H’w’d’s modus Vivendi: Euro bucks & Euro power

VIVENDI’S INTENDED takeover of Seagram underscores the following paradox:

The French have been most vocal in protesting Hollywood’s domination of the world marketplace. Yet the Vivendi deal, along with several other Euro initiatives, underscore the fact that it is Euro money that increasingly is financing Hollywood’s domination. What in God’s name, therefore, are the Euros complaining about?

The Vivendi adventure is another reminder of Hollywood’s curious relationship with the Outside World.

When the Japanese giant Matsushita took over Universal 10 years ago, the headline in Variety, in Japanese characters, read “Buyer Beware.” It turned out to be prophetic: The Japanese had no idea how to deal with the players — indeed, they didn’t even have a playbook.

Well, now we have a broad spectrum of Europeans making their moves on Hollywood, ranging from Spain’s Telefonica to France’s Vivendi and joined, along the way, by a solid phalanx of German bankers.

Is it time to send up another warning? And to which side?

TO BE SURE, this band of invaders is a lot more sophisticated than their predecessors, and also armed with a lot more money.

The last time the French took over a major studio was when Credit Lyonnais helped install Giancarlo Parretti to run MGM. Parretti showed his Hollywood “smarts” by appointing Alan Ladd Jr. as his production chief, then informed the press about the division of responsibilities: “Laddie make-a the deals while I fuck-a the girls,” he intoned.

Hollywood never “got” Parretti. Neither Credit Lyonnais nor Matsushita ever “got” Hollywood.

Sony also has had a bumpy ride since acquiring Columbia more than a decade ago — witness the famous $2.7 billion writeoff in 1994. A top American executive working for Sony recalls the meeting in which one of his Japanese superiors asked him to forecast the movie division’s results for the forthcoming year.

“I would guess that we will make 20 movies and that 10 will succeed while 10 will fail,” the American responded. His boss looked at him, utterly perplexed. “Then why make the 10 failures?” he demanded.

Clearly the top echelon at Sony has since developed a much sharper understanding of the entertainment business. Further, in Howard Stringer, Sony has an astute chief of U.S. operations. In making its rather sumptuous distribution deal with Joe Roth’s new company, Revolution, Sony also has assured itself some depth of management.

The Europeans have had as many problems as the Japanese in trying to get on Hollywood’s wavelength — witness the recent tribulations of Polygram.

Led by a British lawyer, Michael Kuhn, Polygram’s Hollywood moves seemed both cautious and prudent. The results? As one producer summed them up: “Nice try, no traction.”

THE LOFTY MISFIRE “What Dreams May Come” seemed an apt epitaph. Agents couldn’t figure out what Polygram wanted. Filmmakers were suspicious of its distribution capabilities and its overall commitment.

Of all the long-standing, foreign-fueled companies, the one that continues to surprise is New Regency, which derives much of its funding from Australia’s Kerry Packer, Germany’s Leo Kirch and the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch.

Whenever the company has hit a sag, it’s managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat, from “Pretty Woman” in 1990 to the current “Big Momma’s House.” Further, New Regency has managed to diversify into TV, with the hit “Malcolm in the Middle,” as well as sports, with Puma.

The company is led by the shrewdly adaptive Israeli-born Arnon Milchan, who always seems to stay one step ahead of Hollywood’s power players.

“Not only does Arnon ‘get’ our moves, he teaches us new ones,” explains one CAA agent.

When its complex deal with Seagram is finally consummated, Vivendi and its subsidiary Canal Plus clearly have their work cut out for them.

THE FRENCH, however, also have some big advantages. They have been playing in Hollywood’s treacherous waters for many years, and no one is more conscious of past mistakes than is Pierre Lescure, the canny former anchorman who is chief of Canal Plus.

Lescure may not possess the most dazzling command of English, but he can, on a moment’s notice, catalog the list of past deals made by his company with Carolco and other Hollywood players — deals in which the French paid too much and received too little. Lescure recounts these dealings with a sly wit, as though they constituted a valuable part of his education.

He has clearly learned well. Though his role in running Universal’s activities probably will be indirect and surely Paris-based — the French believe that Americans must be directly in charge — he will doubtless play a key role in guiding his company’s future dealings.

In the end, therefore, should the “buyer beware,” or the seller?

This much is clear: Hollywood would do well to awaken to the fact that it is now part of Europe. And the Europeans would do equally well to recognize that it is they who are emerging as the cultural imperialists.

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