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Meaning of a Diller-Fourtou Lunch Is Digested

With Universal units for sale, speculation focuses on whether Diller is really out of picture.

May 14, 2003|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Vivendi Universal Chief Executive Jean-Rene Fourtou and media mogul Barry Diller set the rumor mill in motion Tuesday when they got together for lunch at a popular restaurant near the Universal Studios lot.

The meeting at Ca'Del Sole fueled speculation around the key question: Is Diller really out of the picture at Universal?

Neither Diller nor Vivendi Universal would comment on Tuesday's luncheon.

A source close to Diller, however, said Fourtou had requested the get-together to help resolve a tax dispute and to get Diller's consent as Fourtou prepares the way to sell the Universal film, television and theme park assets to raise much-needed cash.

Diller resigned abruptly as chairman of Vivendi Universal Entertainment in March, saying the job was temporary and that he wanted to focus on his fast-growing electronic commerce business, USA Interactive.

Since then, however, Diller's actions have raised suspicions among some industry watchers that he may be attempting to thwart others from buying the Universal movie studio, theme parks and cable channels, possibly so he can bid on them himself.

In an April regulatory filing viewed by some as an effort to ward off potential bidders, USA Interactive outlined a host of restrictions it holds on the disposal of Universal assets, including tax clauses that could cost Vivendi hundreds of millions in capital gains taxes.

On the same day, USA sued Vivendi, claiming that it reneged on a deal to pay taxes.

USA holds a 5.4% equity stake in Vivendi Universal Entertainment, while Diller has a 1.5% ownership interest.

Although Diller has denied interest in buying Universal, he has been coy on what role he might play in the studio's future, saying he would be open to any opportunity that would convert USA's stake into something more valuable.

Fourtou has had talks with several companies, including Viacom Inc., Liberty Media Corp. and an investment group headed by Marvin Davis.

Times staff writer Claudia Eller contributed to this report.

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