Lights, camera, chickens?
Universal Studios started out as a converted chicken ranch on a few acres of Hollywood land in 1915. The founder, Carl Laemmle, soon began to make an extra buck off of his film production facilities: he charged spectators admission to watch the early silent movies being filmed. As the years rolled by, Universal was acquired by the Music Corporation of America (MCA). Today, with a name change from MCA/Universal to Universal Studios, the company is majority-owned by beverage and media giant Seagram.
Universal Studios currently operates music subsidiary labels Geffen Records (home of Beck and 10,000 Maniacs) and Decca Records (with such favorites as the Buddy Holly catalogue); runs independent film production companies such as Secrets and Lies studio October Films; and is the television producer for Law & Order and other reputable programs. In 1998, parent Seagram acquired PolyGram records for an unprecedented $10.6 billion. PolyGram's artists include Boyz II Men and U2. The combined music unit, Universal Music Group, is currently the world's largest. In March 1999, as part of a larger "three-year, first look" agreement with director Tom Shadyac, whose four films have grossed over $ 1 billion box office dollars, Universal Music Group signed on to produce soundtracks in association with Shadyac's company, 333 Music Group.
Universal Breaks Records
Although all Geffen and Decca products are still intact, Universal Studios has broken two records with its theme park division. As part of the opening of the Universal Studios new theme park, Island Adventures, in May 1999, the company shattered the Guinness world records for the brightest single beam of light ever created and for having the largest and brightest collection of spotlights ever assembled in one location. Attached to Universal Studios Florida, Island Adventures includes Marvel Super Hero Island and Jurassic Park. In addition to Universal's highly successful theme parks in Hollywood and Orlando, Universal Studios expanded into Europe in 1998, paying roughly $1 billion to media company Pearson, for a 37 percent stake in Spanish theme park, Aventura. When Universal finishes doubling the park's current size to include theaters, hotels, and sports sites, it will become Europe's largest theme park. New theme parks are also coming soon to China and Japan. The $1.7 billion Universal Studios Japan, currently under construction, will open in spring 2001. The company is also expanding its attractions and lodging in Florida, hoping to rival Disney as a "complete vacation destination" rather than a one or two day stop. One feature visitors can look foward to is the ability to check email from kiosks to be installed around the Universal theme parks, thanks to a deal with America Online. In another effort to gain an even footing with Disney, Universal investigated the possibility of adding the Orlando Magic to their corporation, though a deal has not been made. Disney owns two sports franchises, the Mighty Ducks and the Angels.
While the company is growing its theme park and music businesses, Universal's mainstay remains the Hollywood blockbuster. Thanks to hits such as the Jurassic Park films and Forrest Gump, Universal has remained one of the major players in the American film industry. In February 1998, the company announced that it was launching a division aimed at the lucrative home entertainment market, challenging Walt Disney's stranglehold on the family-oriented programming business. In February 1999, Universal Studios Home Video signed a DVD distribution agreement with Columbia TriStar Home Video for international distribution of USHV DVD products.
That's a wrap!
Universal Studio's parent company, Seagram, entered into talks with News Corp., Walt Disney Co., and Betelsmann to discuss an acquisition of Seagram. It seems French media giant Vivendi will win out, having made a bid of over $30 billion. The new company will be called Vivendi Universal, and will be run by Vivendi's chief executive, Jean-Marie Messier. The wine and spirits division of Seagram will likely be spun off once the acquisition is complete.
Veterans at Universal Studios say that the company's decentralized structure makes the application process "complicated." Applicants can send a resume to the Human Resources department, but employees say that a high percentage of those holding permanent positions began as temporary workers or interns. Those interested in working in the theme park division can consult the employment Web page (located at www.universalstudios.com/unicity/hr), call the job hotline (818-622-5627), or submit a resume via fax (818-622-0112).
Getting your foot in the studio
Though a large company, Universal Studios nonetheless maintains a "close-knit" atmosphere among its "culturally and intellectually diverse" workforce. While employees suggest that the divisions between top management and lower-level employees are "pronounced," they say that the company offers "outstanding opportunities to break in the business end of the entertainment industry." Says an insider: "The key to Universal is to decide what exactly you want to do, what facet of the business, and then start out wherever you can get your foot in the door." "It's a fairly casual atmosphere, depending on what you are doing and who you work for," says one insider. "I get away with jeans quite a bit, but that's because I am not dealing with too many outsiders." Another employee describes the atmosphere as department distinctive: "People in the media end of it (versus theme parks) tend to dress up more, and it appears to me, that their dress is more trendy and 'cutting edge.'"
Perks and pressures
Employees report "decent" or "competitive" pay and a "nice benefits package." In addition, "there are many perks in the form of discounts on all MCA/Universal attractions and products." Universal Studio's entertainment arm, however, is a "high-stress" field; Universal assistants report working 50 to 60 "pressure-packed" hours a week - "sometimes more." The salary for assistants is $26,000 and up, which is considered "above market" in L.A. However, the Universal name "confers instant respectability" to anyone looking to build a career in the business. Employees advise that those looking to break in to "creative work" - such as writing, designing, or directing - are better off beginning with a smaller, independent studio.
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