Mavericks' mindset: Acquire or be acquired

When Lionsgate released “Kick-Ass” earlier this year, it seemed an ideal fit. Lionsgate, after all, is a company that’s either kicking ass or getting its ass kicked.

The saga of Lionsgate continues to unfold like a B-thriller — it’s always acquiring or being acquired, suing or being sued.

Two weeks ago the company seemed about to envelop MGM. Last week, however, Carl Icahn, Wall Street’s dark knight, seemed to be closing in again on Lionsgate, with the company disclosing a quarterly loss of almost $30 million stemming from the anti-Icahn guerilla war.

To be sure, Lionsgate keeps reminding Icahn that one third of every dollar spent to battle him is his own (he owns a third of the shares in the company).

Given Lionsgate’s history and the temperament of its management, insiders sense that everything is presently in play and that anything could happen. Lionsgate still savors MGM’s Bond and Hobbit franchises, and many believe that the Lionsgate plan for MGM still makes more sense than the alternate scheme calling for Spyglass to take custody for the limping Lion.

By conventional standards, Lionsgate is a success story that keeps playing out like “The Perils of Pauline.” Over the course of 10 years it’s gone from a curious little Canadian entity with revenues of $180 million to become an aggressive conglomerate generating $1.6 billion.

Typically, the press can’t even keep its name straight — it’s either Lions Gate or Lionsgate, depending on the source. (It’s actually named after an obscure bridge in Vancouver, and its overseers prefer it to be one word.)

Still, the company keeps pulling off surprises. Its TV shows, like “Mad Men” and “Weeds,” have become pop culture phenomena. Some of its movies are groundbreakers: The Tyler Perry franchise seems to be moving beyond its African-American base, and “The Expendables” should qualify for an AARP award for geriatric action pictures.

Lionsgate gave us the “Saw” franchise, which thankfully is running out of steam, but it also gave us “Crash” and, this year, “Rabbit Hole” and “The Next Three Days,”

Further, Lionsgate defied a chorus of naysayers by pushing for the establishment of Epix, the cable venture that has picked up seven carriage deals and claims to be edging into a profit.

So much for the good stuff.

On the acquisitions front, Lions-gate has had more implants than Octomom and none seem to have taken. The MGM adventure seemed to fade. Talks with Summit had apparently ended. An acquisition of the wobbly TV Guide Channel went through, with Lionsgate promptly laying off half its action.

And then there’s Icahn, who by now has accumulated 33.5% of Lionsgate and keeps giving Tea Party-like speeches about the company’s overspending. Like the Tea Party, however, he doesn’t say what he plans to do about it nor does he define his true aims for the company, A showdown may take place at the Dec. 14 shareholder meeting, but on the other hand, everything involving Lionsgate seems to take unexpected turns — even the Summit talks.

So why has the Lionsgate saga continued to be so unpredictable?

Part of the explanation lies in the structure of the company itself. As the “last indie” among global conglomerates, Lionsgate is uniquely vulnerable to takeovers. This has led its two principals, Jon Feltheimer and Michael Burns, to behave like overcaffeinated fraternity kids; they’d prefer to beat up aggressors before they get beat up. This is not an uncomfortable role for Feltheimer and Burns, who are cool corporate players one moment, yet thumb their noses at convention the next.

The feisty Feltheimer came out of the Sony TV programming factory, while Burns was an investment banker. Both are good-looking, convivial guys who know how to play the Hollywood scene while at the same time keeping their distance from it. Despite Icahn’s vague charges of overspending, they don’t buy tables at Hollywood banquets or celebrate themselves at corporate parties (the annual Lionsgate Christmas bash is famously down-market).

Burns was prowling New York last week, dropping in on key bankers and MGM debtholders. When asked how events may unfold, one banker smiled coyly and said simply, “Stay tuned.”

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