From The Archive
J. D. Connor
No. 15  November 2002

Universal 571

Breaking a studio’s code

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There are not many opportunities for product placement in World War II movies, Coke bottles excepted. Universal Pictures found a way around this obstacle by casting Jon Bon Jovi in its big-budget summer 2000 submarine adventure U-571 at the same time that Island Records (a division of Universal Music) was releasing his first new album in years.

Bon Jovi’s double-barreled resurrection drew attention across the buzz spectrum. Entertainment Tonight chimed in, as did Access Hollywood and even ESPN, which put the king of coif in a Jersey-themed SportsCenter commercial. All Bon Jovi had to do to draw all that attention was appear in the film. He certainly didn’t have to act. One of the biggest rock stars of the eighties gets blown off the deck of a sub without a second thought. Slippery when wet, dude.

The mismatch between Bon Jovi’s music stardom and his lowly role in U-571 mirrored the problems then facing his corporate paymaster, Universal, as it sought to digest all the unwieldy properties it had acquired during the culture industry mergers of the nineties. In fact, the story of U-571—both the story behind the movie and the story the movie tells—constitutes an eerily detailed symbolic effort to grapple with the management problems that media conglomerates face. Bon Jovi is only the most obvious instance of corporate cross-promotion in a film that was itself a relentless product placement for the corporation that made it.

It is sometimes a challenge to follow the dizzying game of international media monopoly. But it’s important to try to keep it straight.

The tangled corporate story begins in 1998, when Seagram, which owned Universal at the time U-571 was made, bought Polygram, acquiring, among other things, Bon Jovi and the rest of Island Records. Yes, a bold new media conglomerate was a-borning, but the deal seemed cursed. A culture clash between the different units that were brought together was evident from the outset, and Edgar Bronfman Jr., the Seagram heir that everyone calls “Effer,” pushed through a brutal restructuring in order to achieve $300 million in cost savings that he had promised Wall Street. Morale was low. Agents threatened to withhold material from the new conglomerate’s record labels if the company couldn’t guarantee the distribution systems would mesh in time.

That was bad enough. But along with Polygram’s record companies, Seagram also got Polygram Filmed Entertainment, which it didn’t really want, and which it proceeded to break up and auction off piecemeal, absorbing a considerable loss along the way.

Still, one tiny piece of the Polygram protectorate was considered so valuable that it had to be kept: Working Title films, the most successful British production company of the nineties. The unit is known for movies involving some sort of UK/U.S. interchange (Four Weddings, Notting Hill, The Matchmaker, The Borrowers, Bridget Jones’ Diary), all of which seek to answer one burning question: what is it about Britain that makes rich Americans drool so? Alternately, Working Title produces tepid paeans to Britishness such as Elizabeth (1998) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999), which serve up yet another eternal question: what is it that makes Great Britain so darn Great?

Working Title was considered a British national treasure; it couldn’t simply be liquidated like the others. But it wasn’t clear how Effer was going to keep the unit happy and well-fed, nor was it clear how he was going to pull the Seagram/Universal conglomerate out of the M&A gutter.

It turned out he couldn’t. Only eight months after acquiring Polygram, Seagram/Universal quietly put itself on the block, along with Working Title, Island, and all the troublesome rest. In January 1999, shortly before shooting began on U-571, Variety published a long account of the studio’s troubles—“It’s truly Bosnia over here,” one producer said—and its frantic efforts to find a financing partner for the big-budget submarine movie.

Universal went about finding this partner in a rather curious way: It tied the financing of U-571—a single movie, and a sure bet—to the Working Title unit—a much bigger investment and a much bigger gamble. Only someone willing to bankroll Working Title would get to share in the submarine film. In May 1999 Universal found the partner it was looking for, and inked a cofinancing deal with Canal+, the media arm of the giant French conglomerate Vivendi. U-571 was the bait; Working Title was the appetizer; Universal itself would be the main course.

It is sometimes a challenge to follow the dizzying game of international media monopoly. But it’s important to try to keep it straight. After all, this is what real Hollywood production looks like. It’s not Darryl Zanuck firing off memos and yelling into a phone. And yet today’s dizzying corporate whirl is just as important to the people who write and direct movies as were the gruff manners of the old-style studio chiefs to the writers and directors of the thirties, forties, and fifties. Big-studio movies have been self-reflexive for a long time. Think of Singin’ in the Rain, or What Makes Sammy Run, or the 1950 Columbia movie In a Lonely Place, where Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter unhappy with . . . Columbia. Billy Wilder wallowed in Hollywood’s past in Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950) and made an enduring fetish of the Paramount gate, which continued to show up in such unlikely places as The Godfather (Paramount, 1972), and the TV show Happy Days. In fact, Hollywood movies have been so stuffed with references to Hollywood business methods that the Coen brothers satirized this cliché in Barton Fink, which featured a caricature of none other than Zanuck himself.

The studios that mattered then are the ones that matter now—they are, after all, the majors. But worries over the course of corporate destiny are more diffuse these days. Caught between the demands of the story and the demands of their bosses, moviemakers try to tailor the story to fit the bosses, whoever they happen to be this week. This practice in turn furnishes the bosses with flattering objets d’art that explain their actions to themselves and to the world. U-571 is one of these films; it is the Golden Bowl of the dying days of the great media mergers.

This is why companies think about compatibility all the time. They are always on the prowl for attractive partners.

Vivendi had its own story to take into account. When 39-year-old Jean-Marie Messier, the legendary leader of France’s “red-blooded capitalists,” became chairman of the national water utility Compagnie Générale des Eaux (CGE) in 1996, he was determined to transform that monopoly with a free-market face into—what else?—a global media power. Just as Effer Bronfman channeled the enormous profits Seagram reaped from its liquor business into a media empire, so Messier drew on a steady stream of sewage and spring water to build his own. The ambitious Messier couldn’t simply sell off the old-economy utility side, no matter how much he wanted to, since that was where the money came from. But he did use the water money to buy the French media conglomerate Havas, which owned nearly half of the TV network Canal+, all of the Larousse publishing house, the news magazine L’Express, and to enter into a range of joint ventures with companies all over the map. Naturally all this corporate swashbuckling required a stylish new moniker: CGE est morte! Vive “Vivendi”!

This backstory becomes significant, both financially and artistically, when we start to consider the critical issue of corporate courtship, the endless search for a merger-mate in which nearly every company is always engaged. For mergers to be tax free, they have to be consummated with stock, not cash. So when the deal is done you’re either going to be bossing or working for the other side; you can’t just take the money and run. This is why companies think about compatibility all the time. They are always on the prowl for attractive partners: Lew Wasserman’s MCA talent agency spent years farming out its players to Universal before taking it over; Time Warner let AOL pay it millions for You’ve Got Mail before the two decided to merge.

Seagram had the same objective in mind when it was making U-571. It wanted a mate: a cash partner in making the movie first, a stock partner in all the big things later. And in fact, the partnership that came together over U-571 led directly to a get-to-know-you breakfast meeting between Bronfman and Messier in October 1999. A croissant or two later and they were dreamily discussing a $40 billion merger. Then in January, when the announcement of the AOL-Time Warner deal set off a new round of megamergers, Effer and Messier quickly came to terms. When news of the Vivendi-Universal megamerger was leaked, the L.A. Times described the combo as “bourbon and water.”

U-571’s significance as corporate art becomes even clearer when we put it in a different context. At the same time Universal was shopping the submarine film, it was also looking for partners for Erin Brockovich. Now, which movie looks like a better sell to a giant French water company—the one that features the largest rainstorm in film history, the one that reaches its climax when a sailor sacrifices his life to close a valve, or the one in which an intrepid investigator makes a giant American utility company pay millions for polluting the groundwater?

II.

For any reader of the industry trades, “U” means Universal, the way “the Lion” means MGM and “prexy” means president. The submarine is an obvious symbol for the corporation, and the movie itself—with its unlikely plot involving American sailors who board and steam away in a German submarine—is an allegory of its impending merger with a European conglomerate.

U-571 tells two stories, each designed to appeal to a different corporate audience: “the mission”—stealing the Enigma decoding machine that’s in the German sub; and “the professional”—testing Executive Officer Tyler’s (Matthew McConaughey) fitness for command. Mission films tend to be fairly formulaic. There are always two factions: the “mechanics,” the ones who do their usual job, and the “intelligence,” the ones with temporary control. (“He’s the boss. Whatever he wants, he gets,” the pooh-bah will say.) There is mutual mistrust, some tense moments when the mechanics act smart and the intelligence guys act brave, and then mutual respect. This nifty criss-cross makes the mission film ideal for thinking about changes in ownership and control.

In U-571, this story is intertwined with the (equally formulaic) tale of McConaughey’s professional maturation. Here the standard narrative runs like this: Someone wants to be in charge but is held back. A convenient emergency then puts him in charge and he muddles his way into deserving the accidental rank. The professional film is ideal for thinking about the sentimental subject of corporate leadership.

The immediate effect of this is a bunch of dead Germans, but the symbolic payoff is a new American togetherness.

The movie’s becoming-a-leader story was obviously designed to appeal to Effer Bronfman. Long derided by the business press as a starstruck rich kid, Bronfman’s capitalistic bona fides had been in question since he first got involved in the movie business. Bronfman had just finished proving his managerial mettle when the submarine film was okayed, firing both Universal CEO Frank Biondi and Universal Pictures CEO Casey Silver in less than two weeks. The Variety headline must have screamed out at the scriptwriters as they worked: “With Biondi out, pressure’s on Bronfman to turn U around.” The article went on, barely disguising its doubts: “Bronfman said he had ‘learned a lot’ in the three years since Seagram acquired a majority stake in Universal and felt able to do the job himself.” Effer needed bucking up.

On the Collector’s Edition DVD of U-571 writer/director Jonathan Mostow recalls how he rewrote McConaughey’s entrance after the actor was cast. Originally, McConaughey’s character was supposed to arrive at a swanky party drunk and with “a floozie” on his arm, but to capture the actor’s “inherent nobility,” Mostow gave him a stag entrance. “That’s not like you,” his captain’s wife chides. (Having one’s leadership undermined by a playboy reputation is, of course, a species of humiliation painfully familiar to Effer Bronfman: Bronfman Sr. once famously asked his son if Seagram was buying MGM stock “just so you can get laid.”) Then, after McConaughey discovers that the fatherly Bill Paxton has “torpedoed” his bid for a command of his own, he heads out on the porch, where he drinks—not the beer he has promised to have with the enlisted men, but a bottle of Seagram’s V.O. Only thanks to a last-minute rewrite was this inspired bit of product placement made possible.

And what kind of placement is it? Although it might conceivably persuade some weird someone to buy a fifth of V.O., that’s clearly not the intention here. The briefly glimpsed bottle of V.O. is more institutional than consumer advertising—it’s for those who know that Universal and Seagram are the same thing. (“V.O.” was Seagram’s ticker symbol in addition to being its flagship product.) Like the Bloods drinking Coke in Boyz N the Hood (Coke sold Columbia to Sony while the film was in production) or the Jurassic Park poster on the wall in Erin Brockovich (both Universal pictures), this is a little bit of self-synergy, a moment when we catch a media conglomerate looking in the mirror and saying “I love you.” Or, in this case, a moment when a canny director tells the boss of all bosses the same thing.

Eventually, of course, McConaughey/Bronfman manages to turn the U around, to sink the Germans, to earn his command, and to refute Barry Diller’s stinging charge that Effer is just “a third-generation bimbo.” The “professional” plot, like Bon Jovi’s appearance, seems calculated for maximum obviousness.

The “mission” plot of U-571 involves overcoming two obstacles. First, can Americans operate a German U-boat? Second, can they get the Enigma decoding machine back to their base without the Germans finding out? The first is a question of translation, which in the Hollywood context is the eternal question: can foreigners run a studio? It’s something Japanese parent companies have failed to do; something Canadian Seagram was failing to do.

But U-571 remains optimistic about the possibilities of foreign takeovers. This is, in fact, one of the most prominent themes of the film. When the Americans first approach the German U-boat, the ultracompetent sailor played by Jake Noseworthy shouts out in German: “We’re all mechanics. And we’re highly trained.” The Nazis are convinced, trade jokes with the Americans, and proceed to get shot all to hell. The immediate effect of this is a bunch of dead Germans, but the symbolic payoff is a new American togetherness. The intelligence guys and the submariners are one big happy. This is identity-formation, Hollywood-style.

Below decks, Noseworthy—on the DVD director Mostow calls him his onscreen persona—runs around the German control room, translating the names of all the Vivendiesque valves. Noseworthy is the figure in which the two mission teams, i.e., the two media conglomerates, are crossed. He is “half-German,” a human coproduction. He is also the radioman, which means he turns words into beeps and beeps into words, a human translation machine. And once he’s told the Americans what the valves are for, they can spin them.

These spinning valves are the overriding visual motif of U-571. There are gears and levers and gauges on the submarine as well, but there are dozens and dozens of valves, which must be spun, usually in pairs. Every couple minutes or so in the sub control room, an actor will grab a pair of bright red valves and spin like mad.

This frantic synchronized spinning is what critics used to call “baring the device,” reminding us what we’re looking at and where the money comes from. The hand-spun valves of U-571 echo the old-fashioned process of editing on a flatbed or the whirling spools of a projector. There is even a shot in the DVD’s “on location” documentary in which valves from the sub are placed in front of film canisters so that we can register the five-spoke design they share.

All the pieces of U-571—from the plot and the characters to the design and the editing—might seem like they come out of Submarine Movies For Dummies, but each has its place in the overarching allegory of the contemporary Hollywood system: director surrogates, corporate surrogates, stand-ins for the apparatus, stand-ins for the megamoguls. The allegory is everywhere at once.

Which brings us to the final piece of the mission plot: secrecy. If the Germans know the Enigma has been stolen, they will simply change the machines, making the theft almost pointless. To keep themselves hidden, the Americans do the things people do in submarine movies: they dive below crush depth, they sweat out depth charges, they surface unexpectedly, they blow up a destroyer’s radio room with a spectacular shot.

Hollywood’s compulsion to insert the medium into the message flops brutally when the allegory becomes too obvious.

But if this seems all too generic, it also underscores the finesse and control of the submarine’s crew as well as the film’s makers. For the latter, controlling the allegory is crucial. The dominant artistic issue in Hollywood over the last quarter century has been controlling the boundary between surface and depth, backstory and plot line, the allegorical and the literal. The peekaboo periscopes, shark fins, and icebergs remind us that someone determines when the boundary will be broken, when the sub will surface, when the latent will be made manifest.

Hollywood’s compulsion to insert the medium into the message flops brutally when the allegory becomes too obvious. Think of the terribly unfunny Siskel and Ebert parody in Godzilla or the disastrous Tinseltown “send-ups” from the big studios: Howard the Duck, The Pickle, The Last Action Hero, or Burn Hollywood Burn. When the in-joke becomes the only joke, no one laughs. (Less disastrous, but still quite bad, are movies like America’s Sweethearts, Get Shorty, and Bowfinger; they make The Player’s achievement even more remarkable.)

This may seem like so much undecipherable code. But the movie, of course, is about encryption. And while the encryption device, the Enigma machine, looks like a typewriter—a nostalgic script-generator—the guts of it are a series of unseen rotors, the invisible echoes of the spinning valves. The message the U-571 sends out on the Enigma is “Send help.” But the coded message of U-571 is that there is nothing so different about running a waterworks and running a Hollywood studio.

The film’s efforts to appeal to Vivendi—a water company on the way to being a media conglomerate with its own Hollywood studio—come through even in the details. Remember, the original Universal/Canal+ deal to cofinance U-571 also bankrolled the great English hope Working Title. In the final version of the film, however, all things British are systematically eliminated. As we all remember from the brief controversy that attended its release, U-571 credits American sailors for a feat that was actually pulled off by the Royal Navy even before America entered the war. It was originally supposed to end with a kind of symbolic payback when the raft of survivors catch sight of the British coast. But Mostow went back into the computer months later and substituted a U.S. Navy seaplane in the rescue role.

As for Working Tide, it took its big post-merger paycheck and did some very cheeky sulking. Yet another U.S./UK pas-de-deux was made, only this time the pudgy American woman pretended to be British and the British man proved he was a cad by sleeping with a terribly thin American in order to save the company (or so he says). Much more could be said about Bridget Jones’ Diary, but the film is the summa of Working Title’s frisson of British national pride and self-loathing. Albion: land of tarts and vicars.

III.

Shortly after U-571 opened, Vivendi and Universal officially merged. Vivendi joined the tradition of the wettest Hollywood studio, the one built by a man named Wasserman, whose fortunes were determined by the success of Jaws and the failure of Waterworld. When the new Vivendi-Universal executive team met at the Deauville (“Watertown”) Festival of American Film in September 2000, they naturally screened U-571. Synergy was in the air.

But the debt burden that forced Effer to sell only got worse. V-U sold off the Seagram liquor business, but the deal took time. It tried to sell off the waterworks but could find no buyers who were acceptable to the French government. This kept it from completing its acquisition of Canal+, as French law prohibits combinations between industrial and media corporations (of the GE-NBC kind.) Once hailed as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, Messier was now being mocked as a self-aggrandizing buffoon. His 2000 autobiography J6M.com (“Jean-Marie Messier, Moi-Même, Maître du Monde”) was exhibit A here.

When the Internet economy reached crush depth, Messier got fired. He was forced out when Charles Bronfman, the silent but deadly uncle, convinced the guardians of French capitalism on the Vivendi board to turn against J6M’s bold experiment in bubblenomics. Vivendi, always playing catch-up, had been the last of the megaconglomerates to form. But it may well be the first to get broken up.

The plan now, as far as anyone can tell, is to keep Canal+ and the utilities in French hands and sell Universal—the studio, the theme parks, and the music company—to “the Americans.” The leading candidate to take over the Universal operation is none other than Barry Diller, Effer’s eternal dance partner. If it comes to pass, this will be Diller’s third stint in charge of a major studio (he previously ran Paramount and Fox), one where the biggest film in production is called Terminator 3, directed by Jonathan Mostow. Reason to go to the movies again.

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