Vivendi Universal, the European media conglomerate which owns Universal Studios and StudioCanal, has moved up a gear in its attempt to dispose of its US entertainment assets.

According to reports, Vivendi Universal has appointed lawyers to help it unwind its relationship with Barry Diller, the former Fox chief who oversees the US operations holding company Vivendi Universal Entertainment (VUE) and controls 6.9% of VUE's shares.

Vivendi Universal said it was looking for a means of disposing of or spinning off US properties without incurring a hefty tax bill. It needs to clarify ownership and management of VUE before it can start to seriously entertain any bids for the US activities. Vivendi Universal's newish chairman Fourtou and Diller are set to meet in New York this week.

At the moment a $20bn bid from oil magnate Marvin Davis is the only offer on the table, but other media groups including Viacom, Liberty Media, NBC and MGM are thought to be interested in some or all of its film, music and theme park operations.

According to reports, Vivendi executives recently met with Brian Mulligan, a former Universal executive and now advisor to Davis - and Davis himself is set to meet with the top brass at Vivendi by the end of January, according to Bloomberg.

Fourtou said at a press conference in late 2002 that he would examine all options including pulling out of Hollywood and take the ailing company in another direction.

Last week Vivendi Universal said that in the last six months it had reined back its colossal debt mountain by Euros 6.8bn to leave it out of pocket by a mere Euros 13bn.