Risque Business At Time Warner
Madonna Kicks Up Another Controversy For The Company. But While The Public May Find ‘Sex’ Distasteful, The Star’s Deal Is Sweet.
With the publication of “Sex,” Time Warner was again caught up in controversy. The Wall Street Journal attacked the company as “our era’s undisputed schlockmeister,” and Madonna, the faux dominatrix, as “a schlockmistress.” But will the pop diva’s Mylar-bagged fantasy become another “Cop Killer”? Not MY likely. While Ice-T’s murderous anthem provoked police boycotts and an uproar at the Time Warner annual shareholders’ meeting, “Sex” seems less an abdication of public responsibility than a violation of taste. “Here we’re talking about sexual diversity,” says an executive. “With ‘Cop Killer,’ you were talking about murder.” The police protests led to the pulling of “Cop Killer” and to toning down other rap acts. So far, the outcry over “Sex” has been limited to “lots of phone calls,” says Warner Books publisher Nanscy Neiman. “They damn me to hell or tell me that God loves me anyway.”
At the more upscale magazines of Time Warner, talk is turning to the company’s taste. “People are asking, ‘Isn’t there anybody up there who can say no?'” says one Time magazine staffer. But co-CEO Gerald Levin showed his support of “Sex” by turning up at the S&M-theme publication party-wearing a leather jacket with Bugs Bunny on the back. His main concern: maximizing profits from Madonna projects. Warner Books reportedly advanced the star $5.5 million for “Sex” and a future book–a deal separate from the reported $60 million multimedia agreement Time Warner signed with her last April. (A source close to Madonna says these figures are “substantially underestimated.”) The early word on “Sex” is positive: of 500,000 copies distributed in America, sales topped 150,000. Jessica Reif, financial analyst for Oppenheimer & Co., predicts that “the book will be incredibly profitable.”
What about the larger investment? On first look, the star’s reported seven-year deal for her own record company, HBO specials, videos, films, books, merchandise and more than six albums seemed to be an enormous gamble for Time Warner. Madonna’s advance for each album is believed to have jumped from $3 million to $5 million. Time Warner will reportedly put up $2 million for two HBO specials, spend $5 million a year to underwrite Madonna’s new record label and advance $2 million against her percentage of profits for each screenplay she develops. It’s a huge price tag, in line with recent deals made by Michael Jackson, Aerosmith and Prince. Such megapackages sound outrageous but could be very smart for the record companies.
In fact, Madonna’s deal looks good for Time Warner. The $60 million depends on her performance, and the company almost certainly has safety valves. If Madonna doesn’t earn million advance on an instance, Warner can st royalties on other albums. And her track record is comforting: her albums have sold an average of 9.5 million copies each. “Her catalog of records alone would recoup the risk,” says one Hollywood mogul. But before the company starts counting its money, it ought to think about production values. Disgruntled customers are complaining that the metal covers on “Sex” easily fall off. Warner Books first dismissed the incidents as a “few isolated reports” but later changed its no-return policy and asked stores to offer refunds on damaged books.
Talking With Madonna: The Unbridled Truth
A few weeks before the release of Madonna’s book, “Sex,” and her new album, “Erotica,” the star talked with NEWSWEEK’S David Ansen in Los Angeles. She was dressed in a striped jersey bodysuit and fashionably clunky shoes. Over one tooth she wore a gold cap with the letter D on it, for Dita Parlo, her alter ego in “Sex”–a book she says she hopes is shocking because “some people need to be shocked.” Some excerpts from the interview:
ANSEN: So do you really think that you can change people’s attitudes with this book?
MADONNA: I think that it can start the machinery going for change. I do in a way see myself as a revolutionary at this point. I think it will open some people’s minds for the good, and that’s enough, as far as I’m concerned.
You see yourself as a kind of sexual missionary?
I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But ultimately, I mean, sex is the metaphor that I use, but for me, really it’s about love. It’s about tolerance, acceptance and saying, “Look, everybody has different needs and wants and preferences and desires and fantasies. And we should not damn somebody or judge somebody because it’s different than yours.”
The pictures of you naked in public places in Miami-in a pizza parlor, a gas station, hitchhiking on the highway-how were they shot?
Spur of the moment, just catch as catch can …
The bystanders were real? They didn’t know you were going to take your clothes off?
They were real. I went in with my coat on. Steven Meisel [the photographer] went to the back, ordered a piece of pizza. I was naked underneath my coat and Steven positioned himself. Once he was in position, he’d say, “OK, go.” You know, I just dropped my coat, and I just sat there and ate the piece of pizza. People were constantly turning alarms on and calling the police, so we’d have to leave and go to the next place. It was so much fun. To walk down the street hitchhiking naked–I couldn’t stop laughing because, I don’t know–I traveled back to my childhood or something …
Like Halloween, without any costumes. Did people know who you were?
I don’t think so. We didn’t plan, we just drove around, and then we’d see something, go, “That looks good,” and jump out.
You always got out before the cops arrived?
Yes, I mean, it got to the point where we were almost trying to get in trouble because no one was paying any attention to us.
When people say you’re an exhibitionist, do you agree?
Yes. I think all entertainers are exhibitionists, admitted or not.