Hostile takeover may be in Viv U's future

CANNES — Every year, one major celebrity descends on Cannes and gets the festival all atwitter. And every year festgoers along the Croisette are swept up with one juicy rumor that upstages all other gossip.

Usually, all that attention goes to movie stars and sexcapades. This year, the centers of speculation are Jean-Marie Messier and the behind-closed-doors escapades at Vivendi Universal.

In the last few days, chairman Messier, company execs, stockholders, U honcho Ron Meyer and (hmmm!?) Barry Diller all were scheduled to converge at Cannes at the same time.

Defenders of Messier shrug that there’s no hidden agenda: The company is now in the movie business and this is a friendly get-together.

Non, non, non! insist others. They claim the Bronfman family, which owns 6% of Viv U, is planning a hostile takeover: They’re fed up with its chairman, its $15 billion debt load and its declining stock price. The Bronfmans reportedly are eyeing the hostile takeover with the help of Vincent Bollore, a French corporate raider who owns a 2% stake in the company.

French culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon told Gallic daily Le Parisien, “The purchase of this group by a foreign company would have incalculable consequences. … We would seek to block or control such a sale.”

“Keep an eye on these events,” a Gallic source warns Variety ominously. This is film noir, 21st-century style.

Two big questions: Would a company oust its chairman without a successor, and, if so, who would that replacement be? Under French law, an American — Diller, for example — could not head up a Gallic company. Well, not unless that company were divided into sections, such as the U.S. holdings.

Every year, the eyes of the world turn to Cannes, but this year, the red-carpet arrivals, midnight screenings and press conferences seem pretty tame compared to the Viv U show.

Even jury president David Lynch has been involved, making a public statement defending Pierre Lescure and criticizing Messier’s actions. After all, it was Lescure and StudioCanal who helped rescue the helmer’s “Mulholland Drive” after it failed to gel as a TV project.

Ooh-la-la!

But one final question: If you were planning a coup of a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, would you do it in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival?

Eh, why not? It’s all showbiz.

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