Deals like the $6.6 billion Japanese buyout of MCA Inc. offer alluring advantages: floods of cash and technology in a perilous world economy filled with giant competitors.
But Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s purchase Monday of one of Hollywood's dream factories - the biggest Japanese purchase ever of a U.S. company - also raises deeply rooted fears.Matsushita sought to allay those worries in announcing it planned no management or strategic changes at the company that owns Universal Studios, but the fears likely will persist, analysts say.
"The acquisition of a factory that makes, let's say, mufflers is one thing. Acquiring a central player in our cultural domain tends to raise different kinds of concerns," said Michael Radnor, a business professor who heads the international development program at Northwestern University.
Only three of the seven major Hollywood studios remain domestically owned - Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros. and Paramount.
Radnor pointed out that the United States is far more tolerant of foreign ownership of cultural treasures than France or many other countries. Over the years, Australia's News Corp. has purchased 20th Century Fox; Japan's Sony Corp. bought Columbia; and Italian-controlled Pathe Communications bought MGM-UA.
Still, "there's an argument that we have to be careful who controls the organs of mass communications," Radnor said.
"If a guy wants to make a very critical movie of Hirohito, does it make it tougher now that two of the biggest companies are not in U.S. hands?" he asked.
Perhaps. But Radnor and other observers said they believe the profit motive will prevail - after all, foreigners are buying American studios precisely because no other country's entertainment is so popular worldwide.
Companies like Sony and Matsushita are unlikely to try to censor U.S. entertainment, said Barbara Pfeiffer, a senior associate at Ulmer Bros. investment bank, which specializes in mergers of American and Japanese companies.
"But when you get down to it, this is a moneymaking enterprise. And the old saying is: `If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " Pfeiffer said.
"Steven Spielberg will still be making Steven Spielberg films. He won't be making `Steven Spielberg Goes to Japan." '
At a news conference Monday in Japan, Matsushita President Akio Tanii was asked if he would object to MCA making a "Japan-bashing" film or one critical of the late Emperor Hirohito's role in World War II.
"Something like that shouldn't emerge," said Tanii, looking agitated. "(MCA executives) will have the proper judgment with regards to the social impact. Filmmakers must create films that are inspirational, that will be enjoyable for everybody. I can't even imagine a case like that."
David Geffen, whose record company was bought for MCA stock that brought more than $700 million in the Matsushita deal, said those who worry about Japanese influence on Hollywood are showing "latent racism."
Few people worry about Swiss or British ownership of domestic companies, he said. Nor are questions raised about whether, say, Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso would shy away from a movie that might offend Catholics because of his religion, Geffen said.
More likely than films being censored, said Pfeiffer, is that more movies tailored to foreign audiences, be they British or Japanese, will be produced in addition to material aimed at traditional U.S. audiences.
"I think we're looking at expansion, not change," she said.
Examples of that are as near as movie theaters showing the film "Reversal of Fortune" about the socialite Claus von Bulow who was accused of trying to kill his wife, Sunny - a topic more morbid than general studio fare.
The major U.S. studios turned down the movie when independent producer Ed Pressman brought it to them. He instead approached Shochiku Co., a Japanese film distributor that wanted to back another project of his, the "cyberpunk' science-fiction movie called "New Rose Hotel," set in Japan.
Pressman offered to produce both, Shochiku agreed, and Warner Bros. is now providing domestic distribution for "Reversal of Fortune," which is a modest success in limited release.
"Japan is a long-standing film community with entities that have been in existence as long as Warner Bros. and MGM, and respect that goes beyond the bottom line."