Distrib courting bankers

NEW YORK — Artisan Entertainment will audition a queue of hopeful investment bankers today as it seeks an underwriter for an initial public stock offering. At the same time, the company is negotiating the sale of a 19.5% stake to a European partner.

The banking community has been aggressively pursuing the high-flying indie, still glowing from its summer smash “The Blair Witch Project.”

The intention is to sell up to 20% of Artisan to the public in an offering Wall Streeters said will occur either before Thanksgiving, or, more likely, early next year. The company will most likely settle on an underwriter for the deal by week’s end.

According to a European-based source, Artisan is also in talks to sell a 19.5% stake in the company to a Euro partner for $80 million-$90 million. That would value all of Artisan, which has grown steadily over the past several years, at between $400 million and $450 million.

The partner is said to be one of three or four big groups in the European entertainment arena — presumably ones than could provide Artisan with distribution for its product. That list includes Canal Plus of France, Kirch of Germany and selected others, including potential allies in the U.K. and Italy.

A corporate partnership would supplement output deals that Artisan has been forging across Europe. In September, the company signed a three-year deal with Barcelona-based Lauren Films, which will handle up to 10 films a year. At the Cannes fest in May, Artisan inked an output deal with Germany’s Highlight Communications for German-speaking territories. Highlight committed to releasing up to 34 features over the next three years.

Artisan, formerly Live Entertainment, was acquired by Bain Capital and Richard Gordon & Co. in 1997 for $120 million. The company has since turned highly profitable and revenue is streaming in from its large film library and from the box office. Post-“Blair Witch” titles include the recently released “Stir of Echoes” as well as “The Limey” and “Felicia’s Journey.”

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