Deal includes infusion of new capital

Avi Lerner’s Nu Image/Millennium Films has bought control of First Look Pictures, three weeks after Henry Winterstern stepped down as the troubled company’s CEO.

Deal, which had been widely expected before being announced Wednesday, includes a “substantial” infusion of capital into First Look and a debt restructuring. Lerner and Nu Image principals Danny Dimbort and Trevor Short will be involved in the operations of First Look, with Short overseeing day-to-day operations.

Deal will give Nu Image/Millennium a domestic distribution capability for the first time via First Look’s operations, along with access to First Look’s 700-title library.

Lerner told Daily Variety that he hasn’t yet decided whether to release Millennium pics through First Look. Short indicated that no decision’s been made on the fate of First Look’s TV, homevid and domestic distribution ops but said Nu Image would handle foreign sales.

“There are some very definite synergies between the companies,” Short said. “We’re still figuring out what shape the company should take.”

As for Winterstern, who had been First Look’s largest shareholder until his March 2 ankling, he’ll operate in an advisory role. Short said Nu Image would tap into Winterstern’s expertise in dealmaking and financing.

Nu Image didn’t disclose a price for the deal Wednesday but said First Look will continue to operate as a domestic distributor with increased volume and improved quality of films. Lerner said highlights of the upcoming slates include First Look’s adult toon “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters” and Millennium’s “King of California,” with Michael Douglas, and “The Contract,” with Morgan Freeman and John Cusack.

Lerrner’s regarded as a savvy operator who’s depended on overseas financing and foreign sales to expand Nu Image/Millennium. He moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and formed homevid company Nu Image with Dimbort, Short and Danny Lerner and Millennium Films three years later.

Nu Image/Millennium Films produces an average of 15 films a year and has about 300 library titles. In recent years, Millennium has been increasing the pricetag on its films, including such titles as “The Black Dahlia,” “The Wicker Man” and “Home of the Brave” and upcoming pics “Rambo IV” and “King of California.”

Deal represents a role reversal for Lerner and Winterstern, who had launched negotiations earlier this year for First Look to buy Nu Image/Millennium in what would have been a culimination of Winterstern’s aggressive expansion of First Look over the previous two years. But those talks didn’t lead to a deal, and First Look’s board ousted Winterstern at the beginning of March.

First Look has laid off some of its 140 employees in recent weeks at its Century City headquarters. Short said Wednesday it’s uncertain if more layoffs will come.

Millennium has some 60 employees.

First Look’s operations include production, distribution, foreign sales and DVD ops along with the 700-title library. Last summer Winterstern obtained an $80 million Merrill Lynch credit line for First Look, which is also backed by hedge fund Prentice Capital.

First Look prexy Ruth Vitale announced last week that she’ll ankle on April 30, due to the decision by the company’s board to scale back operations. Banner’s recent releases, such as “The Dead Girl,” “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and “Wassup Rockers,” have performed poorly.

Lerner was born and raised in Israel and got into show business by managing a drive-in cinema, then bought a chain of theaters and built up a video business before coming to the U.S.

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