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A Hollywood Fade-Out

July 05, 2002

Clint Eastwood's line, the one about a man having to know his limitations, comes to mind in the wake of Chief Executive Jean-Marie Messier's abrupt departure after less than two years at the helm of Vivendi Universal. The 45-year-old Frenchman became the latest leading man to be ridden out of town, blinded by Hollywood's bright lights. Universal generated a staggering $30 billion in debt during a media and communications company buying spree but never convinced investors that it had a cohesive strategy to tie the purchases together.

Consumers undoubtedly will one day augment entertainment delivered through television sets and movie screens with content sent straight to cell phones and the Internet, but not on Messier's unrealistically short timetable. Messier also failed at the impossible balancing act of running a transatlantic entertainment company from a posh New York City office with one's cultural feet planted firmly in France.

Which brings up another line spoken by Eastwood, the one about feeling lucky. Messier obviously felt charmed enough to bring a once-sleepy French water utility to buy a storied Hollywood studio and create a global media powerhouse. His mantra was "synergy"; his high-voltage approach initially was persuasive. But the story line crumbled as Vivendi Universal generated record losses.

Vivendi Universal is just a new twist on the old "Foreign-Owned Company Tries to Squeeze Universal Studios Into Its Business Plan" script. Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. had a fling with Universal when it was known as MCA Inc., eventually selling its stake to Canada's Seagram Co., which, two years ago sold a majority stake to Vivendi.

Hollywood reporters chronicling Messier's fall from grace could have reprinted the lead of a 1998 newspaper story about Seagram executive Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s time in Tinseltown: "An outsider buys a studio, vows to tame a notoriously unruly business, then proceeds to have his lunch eaten." Then again, Messier's wide-screen dreams are understandable. Who wouldn't rather sell entertainment than water? Though there are similarities in the Matsushita, Seagram and Vivendi disasters, each company played a leading role in its own wrecking. Matsushita's conservative business practices clashed with Hollywood's big spenders, and Bronfman's "do it my way" management style generated chaos among his studio executives.

Enter the Frenchman, who made the French-speaking world delight, at first, in his audacity. He wrote a 247-page autobiography titled "J6M.com," which, loosely translated, stood for "Jean-Marie Messier, Me, Myself, Master of the World." As Messier's hope collapsed, the value of Vivendi Universal shares plummeted. Reality finally set in: It is tough enough for AOL Time Warner to pull off the global media powerhouse role, much less a French water utility.

It would be easy to end with a gratuitous quote from "Hang 'Em High." But we'll stick with a decade-old headline about another Hollywood legend who crashed and burned: "The Insatiable Appetite and Other Deadly Sins of Mike Ovitz."

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