SOMEONE else is holding the reins, but John Wayne is still in the saddle. The buyout this week of MCA Inc. by a Japanese conglomerate underlines the growing foreign presence in the United States movie industry.
It signals the increasing consolidation and globalization of the entertainment business, with impacts that are economic, cultural, and political.
The latest deal exacerbates concern that too many US companies are falling under Japanese control. But analysts say the country's Sumo-size stake in Tinseltown won't affect what moviegoers see on the Big Screen.
``The Japanese are not coming here to buy entertainment companies to change what they do,'' says Charles Slocum, an analyst with the Writers Guild of America/West. ``They are coming here because Hollywood does it better than anybody else.'' Highest price ever
In Monday's boffo bid, the Japanese giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Company bought MCA, one of the largest US entertainment companies, for $6.1 billion. It was the most a Japanese company has paid for a US firm.
That puts four of Hollywood's seven major studios in foreign hands. Last year Sony Corporation, a Matsushita rival, bought Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion. Italian-owned Pathe Communications Corporation completed its buyout of MGM/UA Communications Corporation last month. Twentieth Century Fox is owned by Australian interests.
Economics, not cultural imperialism, is the reason for the growing foreign presence. The Japanese, in particular, have been driven by a desire to marry the electronic hardware they produce with the entertainment product - software - to play on it.
For Matsushita - which produces consumer products like videocassette recorders marketed under the names Technics, Quasar, and Panasonic - that means gaining control over the products of Universal: movies like ``Back to the Future'' and ``Jaws''; recording artists such as Elton John and Tiffany.
The last decade of Japanese consumer wars drove home the lesson of needing to control software. In buying Columbia, Sony gained valuable entertainment fare for its consumer products.
Now, Matsushita is striking back in buying MCA, which is Hollywood's most diversified entertainment company. It has interests in films, TV production, records, theaters, books, and theme parks. Combined, the two companies create a $50 billion behemoth - one of the world's largest corporations.
``The history of Hollywood has been driven by new technologies,'' says Chris Dixon, an entertainment analyst with Kidder Peabody Company. ``What you are seeing with this acquisition is positioning for the next technology cycle.'' `No idea how to make films'
For US companies, the arrival of the Japanese means access to deep pockets at a time of rising production costs. But Matsushita, like Sony, is not expected to exercise much control over content.
``Matsushita has no idea how to make films,'' says Hiroshi Yahagi of the Japan Economic Journal. ``[MCA chief] Lew Wasserman and all of MCA's directors will work exactly as they did before.''
Even if the company tried to meddle, it would be difficult. Jeffrey Logsdon, an analyst with Seidler Amdec Securities, says the public helps determine what ends up on the screen. If a movie doesn't have the potential for mass appeal, it won't get made.
``Essentially the studios act as merchant bankers,'' he says. ``They have been trying to dictate to the creative community all century - unsuccessfully.''
``There has been no interference with the creative people at Columbia since Sony took over a year ago,'' says Al Burton, a producer who has been under contract to MCA since 1983. ``That augurs well.''
Still, concerns exist. Some analysts contend that if a Columbia or MCA were to produce a string of box-office flops, the parent company might exercise tighter control over management.
``It is much too early to tell if the Japanese will get involved on the creative side,'' says Jessica Reiff, an analyst with First Boston Corporation.
Undoubtedly, the Matsushita buyout will fuel anger over Japanese ownership of US properties. Japanese firms already own several American icons - among them Rockefeller Center and the Pebble Beach golf links. Fueling US resentment
``This shows how Japan's capital surplus is being funneled into the US in a big way,'' says David Arase, a Japan-watcher at Pomona College. ``But it is going to increase resentment by Americans over the relatively closed nature of the Japanese economy.''
The political fallout may reach Washington. Some congressman have expressed concern about growing foreign ownership of US communications entities. Conversely, the development could buttress the argument of some US firms that the federal government should relax rules governing their ownership of entertainment and media outlets.