While waiting for the results of his California Bar examination and teaching law at UCLA, Sid Sheinberg went to work for a television production subsidiary of MCA Inc. He didn’t know it at the time, but his law career was about to evaporate; he went on instead to become one of the most powerful entertainment executives in Hollywood.
So Sheinberg knows something about changing jobs. His latest career move is almost as dramatic, going from president and chief operating officer of MCA where he reigned for 22 years as the No. 2 man under legendary studio mogul Lew Wasserman to being one of three partners in a still-unproven startup production company in Beverly Hills called The Bubble Factory. His move came after MCA was acquired in 1995 by Seagram Co. and later changed MCA’s name to Universal Studios Inc.
The Bubble Factory, owned by Sheinberg and his two sons Jon and Bill, has a deal with Universal under which the studio fully funds and distributes at least three movies a year. So far, The Bubble Factory’s output hasn’t exactly set Tinseltown on fire. Its films “Flipper,” “The Pest,” “That Old Feeling,” and “McHale’s Navy” have all been box office disappointments.
It might be a bad idea to bet against Sheinberg, though. He is the man who discovered Steven Spielberg, and played a key role in developing the most commercially successful films of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Q: What kind of movies do you want to make at The Bubble Factory?
A: Our mandate is really definable by exclusion we really don’t want to make R-rated movies, violent movies, movies that the whole family can’t see. The reality, however, is that today, because of the way the world has changed and because of the way that movies are being marketed, you have to define what you want to do differently than you might have defined it two years ago.
We ended up being responsible for a movie called “Flipper,” which we didn’t actually start but which we took responsibility for when we went into business. We learned a graphic lesson coming out one week after “Twister.” When the fathers and some mothers were taking their kids to the multiplex, and had the decision to turn right and go to “Flipper” or turn left to go to “Twister,” they all turned left.
So the definition of a family movie today is unfortunately very different than it was some time ago. We live in a world of video games and intense, fast action. Forget about what parents say; what they do or permit their children to do is quite different from what it was even a few years ago.
Q: What do you mean about having to “define” movies differently?
A: Well, I was really talking about family films. But the whole business has changed very significantly in the last couple of years. The amounts of money that are being spent right now to not only make films but to market them are so gigantic that it’s very hard to get a smaller film launched for a mass audience.
Q: So is there any point in making small films? There’s a lot of talk now about how the studios just want to make the “event” pictures, while the mid-budget stuff is dropping out.
A: There is a lot of talk, and at this stage of the game it’s kind of a fearsome question. Because with these so-called event pictures, I don’t know that anyone has yet gotten their economics straight. You lose on one or two of those pictures and you can’t make enough money during the rest of the year to make up for it.
The only thing I ever learned in my 30-some-odd years in this business is, beware of thinking there’s a rule. I’ve lived through all the periods. I lived through the period when the rule was: only make low-budget movies. We’re now at a little different phase where everybody’s focusing on these gigantic event pictures. Wait until one or two of them don’t work.
Q: Other than the amount of money being spent to make and market movies, what do you think is the biggest change in the industry since you started out?
A: I think that, by and large, there is an incredible lack of commitment to making “a good movie,” as opposed to a really marketable movie. I think we’re somewhere in the middle of the special effects era. I don’t think it’s going to disappear, any more than the Industrial Revolution disappeared, but right now people are going to the movies in order to be “wowed” by them. And it’s probably to the exclusion of story-based, or performance-based, product.
Q: Well, the argument is that people can watch a story-based movie at home on the VCR, whereas, if they’re going to shell out $7.50 or $8 for a movie they want a spectacle.
A: I think that the movie-going experience is a different experience from watching on a VCR. It is for me, anyway. The sheer size of the image, the sense of being enveloped and secluded from the world, where you don’t have the phone ringing. To me, any movie on the television screen becomes a television movie, whether it’s “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Schindler’s List” or “Star Wars.”
But I think people do think the way you say. When you go to a focus group where they preview movies, audiences will often say, “Well that’s a good movie, but you don’t have to see it in a theater. You can wait until it comes out on video.” Maybe that will turn out to be the reality. It’s sad if that happens.
I personally feel the movie business is not going to be limited to the $200 million extravaganza loaded with special effects and mega-stars. I think if I felt that way, I would say, you know, I don’t really have to do this anymore. Not that we don’t enjoy those.
Q: Do you think movies were better 20, 30 years ago than they are now?
A: I don’t know. I do think there is a greater emphasis now on being wowed by the technology. You know, I’m as much a ‘wowee’ as anybody else. When Steven Spielberg called me into a bungalow a few years ago, and I saw these motion studies on the computer that were later to be the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” I said to The Wall Street Journal at the time and Steven got upset about it; he said, “Why do you set this standard for us?” I said, “I think we’ve got the biggest movie of all time.” People had never seen anything like that. And we did.
Q: So a lot of people might blame you for the phenomenon you’re complaining about.
A: Well, I’m just saying that we’re now in the digital era. What the digital world gives us is the ability to do anything, if you’ve got the time and the money. The real question is, “Is this going to continue?” I don’t think so. We’ve seen so many of these things, and the threshold is getting higher and higher. Take a look at movies like “Daylight” and “Dante’s Peak.” You’re already seeing a skewing down.
Mr. (James) Cameron is making a movie called “Titanic.” The man is clearly a genius at what he does, so I’m sure it will have things no one has ever seen before. But I just don’t know if he’ll be able to keep wowing them. I think the time is ready for something small and soft to really break through.
Q: Do you think the success of “The English Patient” is an example of that already happening?
A: Well, I think “The English Patient” is something kind of in the middle. It’s an old-fashioned movie, and you know, it’s not a gigantic hit.
We’re betting on our movie “A Simple Wish.” Maybe we’ll be wrong, but it’s a softer movie that’s got some special effects in it. We’re hoping people will want to take their children to this kind of movie in the summer because they’ll be satiated with the big ones.
Q: The Bubble Factory doesn’t have a stellar track record so far. Is it difficult to invest so much time and energy into a project, only to have it rejected by audiences?
A: Of course it’s disappointing. One of the things that’s characteristic of me at this stage of my life is, I’m more interested in the process. I mean, I’ve been connected with the biggest-grossing films of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and, in “Schindler’s List,” probably the most acclaimed picture in history. So I’ve been there. If I wanted to make films that were only going to be judged by how successful they’re going to be, I’m not sure we’d be making exactly what we’re making.
But sure, it’s disappointing. You take a film like “That Old Feeling,” that deserved to do better than it did. You can second-guess the marketing or whatever you want to second-guess. But we’re very proud of that film. It was made for $23 million, and I think we did a damn good job.
Q: So why didn’t it take off?
A: There are always a lot of reasons. I think in the case of that film, it wasn’t marketed to a younger female audience. So much effort was spent targeting the Bette Midler audience, the so-called “Father of the Bride” audience, that the younger audience was totally abandoned to “The Saint,” which opened with it. “The Saint” I’m sure cost three times as much; I’m sure they spent more than three times as much money marketing it, so I’m not surprised it opened to three times the business.
Q: Do you ever miss the power of running a huge studio?
A: Well, there are days when I miss certain aspects of the power. But I fully recognize that you can’t have everything. If I were to have the power, I would also have those burdens. I wouldn’t be able to do some of the things that I’m now doing. I wouldn’t trade, let’s put it that way.
Q: Over the course of your career, what are you the most proud of accomplishing?
A: I was always most proud of being able to work with and develop people who went on to make their mark. I’m proud of working with people who, at the end of the day, felt that working with me is something they liked to do.
I have been known on occasion to be irascible. There was a story written about me by a reporter, she showed it to me before it was printed, and I was referred to as kind of a wild character, irascible and combative. I said, “How dare you say that.” I was with my wife, and I said, “Do you know what she’s writing?” And she said, “She’s right, you are combative.” So I recognize that I’ve been possibly combative in my day.
But I’ve always gotten a great deal of pleasure out of that part of the job, whether it’s starting a guy like Steven Spielberg or a lot of other directors I’ve started, or working with executives on their careers.
In terms of pictures, I’d say without question “Schindler’s List.” It’s something that I personally acquired, worked on, and gave to Steven. I saw it made as this incredible film that will be remembered, in my opinion, for a long time.