ever distribute the kind of rap music albums that Time Warner has issued--which critics say degrade women and promote violence while supporters argue their artistic merit--Bronfman will only promise that "we won't put out hate music."
In the meantime, he'll be dodging the bullets fired by the press over "Waterworld," which was scheduled to open this weekend. Rife with production problems and infighting, the film has become a symbol in the media of runaway Hollywood excess.
The good news for Seagram is that Matsushita was so eager to cut its ties to MCA that it swallowed most of the movie's costs by keeping MCA's debt. With perhaps only $50 million in marketing and final post-production costs to pay, Seagram stands a good chance to make a profit on a movie that by itself would be a major money loser.
MCA's television division demands attention, too. It desperately needs to generate hit shows. It's practically void of successful half-hour comedy shows and lacks original, first-run programs syndicated to local stations. By contrast, competitors such as Paramount, which developed such shows as the various "Star Trek" programs, have generated huge amounts of cash through syndication.
In addition, the company has been too cautious, partly because of Matsushita's reluctance to invest. But, as one major investor put it, "They have to get rid of that [risk-aversion] culture and be more aggressive." Cutting a deal with DreamWorks to distribute its movies overseas and distribute music as well was a signal that Bronfman plans to move more forcefully. An even bolder move would be to join in a bid for a television network such as CBS, as some in Hollywood expect of him.