Hollywood's hottest anti-Semitism spat.

Hollywood's hottest anti-Semitism spat.

Hollywood's hottest anti-Semitism spat.

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 6 2003 5:36 PM

J'Accuse!

Jean-Marie Messier and Edgar Bronfman Jr. battle over anti-Semitism, anti-non-Semitism, and who's the worse businessman.

The ill-fated 2000 merger of Vivendi and Seagram represented the marriage of two companies from different worlds—a French water utility and a U.S.-Canadian entertainment and liquor business. It also represented the marriage of two singularly bad businessmen from different worlds: Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier and Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.

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Now that the unholy matrimony has ended in Le Divorce, the two chastened moguls have concocted mirror-image explanations for why their mixed marriage failed. According to Messier, the clannish Jews in Hollywood had it in for the gentile Frenchman. And according to Bronfman, the clannish Frenchmen in Paris now have it in for the Jewish North American. They're both wrong.

In the forthcoming book The Man Who Tried To Buy the World: Jean-Marie Messier and Vivendi Universal, by Jo Johnson and Martine Orange, Messier is quoted as explaining the failure of Hollywood to take him seriously by noting: "I am not a Hollywood Jew and I won't ever be one."

Jean-Marie Messier is many things. He combined the mendacity and greed of the worst American imperial CEOs with the hauteur of a French bureaucrat. Think Dennis Kozlowski crossed with François Mitterrand. Pompous and vainglorious, Messier spent $100 billion to forge a new media empire and wound up with a mushy, debt-ridden cassoulet of water, telecommunications, and media businesses. But he was most assuredly not a victim of anti-non-Semitism.

Lacking operational aptitude or financial engineering skills, Messier nonetheless considered himself to be a Gallic Jack Welch. He unironically took his derogatory nickname "J6M"—abbreviation for "Jean-Marie Messier, Moi-meme maîitre du monde" (Myself, master of the world)—and used it as the title of his autobiography, j6m.com. (That's a little like Saddam titling his memoir The Butcher of Baghdad.)

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Messier managed to snow his blinkered associates at Vivendi. But the act didn't play in Hollywood or on Wall Street—and for reasons that had more to do with his ignorance and incompetence than with his faith. He didn't know what a movie trailer was, for example. And he really didn't understand the business of media and entertainment.

You don't have to be Jewish to be taken seriously in Hollywood or to be successful there. Just ask big shots like Rupert Murdoch, Robert Wright of NBC, John Malone of Liberty, and Richard Parsons of AOL Time Warner. What's more, the inability to distinguish between "the Jews" as a collective and the Jewish individuals who may, or may not, hold executive positions at some Hollywood firms neatly encapsulates the sort of immature thinking at which Messier excelled. At worst, it represents an expression of the anti-Semitism that many Jews—including Edgar Bronfman Jr.—suspect lurks just below the surface in Old Europe.

Having squandered much of the family's fortune by selling Seagram to Vivendi in an all-stock deal, Edgar Bronfman Jr. is now trying to bid on some of Seagram's old assets himself. But now he senses that the post-Messier Vivendi is holding on to the entertainment assets out of a spite animated by anti-Semitism. "There is an anti-American tinge to the desire to keep the Hollywood assets," he tells the authors of The Man Who Tried To Buy the World. "It's odd there's no similar sentiment in France about selling Vivendi Environement at knock-down prices. … [I]t's the fact that Hollywood is Jewish, that the Bronfmans are a Jewish family. It's a fear not just of selling it back to the Americans, but of selling it to Jews. I feel this undercurrent of anti-Semitism. It's in the water."

Bronfman is mistaking skepticism about his business (in)abilities for anti-Semitism. If Bronfman could come up with the asking price, Vivendi would probably be more than happy sell him back the Universal assets, close the circle, and exit the entertainment business. But given his track record, Bronfman may have a tough time raising the funds. The potential bidders for Vivendi's assets include General Electric, MGM, Comcast, and Liberty Media. So far, nobody—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu—has made a bid close to the $14 billion Vivendi wants.

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Bronfman, it will be recalled, became chief executive of the family company Seagram in June 1994, then sold its stake in boring yet profitable DuPont and plowed the cash into buying entertainment assets such as Universal and Polygram. He turned around and sold the family jewels to the French for a $42 billion in stock. Marginalized at a company his family no longer controlled, Bronfman Jr. quit Vivendi Universal in early 2001. Within two years of the merger, the multibillion-dollar fortune the Bronfmans built up over 80 years—now disproportionately tied up in Vivendi's fading stock—lost about 75 percent of its value.

Bronfman Jr. desperately wants a second chance to salvage his family's assets and his reputation. But neither his extended family nor the investment banks and private equity firms who might back such a bid seem eager to entrust him with billions of dollars.

Might there be anti-Semitism in French boardrooms? Might it be difficult for an outsider to be accepted in Hollywood? Sure. But when it comes to deal-making, stock values trump religious values. The days when Jews only conducted business with other Jews—by necessity or by choice—are long gone. And anti-Semitism is so rarely a problem for dealmakers that most Hollywood executives probably think the Dreyfus Affair is Richard's latest project.

Both Messier and Bronfman fail to understand that their foolish actions and miserable records speak far more loudly than their faiths.