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Curtain Rises on Bronfman's Third Act

Media: Vivendi's vice chairman is focused on shaping the firm's future and boosting its stock.

October 08, 2002|CORIE BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edgar Bronfman Jr. has a rare shot at redemption in Hollywood.

As scion of the Seagram dynasty, Bronfman gambled his family fortune when he helped transform its Canadian liquor business into the world's second-largest media conglomerate. Then he watched his family's $6-billion stake in Vivendi Universal shrivel as the company's shares lost 80% of their value in an ensuing financial crisis.

Bronfman, Vivendi's vice chairman, now has been charged with taking a more activist role. Not only is he trying to boost the media giant's share price, the 47-year-old also is out to restore the family's fortune--and perhaps add a little luster to the family name.

"My focus is entirely on trying to help all of the stakeholders, management and shareholders, to recapture the value that has been squandered and formulate a future that is exciting," Bronfman said in an interview.

Vivendi Chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou announced at a board meeting last month that Bronfman would assume a more hands-on role as a liaison to Vivendi's music, movie, television, game and theme park executives.

The move comes as the Paris-based company struggles to remake itself. Although there are political pressures in France to keep a stake in the company's bedrock--the water and sewage operation--the goal is to reduce that holding. Vivendi probably will then spin off at least a portion of its entertainment companies in an initial public offering, possibly with one or more strategic partners in the American media, Bronfman confirmed. Any spinoff would depend on the market for media properties improving, something analysts say is a year or two away.

"The end game is clear. You are going to have to end up with an American-listed vehicle that U.S. media investors can buy into," he said.

It remains to be seen whether Bronfman's third go-around in Hollywood will prove more successful than his first two.

After skipping college, the grandson of Seagram founder Sam Bronfman hit Hollywood, where he had some success as a songwriter (Dionne Warwick's "Whisper in the Dark") and movie producer ("The Border" starring Jack Nicholson).

He established long-term friendships with then-Paramount Studios Chairman Barry Diller, former agent Michael Ovitz and actor Michael Douglas.

But he quickly realized the limits of a freelance Hollywood career and moved to New York in 1982 to work at Seagram for his father, Edgar M. Bronfman.

At first dismissed as a rich man's son with an arrogant attitude, Bronfman eventually won respect for refocusing the company on upscale liquor brands and increasing profit by slashing Seagram's work force.

Yet Bronfman never lost his lust for Hollywood.

As Seagram's chief operating officer, Bronfman began venturing into the entertainment arena, acquiring 15% of Time Warner Inc. from 1993 to 1995. After being promoted to chief executive, Bronfman convinced the Seagram board to buy 80% of Universal Studios' parent company, MCA Inc., for $5.7 billion in 1995.

Bronfman now was a player, and through a couple of strategic moves, he made his mark on Hollywood.

With the acquisition of PolyGram Music in 1998, he transformed MCA Music, a second-tier company known mostly for its urban and country acts, into the world's largest record company. He hired Ron Meyer as president of Universal Studios, laying the groundwork for a management team that currently is one of the movie industry's strongest. And he pushed forward the construction of the $2.5-billion Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla., to wide acclaim.

"I'm very proud of accomplishing that," Bronfman said.

Yet, there are other, less rosy, views of those years.

Bronfman earned the enmity of the movie industry with his efforts to impose on the studios the cost-based financial models he had learned at Seagram. And his stiff, patrician manner isolated him in a culture in which relationships depend on instant intimacy.

More significant, Bronfman slighted MCA's aging patriarch, Lew Wasserman, who had advised U.S. presidents from Kennedy to Clinton, by excluding the legendary Hollywood power broker from a significant role at the studio.

The industry delighted in speculating that Bronfman had been snookered when he sold 55% of Universal's television assets, including USA Network, to Barry Diller in a complex 1997 agreement.

Some said Bronfman was taking his revenge when he invoked a clause in the agreement and killed a deal Diller was hatching to buy NBC because it would have diluted Bronfman's stake in the company.

In his new role, Bronfman will be working closely with Diller--something Diller says he welcomes.

"The relationship was able to withstand the [earlier] conflict," said Diller, chairman of Vivendi Universal Entertainment. "Contrary to popular mythology, I have been and continue to be friends with Edgar. Having Edgar involved [in Vivendi], in whatever way, is in no part negative."

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