A French media giant goes Hollywood -- Universal's parent, Seagram, plans to merge with France's Vivendi

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
July 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

When it comes to calculating who suffers from the world’s most egregious superiority complex, it’s always been a tie between Hollywood and France. Hollywood thinks the French movie industry is pretentious and stupid; France thinks Hollywood is just plain stupid.

Well, it’s time they learned to play nicely — and fast. On June 20, the French company Vivendi, which owns Canal+, and Seagram, the parent company of Universal since 1995, announced a $34 billion merger. Vivendi chairman-CEO Jean-Marie Messier and Canal+ chairman-CEO Pierre Lescure made assurances that little would change at Universal — though it’s likely that Seagram president Edgar Bronfman Jr. will assume the role of vice chairman of the joined companies. Still, the news raised a flurry of questions. To wit:

Is Universal studio chairman Ron Meyer out of a job?
The ex-CAA agent’s five-year reign (at MCA and Universal) has been spotty, causing speculation that his time may have come. But Lescure maintains that he’s not leaving his Paris headquarters, and has acknowledged that when it comes to running an American studio, he’s probably not the right man. So is Meyer that man? The answer: Yes, at least for now.

After a tortured few years, Universal has earned some bucks and respect with hits like Erin Brockovich, U-571, and Gladiator (a coproduction with DreamWorks), which makes Meyer — and his underling, Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider — look mighty good. But even if Meyer had continued making doggy fare like Babe: Pig in the City, he wouldn’t be out, thanks to a contract that earns him approximately $7 million a year — plus bonuses. One Universal exec estimates buying Meyer out five years before his contract expires would cost about $100 million.

Are the rest of the studio suits freaking out?
In a testament to how bad things were under Bronfman, who many thought treated the studio like the ugly stepsister of the company’s music division, employees seem relieved. Says one exec: ”I think this can only mean something good for us. It’s really very calm here.” Adds another: ”The studio now knows that it’s being run and owned by a company [that] wants to make movies. Edgar’s been denying for so long that he’s selling the company, which we knew wasn’t true, and that creates a lot of conflict. Canal+ [the No. 1 pay-TV company in Europe] needs and wants product.”

Is Universal’s slate going to start looking quirkier?
Don’t count on it. True, Canal+ definitely has different tastes than its Hollywood counterpart, supporting director-driven, smaller-budgeted films like Four Weddings and a Funeral. But Canal+ doesn’t need Universal’s backing to continue with its arty ways: The company recently raised $200 million in funds, has co-financing deals with Hollywood production companies like Mandalay and Spyglass, and boasts a 50 percent stake in Working Title, the British production company behind such hits as Notting Hill. In fact, the French company may see Universal as its chance to cement its position in the Hollywood blockbuster business with a company whose slate includes sequels to The Mummy and Jurassic Park. When it comes to the two studios’ output, a Canal+ source predicts, ”It’s going to be business as usual.”