Yanks will run Universal

H'w'd exex to lead studio, Vivendi chief sez

PARIS — An ebullient Jean-Marie Messier, flushed with the prospect of heading a global media group, gave assurances Thursday that, contrary to published reports, the day-to-day running of Universal Studios would be left to Hollywood execs.

Stepping out of the Fortune Global Forum at Paris Hotel Georges V, Messier, whose utilities and communications group Vivendi and Canal Plus, the pay TV group it controls, are poised to acquire Seagram, told Daily Variety:

“To have Universal Studios is very important to us. We are excited at the prospect. But it is clear that U.S. studios have to be managed on the ground by U.S. people.”

He refused to comment on how the new group would handle the overlapping activities of Universal and Canal Plus’ existing production and distribution subsidiary StudioCanal, which was listed on the French stock market barely two months ago.

“It is too early to comment on any of that,” he said with a smile.

In any case, Messier made it clear that in his grand scheme of things, Seagram’s movie-making activities come second to the music biz. “It is not that I like music any more than I like movies. It is just a fact that music makes up 80% of Seagram’s business content.”

At an earlier press conference, Messier had described music as the “master missing piece” in Vivendi’s array of entertainment content, adding that “music was born for the Internet.”

He said that he is a classical music lover. “If you offered me the chance to pay a small subscription to Deutsche Grammophon’s catalog, that is much more interesting to me than going to buy a CD in a store.”

Web central

Messier hopes that users of the Vizzavi portal will feel that way, too. To be launched in France next week, Vizzavi, a much coveted joint venture with Vodafone, is central to Messier’s strategy for the future.

It is intended to be the default page for 80,000 mobile phone subscribers in Europe, and later for PC users and TV viewers, who will be a captive audience for a panoply of Vivendi and Canal Plus Web sites and services.

Messier’s vision was also clear concerning the new entity that will emerge from the Vivendi, Canal Plus and Seagram deal, the building of which he hoped would provide “20 years of pleasure.”

He said: “It will be a totally integrated global communications group which will have full control over its activities. It will control 100% of its content, 100% of its Internet aggregation and 100% of the management of its subscriber base.”

Asked how the new group compared with AOL Time Warner, Messier pronounced that it would be “more balanced, more global, with more weight on the European side,” which would be to its advantage “because Europe is ahead of the States in the wireless field, with real multiaccess to customers.”

Debt doubts

Analysts, however, were less upbeat in their assessment of Vivendi’s latest moves. Vivendi shares fell another 7% on the Paris stock market, Meanwhile, credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s said it is reviewing Vivendi’s debt and may downgrade its ratings.

The credit rating agency said Vivendi’s “growing commitment to the rapidly evolving fields of media and telecoms (had) significantly increased the group’s inherent industrial risk.” In addition, it expressed concern over the Seagram debt that Vivendi would inherit in any merger.

Meanwhile, French newspapers Thursday were speculating on which Vivendi high-fliers may rule the newly reorganized roost, assuming the deal goes through.

In an article entitled “Canal Plus’ American Dream,” Le Figaro tipped Pierre Lescure for the plum job as executive head of a new entity that will incorporate Universal’s and Vivendi’s existing communications and new technology activities, with the exception of the French pay channel Canal Plus, which will have to be carved off to comply with French broadcasting laws.

Insiders were skeptical about the possibility that Lescure would assume anything resembling direct control of Universal since he is known to dislike Los Angeles and is vastly more interested in television than in film.

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