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Mr. Bronfman, Get Ready for Your Extreme Close-Up : Can the New Head of MCA Teach the People Who Run Hollywood a Thing or Two About Entertainment

July 30, 1995|James Bates | James Bates is a Times staff writer, covering entertainment for the business section. His last article for the magazine was onBank of America's expansion strategy.

Needless to say, he didn't turn in a great picture, but says he learned a lesson that will be helpful now. "When you try very hard to do something excellent and don't make it, it certainly helps you understand the creative process. It also makes you understand that this business is really hard. It gives me a better ability to understand and manage the business than if the picture I had made had been a great success," he says.

While Bronfman produced movies, he and his father were at times barely speaking. It was at the premiere of "The Border" at which they broke the ice and brought up the subject of Bronfman's joining Seagram. His brother, Sam, was good, the elder Bronfman told his second-oldest son. But you are better. At the time of the decision, he said he saw more of himself in Edgar Jr. than in Sam.

"I had a very long talk with my father," Bronfman says. "I think one of the major factors in bringing myself to that point was that I had a career. It gave me the self-confidence to know I was joining the company because I wanted to. I felt both an obligation to the family that the third generation should carry on the work of the first two."

Bronfman told his father--whom he calls Edgar when speaking about him--that he would try working for Seagram for a couple of months, and return to Hollywood if he didn't like it. Bronfman says he loved it from the first day.

Bronfman insists he didn't leave Hollywood because of a lack of success, as many have suggested lately upon his return. Quite the contrary, he claims. He had made a Jack Nicholson movie, something few producers ever get to do.

"I didn't leave the industry with my tail between my legs to join Seagram because there was nothing else to do. I had spent 10 years getting to the point where I could say: 'Hey, I know how this works. I can deal with a studio. I can do this,' " Bronfman says.

It was risky. Now he had a job where his father ran the company and people assumed he was there because of his name, not his skills. "I am the son of the chairman. I am young. Therefore, I have to prove myself more than someone else," Bronfman says. That said, Bronfman adds candidly: "I don't remember a day when the disadvantages of being who I am outweighed the advantages."

Bernbach, son of a prominent advertising agency owner, says he and Bronfman used to joke about forming a club for sons who share the same line of work with their highly successful fathers. It's something actor Douglas, son of film legend Kirk Douglas, says "ties us together." "The easiest thing is not to give credit. I know what it's like to not be getting proper credit due to the fact you are involved in the same business as a father who is very successful."

In Bronfman's case, he began to earn credit after being sent to Europe for Seagram in what amounted to on-the-job training. The operation was losing money, and the executive overseeing him there told him to expect even more losses. Bronfman took that as a challenge and put the operation in the black.

He immersed himself in other Seagram ventures as well. He led the company's push into the wine cooler business in the mid-1980s. He personally selected actor Bruce Willis as the product's pitchman, explaining to his father that it was an instinctive decision. Seagram soon led the field. All the while, Bronfman cultivated powerful friends, many of them with entertainment connections such as Ovitz, Wall Street investment banker Herbert A. Allen Jr. and entertainment executive Barry Diller.

In 1986, it was decided to announce that Bronfman was the eventual Seagram heir. The platform to trumpet the news was a father-son cover story in Fortune magazine.

Bronfman's uncle, Charles, was miffed enough to make his feelings known to his hometown newspaper in Montreal. At the time, there were suggestions that he wasn't happy that Edgar was being groomed for the job. Instead, Bronfman says, Charles was unhappy his brother violated corporate protocol by announcing the decision with a splashy magazine article without first discussing it with directors.

"A couple of bases weren't touched," Bronfman says today, adding that it was always his understanding from the day he joined Seagram that the top spot was his to lose. First, however, he ran it by his openly disappointed brother to make sure he was comfortable with it. Bronfman didn't want the selection to cause any brotherly strain and considered his brother's blessing critical. He got it. Bronfman formally assumed the chief executive title from his father last year.

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The genesis of Seagram's Matsushita deal began in late 1994, when the company's rift with Wasserman and Sheinberg blew up publicly. Tired of being trashed in the press by MCA executives, Matsushita hired advisers to assess its investment in MCA. In January, the late Seagram Chief Financial Officer Stephen Banner mentioned in a casual phone conversation with a lower-level Matsushita executive that Seagram might be interested in buying MCA.

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