Hollywood and Wasserman's Legacy

Fantasy and reality interlaced in Lew Wasserman's biography
Many people never disclose the secrets of their success, even in the last days of their lives. It is a paradox but the principle and the method of success were almost the only things that Lew Wasserman made public during his life. Much can be said about the MCA Universal owner who died at the age of 89 at the beginning of June last year. He was one of the key figures in the American movie industry in the 1960-1990s. They say, people thrilled in front of him. It was also said that one telephone call from Wasserman to politicians, whom he could support during election campaigns, or to mafia bosses, of relations with whom he was suspected, could have a tremendous effect. 

Fantasy and reality got mixed in Lew Wasserman's biography. Nobody will be able to refute his legend or to embellish it. Lew Wasserman is the only owner of the large company over the past 40 years who can be compared with the legendary studio founders such as Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers. The problem is that he seemed to be the last Mohican; it is hard to imagine a media group that is headed by one man only. Lew Wasserman was not only a producer, an agent, the owner of the studio, a patron of TV company and the president of a recording studio. Since his early age when he sold sweets in a cinema and till his old age Lew Wasserman remained a futurist.

Founders of studios were mostly Jews from Eastern Europe. They stuck to the same line in the work: they assigned primary importance to interests of the audience. The thesis was put forward by Neal Gabler in his work "An Empire of Their Own : How the Jews Invented Hollywood". The author emphasized the utopian thinking and empiric approach of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the people who created Hollywood. As is said in the book, the principle of Lew Wasserman was even more perfect. It included not only knowledge about interests of the audience, but also a factory of talents, actors, scenario writers and directors. He started his career in Music Corp. of America (MCA) headed by Jules Stein, where he proved that he had perfect fair for understanding and upbringing of talents. Wasserman's wonderful flair allowed him to make talented actors work and to sell results of the work; this work brought Wasserman unbelievable success in the movie industry and in mass media.

Wasserman always kept abreast of the times to achieve success. When he became MCA president in 1946, he realized that the studio system was on the verge of disappearance. It was possible that the owners could lose authority and the actors could get it. Wasserman was the first to start negotiations on shares of actors in profits made by films where the actors performed. Wasserman was the first who attached great importance to catalogues; in 1958 he bought all films by Paramount issued after 1948. MCA paid $10 millions for the film collection. In several weeks, Lew Wasserman sold the right for demonstration of the films to different TV channels and earned $30 millions in the transaction.

In the 1910s, Adolph Zukor, the founder and owner of Paramount, performed the functions of producer and distributor of films. Following this logic, Lew Wasserman created a TV section inside Universal Pictures which was to diversify activity of the studio and to expand the market.  He managed to combine cinema and television, then music and entertainment parks in the network of one global strategy of mass media compatibility that is still dominant in the sphere.

In that time talented agents often became more popular than movie stars; the Wasserman method proved faultless. Although Wasserman was omnipresent, he avoided publicity and never gave interviews. He brought up talents, met with actors, knew them better and only after that he offered work that they could do.

The system of employing stockholders and financiers at the actors' service never failed over the whole period of Wasserman's reign, even at the period when the latter invented the blockbaster. After Spielberg's Jaws, the name of blockbaster was given to any film that yielded great sums within several weeks of distribution.  Such was the style of Lew Wasserman, the man who liked to wear black suits and large glasses. His style was to use the power in that extent that he determined for himself, and it based on the idea that movie must always be in the focus of a media-group's activity.

Samuel Blumenfeld
Le Monde, France

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Author`s name Michael Simpson