Being fired as chairman and chief executive of Universal Studios Inc. may be the best thing that ever happened to Frank Biondi Jr. and not just because of his $30 million golden parachute.
He leaves a troubled entertainment giant mired under the weight of decisions that just didn't pay off.
This year, Universal's feature film division is in lowly ninth place among the studios with $181.5 million and a 4.6 percent box-office share below Walt Disney Co.'s boutique, Miramax, at $340 million and 6 percent.
Just last week, its much-anticipated "Meet Joe Black" received generally bad reviews and a lukewarm box-office reception.
This isn't the studio's first weak year for movies. In Hollywood, it is known as something of a one-hit wonder it discovered Steven Spielberg and made a pile of money off his astonishing success at the box office, but otherwise it has had relatively little to show for its 86 years of movie-making.
Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., a company that estimates box-office returns, attributed the studio's recent troubles to the fact that it was slow in realizing that the core audience is dominated by teen-agers, and that their tastes have changed.
"It has been basically relying on old formulas that worked in the past," he said. "They didn't realize that the teen audience is the wave of the future. They stuck with an older audience too long."
Bu there have always been financial lows at Universal, which was founded in 1912 by movie pioneer Carl Laemmle. The studio didn't have the prestige of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. or Warner Bros. even though it signed early stars like Rudolph Valentino and Lon Chaney.
In the early '30s, it was the home of Hollywood horror classics like "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man." But by the middle of the decade, the studio was on the verge of bankruptcy, only to be saved by a string of musicals starring Deanna Durbin.
In the 1940s, its B-movie lineup included stars like Sabu, Maria Montez and Jon Hall, all of whom appeared in a series of exotic adventures (and none of which were Oscar contenders). During the '50s, Universal stayed in the black with Abbott and Costello comedies and adventure yarns starring Jeff Chandler.
It wasn't until the '70s that Universal, under one-time theatrical agent Lew Wasserman, enjoyed a renaissance with top grossers like "Airport," "Towering Inferno" and "Jaws" the first of a string of Spielberg hits. But even that impetus proved sporadic.
And so it has remained under the studio's various changes in ownership first to Japan's Matsushita in 1991, and then to Seagram Co. in 1996.
That's why television was considered such a pillar to the company's operations. During its heyday in the 1960s, Universal was Hollywood's busiest TV factory, at one point producing a staggering 22 hours of prime-time programming. "Television wasn't just the backbone of the company," said a former top Universal executive. "It was the company."
Because of that, TV executives still scratch their heads over the decision to sell most of the TV assets to Barry Diller, in a deal that gives Universal a 45 percent stake in his company, USA Networks Inc.
"Universal is in a very bad position for the millennium," said the former Universal executive. "Look at their competition. It's Time Warner, Viacom and Fox. Those are multifaceted companies. They can do a lot of things. Universal is very strangely positioned."
Universal's competitors have created a tremendous amount of synergy among their various divisions. They own broadcast and cable networks, TV and feature film production divisions, theme parks, retail stores, music labels, licensing divisions and a host of other operations intended to exploit the properties they own across media.
Universal has some of that synergy too, but the pieces don't quite all fit together. The lack of a TV division, for example, means it can no longer turn out hits like an "ER" or "Seinfeld," which can earn millions of dollars in syndication and be exploited in other platforms.
"Who outsources a TV division?" asked Jeffrey Logsdon, an analyst at Seidler Cos. Inc.
Logsdon is puzzled by Universal's lack of synergy. "You have Steven Spielberg on your lot, and he develops 'ER,' but where does it go?" he said. "It goes to Warner Bros. Tom Clancy does a book for your publishing house, but Paramount is making his movies."
As for Biondi, he was considered expendable because Seagram Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. is moving the company more toward music an area not considered one of Biondi's strengths. Indeed, Bronfman is nearing completion of a $10.4 billion purchase of Polygram N.V., which will make Universal the largest music company in the world.
"He is, in effect, double-downing his bets on music," said Steve Cesinger, an analyst at Greif & Co. "But he has a much longer vision than most people give him credit for. He's buying music assets when the market is down. These are highly exportable and can be sold in multiple formats, and when Asia comes back and the world economy starts humming, they will be very valuable assets."
While critics see Bronfman's management of Universal as a liability, not everyone agrees.
"Clearly the issue is the near term," Cesinger said. "How does he survive the strong competition during the next 18 months? But he's a young guy and I doubt he is worried. He's not thinking about next year, he's thinking about 2005."
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