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Platt Ousted as Bronfman Turns Up Heat on Lagging Universal

April 15, 1998|CLAUDIA ELLER

Universal Pictures' production president, Marc Platt, is being bounced from his job after 18 months and repeated clashes with motion picture group chief Casey Silver over their creative agendas and operating styles.

Platt's departure is viewed both inside and outside the studio as a consequence of increasing pressure on Universal Studios' top managers, including President Ron Meyer and Chairman Frank Biondi, by Seagram Co. Chief Executive Edgar Bronfman Jr.

Last week, Meyer's close friend and former attorney Howard Weitzman lost his job as executive vice president of corporate operations at the studio. Rumors abound that there could be a further shake-up and that several top executives are vulnerable.

Since Seagram acquired 80% of the entertainment giant three years ago, Bronfman has overhauled management at each of the company's key operational units, including movies, music, television and theme parks.

Lately, Bronfman is said to be turning up the heat on the movie division. Two weeks ago at a media conference in New York, he boasted about the turnaround in music and that his unconventional deal to sell most of the studio's television assets to Barry Diller has added nearly $1 billion in value to Universal.

At the same time, the Seagram chief publicly acknowledged his dismay over the continued poor performance of Universal Pictures, which has been plagued by a dry spell at the box office since last year's hits "Liar Liar" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." The movie division is expected to achieve its financial goals for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, primarily because of the carry-forward from those films.

Bronfman is said to be especially disappointed by the back-to-back misfirings of Universal's expensive recent releases: "Primary Colors," starring John Travolta and directed by Mike Nichols, and Imagine Entertainment's "Mercury Rising," starring Bruce Willis.

"There were a lot of expectations on these two movies," said a top executive in the movie ranks.

The poor showings of those films continue a cold streak that includes "Blues Brothers 2000," "The Boxer," "Kissing a Fool" and last year's "The Jackal," "Dante's Peak" and "For Richer or Poorer."

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Although Platt, who joined the studio in September 1996, can't be held responsible for Universal's current box-office woes since those were not movies he developed, he and Silver have had an awkward partnership.

"With the best of intentions, it just didn't work out," said Platt, who was accustomed to having more authority in his previous position as president of TriStar Pictures, a unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment. One source close to Platt observed, "They both have very strong talent relationships and were covering the same ground."

Silver, who is responsible for green-lighting the movies and bears the responsibility for their lack of success, said of Platt: "It was an issue of chemistry. It's a changing and competitive world out there, and it's about making things work as efficiently, effectively and clearly as possible."

Silver invited Platt to stay on as a producer. Platt has a rich producer deal built into his contract, which he is considering exercising.

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Platt's right-hand man, co-President Stacey Snider, will assume his responsibilities as head of production.

The two worked together at TriStar on such hits as "Sleepless in Seattle," "Legends of the Fall," "Philadelphia," "Jumanji" and "My Best Friend's Wedding" as well as the duds "The Fan" "Mary Reilly" and "Starship Troopers."

While sources insist that Bronfman wasn't behind Platt's firing, he has certainly made his strong disappointment with the movie division known. Last week, he demanded answers as to why the unit was malfunctioning, sources at the studio confirmed.

When asked if he is under pressure from Bronfman to turn things around, Silver said, "Edgar has told me he expects the performance of the movie department to improve, and I agree with him."

Silver's division is said to be under intense scrutiny, leaving executives there feeling at risk in a potentially bigger shake-up.

"Everybody is vulnerable until a division is running properly and efficiently," one source said.

Two executives who may be particularly vulnerable are Universal's co-heads of marketing, Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones. When a studio is suffering a prolonged cold streak, it's often the marketers who take the fall.

They don't pick the movies, but they are frequently blamed for mistargeting a film or not getting a clear message across to consumers.

If Bronfman is considering more radical action at Universal, sources speculate that he may even look to producer Brian Grazer, who runs Imagine Entertainment--Universal's major movie supplier--to oversee studio operations.

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