Yesterday, just 24 hours after the board of directors of Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. ousted Alan Hirschfield as president, rumors were flying between Wall Street and Hollywood about the company's future.
Some analysts believe that, if Columbia's stock is held down by the Hirschfield sacking. It could be a prime acquisition prospect. Insiders at the movie company claimed that the reason Hirschfield was fired was his presistent attempts to wrest control of the company.
In the film capital, the questions concerned whether the new team at the top of Columbia - only one of them an experienced movie maker - can sustain the record of hit movies produced by Columbia under Hirschfield and David Begelman, the former head of the Columbia picture studio.
Hirschfield, 42, was replaced by Francis Vincent Jr., 40, a former attorney with the Washington firm of Caplin and Drysdale. Vincent joined the Securities and Exchange Commission in March as a break from 15 years of practicing corporate law.
By noon yesterday, Vincent had cleared out his desk at the corporate watchdog agency. In his new job, he will receive an annual salary of between $250.000 and $275.000, according to sources at Columbia headquarters here.
In a telephone interview, Vincent made it clear that the Columbia offer came as a big surprise to him, the more so because he is a total novice to the movie business. Vincent generally is admired in the Washington fraternity as a first class lawyer with strong moral convictions.
Two years ago, he was appointed special counsel to investigate payoffs and kickbacks by Emersons Ltd., the Rockville-based restaurant chain. Since then, the former chief executive of Emersons has been sentenced to income tax evasion and the company has filed for reorganization.
Although Vincent was named chief executive officer at Columbia, he apparently will not have the final say on company policy. The board announced the establishment of an "office of the chief executive," consisting of Vincent and three other board members.
The others are Matthew Rosenhaus, the largest single stockholder at Columbia and chairman of J.B. Williams Co.; Columbia Chairman Leo Jaffe; and Dan Lufkin, a former Wall Street whiz who joined the board in November.
Of the four, only Jaffe has experienced in the movie industry.
Lufkin said the reason for the hydra-headed chief executive's office is that the job has "become too much for one man." He added that other companies such as Ford. General Electric and Warnaco have similar arrangements.
The new management structure clearly emphasized legal and financial knowledge over movie know-how.
One movie stock analyst speculated that this is because Columbia might be ready to embark on a major acquisition program requiring the skills of the two new officers.
Such a program would be aimed at making Columbia "so big that it can't be acquired," said the analyst. Otherwise, at current stock market values of around $22 a share, it could be a prime acquisition target, he pointed out.
There also was speculation that, in the wake of the Hirschfield firing, Columbia's board might move to gain investor backing by reinstating the dividend dropped several years ago when losses had put the company on the edge of bankruptcy.
Hirschfield meanwhile has said he will stay on the board of directors of th dividend entertainment company. This has given rise to some conjecture that he might be prepared to wage a proxy battle to gain control of the company from the other directors who ousted him.
Reached by a reporter in Maine, Hirschfield attributed his ouster directly to the position he took on former studio chief David Begelman.
"It's definitely the Begelman thing," he said. "On financial terms, my record is unassailable."
Hirschfield called Columbia's official justification referring to the need for "fresh management" as "a fabrication. It's disappointing when you try to stand for something and this is the way it ends up," he said.
The board had sought to retain Begelman, hoping the scandal would die, but Hirschfield wanted him fired. He later went along with the rest of the board.
But the Columbia insiders say the Begelman affair was just one of a long list of bitter differences between Hirschfield and the board that culminated in his firing.