Shift puts U back in play

Studio goes forward with its pic plans

What impact will Jean-Marie Messier’s ouster have on Universal?

Even top execs at the studio admit they are in the dark, but this much is clear:

  • The studio will likely have yet another new owner;

  • Presiding will likely be either Barry Diller or Edgar Bronfman Jr. or a combination of the two;

  • The possibility of a dark horse annexing the studio is, however, not out of the question.

The immediate news that Messier had resigned his post atop Vivendi Universal was met Monday with sangfroid by a studio that’s been colonized almost as often as a small Asian country — first by the Japanese, then the Canadians and now the French.

That’s left studio execs dug in like Viet Cong, girding for future encroachments, but focused on the daily battles of producing a successful slate.

Messier’s exit isn’t likely to affect studio financing in the short-term.

U Pictures is rolling out a 2002 slate back-loaded with splashy late-year releases, including the next Hannibal Lechter tentpole, “Red Dragon,” and the Eminem pic, “8 Mile.”

The chairman’s ouster might even be considered as something of a relief for execs jolted by a series of tremors after the Viv U merger in 2000 and the addition of USA Networks late last year.

Top studio execs have weathered an exhausting regimen of corporate retreats in France, explaining their business to a foreign board while overseeing an ongoing series of departmental shuffles and restructurings at home — the latest centered on U’s specialty label Focus.

“It can’t get any worse here,” one top exec admitted. “It’s been extraordinarily debilitating.”

Messier’s exit could be a prologue to yet another sale to a different set of corporate parents, though execs on the ground in Hollywood have little sense of who those parents might be.

Paring down

Meanwhile, there are broad expectations that the French conglom under new leadership will quickly focus on disposing of some or all of its far-flung business assets.

How quickly such a process includes the sale or spin-off of Hollywood unit Vivendi Universal Entertainment is a matter of debate.

“That’s the good news, because the company probably will be spun off minus Canal Plus,” a U insider mused. “I don’t think anybody would want to swallow the bitter pill and cultural nightmare of foreign ownership.

Diller in charge

“So, there will be a new ownership company — God knows what it will be, but Barry Diller will run it,” the well-placed industryite continued. “And whoever takes over as an owner will not have all of this hanging over them.”

Diller has been topper at VUE since selling Viv U most of his USA Networks’ entertainment assets earlier this year.

Soon after that combo, Messier’s corporate woes accelerated, and talk developed that Diller might eventually replace Messier atop Viv U.

Even more pressing than the question of who ultimately controls Universal is the matter of how far Viv U will go in selling off corporate assets to address its deep money woes.

Should the process go so far as to trigger a sale of VUE, one takeover theory sees Bronfman Jr. and his family somehow transitioning back from troublesome Viv U shareholder to owner/operator of the Universal studio assets.

“The Bronfmans are interested in getting back what’s American,” a French media consultant suggested.

“The question is would Edgar Bronfman Jr. or Barry Diller run the new company? There’s no doubt investors would rather have Diller at the top.”

Other biz

VUE, however, reps only a fraction of the total media conglom; much of Viv U’s asset review involves non-Hollywood ops burdened by various European political complications.

French water utility Vivendi Environment — in which Viv U now owns a 47.5% stake — could well become an independent entity with CEO Henri Proglio at the helm.

Alternately, the water unit could be re-grouped with Viv U mobile phone biz Cegetel to form a French telecom and utility conglom.

Or in still another scenario, Cegetel could be sold to Vodafone, which already owns 20% of the company.

Canal Plus’ future is a little trickier, as the pay TV group was split in two when Vivendi and Seagram merged almost two years ago.

(Andrea R. Vaucher in Paris contributed to this report.)

More Scene

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content