Sitcom king to pump Village Pix

Positioning himself as a prime pic player, sitcom guru Norman Lear is teaming with Village Roadshow Pictures to expand Roadshow’s overall movie slate with a $115 million investment.

A new consortium formed by Lear, longtime business ally Hal Gaba and Michael Lambert will acquire 50% of the main film and distribution companies making up Village Roadshow Pictures, which has a long-term co-financing deal with Warners Bros. Pictures and is based on the Warners lot.

Village Roadshow’s production and distribution partnership with Warner Bros. has turned out a number of high-profile, profitable pics, including the current “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Matrix” trilogy. Upcoming releases include “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Rumor Has It.”

Complex deal struck between Roadshow and Lear’s group was announced Wednesday in Melbourne, Australia, where parent company Village Roadshow Ltd. is headquartered. Shares of Roadshow stock, which had been suspended for two days, were up 14¢ to A$2.75 in midday trading Thursday.

The parent company’s been keen on restructuring the financing of its movie production business.

“This is the beginning of not only a new expanded vision for Village Roadshow Pictures but also a whole range of expansion opportunities for the Village Roadshow Group,” CEO Graham Burke said in a statement. “These are our type of guys and together we plan to take Village Roadshow Pictures to new heights.”

Village Roadshow Ltd. had no comment when asked if the restructuring would impact the Warners joint venture. The transaction is expected to be completed in September.

Village Roadshow and Lear-led consortium Crescent said they will jointly pursue “strategic growth opportunities” in the film biz, including expanding Roadshow’s production slate and acquisitions, as well as turning out more low-budget and direct-to-video projects.

Crescent is a venture of Lear’s ACT III Entertainment and Lambert Entertainment, billing itself as an investment and management company focused on film, TV and other media assets.

Lear, creator of such seminal hits as “Sanford and Son,” “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” has focused largely on TV. Before “All in the Family” took off, he was given the opportunity to take a United Artists deal but opted to work on the Caroll O’Connor smash.

Act III produced “The Princess Bride”; Lear exec produced “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Village Roadshow Ltd. predicted a $20 million accounting loss before tax in fiscal 2006 as a result of the restructuring. Whatever the loss, conglom said its board believes the new partnership is “a strategic necessity and financially prudent.”

Village Roadshow Pictures will use the $115 million to repay an intercompany loan of $100 million owed to its parent company, as well as pay a $15 million dividend.

(Michaela Boland contributed to this report)

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