Investment bank to open Lion’s books to bidders

MGM’s murky future should start coming into focus by the end of the year.

The beleaguered Lion, which put itself up for sale Nov. 13, is expected to begin receiving bids within the next several weeks, a source close to the process indicated.

Investment bankers Moelis & Co., hired in May by MGM, started sending non-disclosure agreements to possible bidders as a prelude to seeing MGM’s internal books. An MGM spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that Moelis is setting up a “virtual room” — an Internet site to give bidders access to the studio’s internal financial data — but would not comment further.

Floor price for the assets — the 4,000-title library, the logo, the United Artists operations, rights to the James Bond and Pink Panther franchises and half-ownership in the upcoming “Hobbit” films — is believed to be $1.5 billion. Those in the know say the bidding is likely to go no higher than $2.5 billion. Time Warner is viewed as the frontrunner among the bidders as it has more than $9 billion in cash on hand from the recent spinoff of its cable systems sale of its cable systems and is seen as potentially interested in exploiting the Bond franchise (Warner Bros. is the only studio other than MGM/UA to have released a Bond pic, “Never Say Never Again”). Plus, Time Warner acquired the pre-1985 MGM library through its 1996 buyout of Turner Broadcasting.

News Corp. is also seen as a possible bidder due to Rupert Murdoch’s penchant for dealmaking. And Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns indicated last week that the minimajor would be interested in looking at MGM’s financials.

Reps for Time Warner, News Corp. and Lionsgate have refused to comment.

Though it appears to be headed toward a sale, MGM’s Nov. 13 announcement left open the door for The Lion to continue operating as a standalone entity or forming some kind of strategic partnerships. MGM’s 140 debtholders agreed at that point to hold off receiving interest payments until Jan. 31 — enabling management to find out how much the assets are actually worth and whether it should proceed with a formal auction.

MGM carries a debt load of $3.7 billion from its 2005 buyout along with payments due next April on its $250 million revolving credit facility. Harry Sloan was replaced as MGM’s CEO this summer by turnaround specialist Stephen Cooper.

MGM was taken private in 2005 by a consortium led by Providence Equity Partners, Texas Pacific Group, Sony and Comcast Corp. The group paid $2.85 billion and assumed $2 billion in debt as part of the purchase. Time Warner made an eleventh-hour bid for Lion back then but was outmaneuvered by the Sony-led group.

In a sign of its dire straits, MGM has released only one movie this year — a revamp of “Fame.” It’s releasing “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “The Zookeeper” and “Red Dawn” next year and “Cabin in the Woods” in 2011.

For the time being, current MGM leadership will stay in place and production chief Mary Parent will continue to shepherd a small production and development slate. It remains co-financier with New Line on “The Hobbit,” set to go into production around spring in New Zealand with two films shot back-to-back by Guillermo del Toro.

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