I’ll take a lie detector test on this: There haven’t been three days that I’ve missed that job. I just regret that I didn’t leave 10 years before.
Sid Sheinberg, president and
COO of MCA/Universal, 1973-1995
A reborn Sid Sheinberg sits in his office in the 33,000-square-foot brick building that houses the Bubble Factory, the production company he created with his sons Jon and Bill in August 1995. The nondescript three-story structure is located at the southern tip of Beverly Hills--a healthy distance from Universal City, Sheinberg’s base for 37 years.
It was the purchase of MCA/Universal by the Seagram Co. in June 1995 that led the executive, now 62, to shake up his life. Though he and the legendary corporate CEO Lew Wasserman had received repeated offers to take over the company in a leveraged buyout, the two of them opted to pass.
“In the back of my mind, a machine said, ‘Don’t get yourself into that box,’ ” said Sheinberg, who, in contrast to his button-down past, is given to wearing T-shirts these days. “Running a gigantic company in this era is a complicated piece of business and I started to miss involvement in the creative part of things.”
So Sheinberg formed a multimedia entertainment operation whose product would be financed and distributed by his alma mater. Determined to hit the ground running, the Bubble Factory (a name inspired by a comment by Sheinberg’s wife to a reporter that her husband was in the backyard with his grandchildren blowing bubbles) had six films in production or pre-production within six months. “That Old Feeling,” the tale of a divorced couple (Bette Midler and Dennis Farina) rekindling the flames at their daughter’s wedding, is due out Friday--following last summer’s “Flipper” and the recent John Leguizamo comedy “The Pest.” “McHale’s Navy,” like “Flipper” a collaboration with Perry Katz Productions, is set for release on April 18.
Though it’s too early to evaluate its long-range prospects, the Bubble Factory’s first 20 months provide valuable insight into the vicissitudes of the movie industry--and the pitfalls of guessing wrong. The goal, Sheinberg maintains, is to be “flexible and opportunistic” since everything is built on “shifting sands.”
Under the terms of a contract Sheinberg calls “the most lucrative afforded an autonomous entity by a studio,” the company has the right to greenlight three pictures a year, each costing up to the Motion Picture Assn. of America average--currently $40 million. Films budgeted at $8 million or less may be peddled elsewhere if Universal has passed on them first (as is the case with the low-budget “Stinkers,” currently at Sony). P and PG movies, comedies and science fiction are in favor. Excessive violence and right-of-center political messages are not.
Autonomy, however, is only part of the picture. Fate, they’ve discovered, also factors in. “Flipper,” which grossed $20 million domestically, never recovered after “Twister” was moved up and a Taco Bell deal locked in their own release date. And after the critically panned “Pest,” which took in $3.5 million, took a dive against “Star Wars” and “Dante’s Peak” in February, the new Sony regime is questioning whether “Stinkers"--a merchandise-driven story of 7-year-olds on a field trip--should even be released.
“Give me a good release date and you can have the bad reviews,” Sid Sheinberg said of “The Pest.” “We knew the picture would get killed by critics . . . but it wasn’t aimed at people who read.”
The Sheinbergs point with pride to the fact that for their upcoming Christmas release, “For Richer and for Poorer” (about a bickering New York couple), they signed Midler (with whom they have a first look deal) pre-"First Wives Club” and Tim Allen before “Jungle 2 Jungle” took off. This summer’s “A Simple Wish” stars Martin Short as a male fairy godmother--but the comedian has never carried a film, they note.
“Our material isn’t designed for a single actor,” said 39-year-old Jon Sheinberg, who, before his Bubble Factory days, was a TV and film executive at Lorimar and Orion and a William Morris agent. “We’re not waiting for Steve Martin to walk in the door. And we’re not going to compete with George Lucas in special effects--our pictures are basically in the $30-million to $50-million range.”
Making moderately priced, formula pictures is a throwback to the Disney of old, some industry observers say--a strategy with considerable drawbacks. Escalating marketing costs cut into the profit margins of mid-range product, they suggest. And rehashing old TV fare like “Flipper” and “McHale’s Navy” lacks imagination and edge.
“The material is tired and middle-of-the-road,” said a Universal Pictures insider. “Sid thinks he’s going ‘mass, commercial,’ but he’s not ahead of the curve.”
Jon Sheinberg defends the company’s April release. “ ‘McHale’s Navy’ has a fresh take on the material,” he said. “In terms of production values, it’s going to look like ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ and bear little resemblance to stagnant military comedies like ‘Sgt. Bilko.’ ”
Proceeding without A-list directors and stars, others maintain, makes it hard to distinguish their movies from the rest of the pack. “We’re not talking Steven Spielberg anymore,” said someone close to the action, alluding to the young director Sheinberg once took under his wing. “Carl Reiner [“That Old Feeling”], Bryan Spicer [“McHale’s Navy,” “For Richer and for Poorer”] and Alan Shapiro [“Flipper”] are a different breed.”
Sid Sheinberg, who owns 20% of the company to his sons’ 80%, says he’ll work with talent of any stature--provided they’ll share control. “I have the highest respect for stars and auteur directors,” he said. “But I don’t want to work with people who only invite me to the preview. We want to be in the collaborative movie business, not the financing one. And who says that big-budget films are safer than mid-range films? In terms of return on investment, I’d rather have ‘Sling Blade’ and ‘Shine’ than ‘Volcano.’ ”
Sid Sheinberg is still his combative, shoot-from-the-hip self--a trait that puts him at a disadvantage when schmoozing or wooing talent. (“Some people may have problems with Sid since he puts a premium on honesty--not always a valued commodity in this town,” producer Perry Katz says.)
“Sid has great confidence in his ability to come up with good scripts,” observed his 36-year-old son Bill, a lawyer who became a TV executive at MTM Television and Spelling Entertainment. “But he has no idea how to get printed copies of them--or how the paper clips get in the bowl.”
Bill, as the most linear and structured of the three, cuts deals and oversees those day-to-day matters. Jon, a lover of “the hunt,” develops material and puts together movies. Sid brings all that experience--and the courage of his convictions. “It can take years to get a project greenlit in Hollywood,” said “That Old Feeling” producer Bonnie Bruckheimer. “Sid read the script and we were in production three weeks later.”
The Track Factory, the company’s musical wing, released the soundtracks to “Flipper” and “That Old Feeling” and has just brought rock vocalist Sammy Hagar aboard. Efforts to establish book, TV, licensing/merchandising and interactive media divisions are also part of the plan. Though these sectors have taken off slower than anticipated, said Sid Sheinberg, in the end, enjoying the work is what counts.
“This is all about family--extended family,” he said of his 30-person operation. “My biggest fear is that we’ll drift away from that and I’ll feel like I’m back at MCA. We have no aspirations to be a large growth enterprise. We don’t want to find ourselves building a $30-million atoll like we did in ‘Waterworld.’ Lew Wasserman, the smartest man I know, once said, ‘Life is not a rehearsal.’ You get to a certain age and you’re more aware of that.”