PARIS — The fact that Universal will soon be back in the hands of an American proprietor was greeted with weary inevitability by the French Wednesday.
“Hollywood and France are poles apart in terms of cinema and culture,” opined film industry lobbyist Pascal Rogard, director of the ARP, France’s influential association of screenwriter, director and producer hyphenates. “I never believed in Vivendi Universal for a second.
“Owning Universal was of no use to French cinema, and Universal got nothing out of the arrangement. I just feel sorry for the poor pensioners who invested their savings in Vivendi Universal.”
Newspaper Le Monde summed up Gallic sentiment in an ironic opinion piece titled “a French failure.”
Former Vivendi Universal boss Jean-Marie Messier, it went on, “was applauded by some when he went off to conquer America by getting a foothold in Hollywood. But now the French group has to beat a retreat by allowing GE to constitute the media giant it had itself dreamt of becoming. It’s a bit like the fable of the frog who wants to be as big as the ox.”
But deep down, the hasty demise of the first French-owned global media conglom has struck at the very heart of Gallic fears that it is futile to challenge the U.S. lead in the entertainment/communication business.
In an editorial Wednesday, the daily economic newspaper La Tribune opined that the global economic crisis had only strengthened the U.S. hand as the dominant force.
“Only Bertelsmann is up there with the leaders, but its assets are purely European. It’s a bitter observation for all those who saw in Vivendi Universal an opportunity for the Old Europe to no longer be a mere spectator in the worldwide broadcasting battle.”
The extent of France’s concern about America’s global media influence is illustrated by President Jacques Chirac’s unbridled enthusiasm for a “CNN a la francaise,” a French global news network that would promote French language, culture — and political influence. The project is being hastily pursued.
Workers worried, weary
But in Paris, Viv U employees are occupied by matters closer to home.
While Viv U’s management team patted themselves on the back for striking an “unhoped for” deal with NBC, lower ranks at HQ, where the workforce has been slashed by almost half since the beginning of this year, complained that the VUE sale was another nail in the conglom’s coffin.
“All management is interested in is selling until there’s nothing left,” moaned one employee. “You just wonder when it’s going to be your turn.”
And at Canal Plus the merger with U, which happened barely three years ago, is already ancient history. Most of the execs around at the time have been replaced by new faces — and the troubled pay TV outfit’s own, often painful, restructure is the focus of their attention.
A sign of the sacrifices that have been made was evident outside Viv U’s headquarters, where a posse of reporters and photographers awaited imminent news of the deal: While Bloomberg, CNBC and the other media had sent experienced news teams to cover the entertainment industry story of the year, Canal Plus’ news channel iTele was counting on the endeavors of an intern.