Universal Has Lured Another Sucker, This Time With a French Accent


Frank Sinatra may have called L.A. "a lady," but I think the fabled crooner and longtime Southland resident had it all wrong. Los Angeles' essence is not that of some elegant female but her scheming opposite, a male on the make.

This notion came to light after watching the latest victim to fall to our city's charms the French buyers of Universal Studios. Once again, for the umpteenth time, a Hollywood studio has been rescued from its own folly and self-absorption by an outsider eager to be seen in handsome company.

Vivendi, originally a French water company, has offered to buy Universal, a property that has seduced more supposedly serious suitors than the most effective gigolo. In the process, it is following the failed scenarios of both the Japanese, who first bought the homegrown studio, and Edgar Bronfman Jr., the wannabe Hollywood mogul and scion of the Seagram liquor clan from Canada.

In both cases, the buyers really didn't know what to do with their expensively purchased new bauble. The Japanese at Matsushita with their equally challenged countrymen from Sony who bought Columbia-TriStar and the usual group of Wall Street "analysts" chortled about "synergy" between Japanese hardware and Hollywood "software."

Yet it turned out that people don't buy movies to match their TVs. They don't mind putting a copy of the non-studio-made "Blair Witch Project" into their Matsushita or Sony VCRs. Once that realization hit, the Japanese either exited or tried to make the best of a bad situation, as at the old Columbia, by trying to buy Hollywood talent to keep their ships afloat.

Then came the Canadians, in the form of the ultimate media wannabe, Bronfman Junior. His tenure at Universal has been something short of mediocre, and has helped turn the once front-running studio into something of an industry joke.

The French are coming
Now, luckily for Junior, he found someone who might even be more clueless than he the French. This may prove the ultimate coup for Hollywood, America's greatest gigolo. While the Japanese showed off their boy-toy prize with quiet and typically understated arrogance, and Bronfman wore his like a rapper's gold chain, the French may prove the most deluded buyers yet.

Gallic vanity and pride, notes Claudine Mulard, L.A. correspondent for Le Monde, France's most respected newspaper, does much to explain the purchase. With the takeover of an American studio, she notes, French cultural nationalists are now "crowing like crazy" about a great European (read French) media coup.

She compares the purchase to a sexual conquest, but one bought and paid for. "It's like se payer une danseuse (literally, buying a dancer)," the veteran Hollywood watcher and former TV newswoman suggests.

To be sure, Mulard admits, Vivendi and its partner Canal Plus, and indeed France itself, enter the studio business with some experience in mass media. The problem is, judging from Canal Plus' record, most of it has been harebrained.

As to the French themselves, despite or in part perhaps because of decades of government subsidies for their cinema, they don't even control the majority of their own market, much less Europe's. When was the last time a French movie wowed a worldwide audience?

Mulard is particularly puzzled by the company's bizarre decision to place the studio headquarters in Paris. Canal Plus boss Pierre Lescure, the man slated to run the new studio, doesn't plan to move to L.A., explaining that he already owns a house in the sunny south of France. What does this guy think, Hollywood exists for the nice weather? And we thought Junior was clueless?

The new Napoleons
Now don't take me wrong. I am not a Francophobe. I love the language, the literature, the food (perhaps a bit too much) and the history. But that's the point it's a country whose elite thinks their exquisite culture and grand past assures their future. They look at American dominance in culture and technology and picture themselves as new Napoleons ready to cross the Alps.

Basically, the French elites have been delusional for decades. I can never forget my meeting with Jacques Attali, a close aide to former President Mitterand, almost 20 years ago. With the integration of Europe, Attali calmly predicted, the world would soon be divided between the Europeans (led of course by France) and the Japanese. The pauvre Americans would be left in the dust.

Of course, Attali was wrong, as at least the Japanese would have the courtesy to admit. But being wrong and never conceding it is the birthright of French politicians, intellectuals and corporate bosses, all of whom tend to have gone to the same schools and belong to the same families. For them, the really important thing is to posture like big shots, particularly when they can spread their francs someplace, like Hollywood or one of their old Third World colonies, where people don't care about the pedigree or attitudes of the people who pay their mortgages.

Of course, in the coming months, we locals may be treated to a public relations campaign by the new bosses. Hey, after Junior's little run, they might even prove decent, or at least coherent, corporate citizens. But don't be taken in by the cooing from Paris. Deep down, the French corporate, political and media elite will never give up their vain struggle against America, and most particularly against Hollywood.

Yet in the end they will lose their shorts, just like the Japanese or Junior, if he hadn't been lucky enough to find an even bigger bozo to bail him out. A Paris-based global studio, Claudine Mulard suggests, makes very little sense when, to the horror of their supposed betters, most Frenchmen, particularly the youth, are consuming American culture like, well, pommes frites. Paris holds no competitive edge in the burgeoning media business, unless you count good restaurants and interesting boutiques.

Eventually Vivendi will realize this and, like the Japanese and Bronfman before them, will look for another suitor to rescue their bank accounts, if not their wounded pride. And someone probably will do it. L.A., the American gigolo, can always be remade once again, ready to seduce the next vain lady who walks down the path.



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