Vivendi's $34 billion takeover of Seagram Co. and its local Universal Studios Inc. operations sent the entertainment industry buzzing last week about the probable fate of Universal's current American management and other related topics.

Analysts and observers say Vivendi can't possibly manage Universal from France, so it will rely on a local team of studio executives. And many doubt they'll go with the existing slate.

"Realistically, they know they can't run it here," said veteran entertainment analyst Art Rockwell. "The key issue in management was what to do with (Seagram CEO) Edgar Bronfman Jr. They now have him overseeing the music business. He has been removed from the rest of Universal's film and TV production. What they need now is a professional heavyweight to run the studio. They know that the present structure of Edgar Jr. and Ron Meyer (Universal's chairman) isn't a model that will work."

Many experts agree with Rockwell. Universal officials aren't talking about Meyer's status, or whether he will be replaced. If Pierre Lescure, who as head of Vivendi-controlled Canal Plus SA will be placed in charge of Universal's film and TV operations, decides to look elsewhere, the buzz is that he might turn to Terry Semel, former co-chairman of Warner Bros.

Semel was out of town and unavailable for comment last week, and his assistant at Windsor Media, his production company in Westwood, said he "would have no comment" on the matter.

A Warner Bros. insider said he doubts that Semel would join Universal because he is a close friend of Meyer. Moreover, he would be reluctant to take charge of a company unless he was made a significant owner in the studio.

"He doesn't need the money and he doesn't want to work for somebody else and make millions for them unless he has a major equity position," the source said.

Yet rumors persist that Semel is at least discussing the matter with Vivendi officials.

Big-star approach

If Semel was put in charge of Universal Pictures, those who know him believe he would revive the model he used so successfully at Warner Bros., at least until the strategy started to backfire in the late 1990s.

"It will be big pictures with big stars," one former Universal executive said. "It will be the Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts-type stars."

But most observers agree that Warner Bros. became too dependent on aging stars like Clint Eastwood and did not respond to the changing tastes of the youth market. It is highly uncertain whether Semel could regain the magic touch he was known for in the late '80s and early '90s, when Warner Bros. was regularly the top money-making studio in Hollywood.


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