Fund flap simmers

Messier promises future Franco film cash

PARIS — Vivendi Universal chief Jean-Marie Messier on Thursday moved to quell continuing French anxiety over Canal Plus’ role in Gallic film financing, promising it would keep on shelling out “at least until 2004.”

Debate is still raging in France over what the conglom topper has in mind for French cinema — currently subsidized to the tune of 900 million francs ($123.4 million) a year by the Canal Plus French pay TV channel — following his anti-regulatory remark in New York last month that “France’s cultural exception is dead” (Daily Variety, Dec. 18).

But singing from the same songsheet as Pierre Lescure in front of the French press recently, Messier warned that beyond 2004, when the current pact with French cinema runs out, Canal Plus’ obligations “will be rediscussed — especially with regard to aid for production and distribution of French films.”

Saying Canal Plus was “ready to assume its share of film financing,” Messier echoed Lescure’s calls that other French TV channels play a bigger role alongside France’s only terrestrial pay TV web. “Our demand is simple, equality: the same obligations, the same duties, the same possibilities. That’s all.”

Messier also dismissed French concern that Vivendi U’s acquisition of USA Networks spells fundamental change for Canal Plus — something that technocrats at the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, France’s broadcasting authority, are currently pondering.

“This is purely an operation between a studio and cable channels in the U.S,” he told radio station France Inter. “It does nothing to change the organizational structure of the group, nor the role of Canal Plus, nor the way in which Canal Plus is controlled. It is another opportunity for French cinema in the U.S., and not the opposite.”

As for his controversial comment that “France’s cultural exception is dead” — which continues to fill column inches in the Gallic press weeks after he made it — Messier said: “I don’t regret that little phrase. I regret the misunderstanding that many people leapt upon (it), by not listening and by caricaturing it.”

Meanwhile, Messier also disclosed that he’s named a French successor should he be removed due to sickness or accident. The name is written on a piece of paper and locked in his safe, Messier said.

“In the tragic event, at least for me, of my being knocked down by a bus, I would like to leave a recommendation to my board as to who should take up the reins,” Messier said.

The Vivendi U topper didn’t dish a name, but there are several French execs on conglom’s management committee. A U.S. spokeswoman said she couldn’t offer any details but suggested such a move wasn’t unusual.

Billionaire Warren Buffett is reported to have taken a similar precaution last year.

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