Chip Seelig spearheading new slate deal that could include 'Avatar' sequels

Twentieth Century Fox is close to another slate deal arranged by financial guru Chip Seelig, but this time it won’t be through longtime Fox partner Dune Capital Management.

Seelig, the former Dune topper who led the financial group’s initial $400 million deal with the studio seven years ago, is nearing a deal that would bring at least $400 million more to Fox to co-finance films, according to sources with direct knowledge of the talks but not authorized to speak publicly.

It’s understood that roughly half of that amount would come from Chicago-based hedge fund Magnetar. Deal could allow the new investors to participate in the next two installments of “Avatar.”

Funds — which could be expanded over time, depending on the length of the arrangement — will help finance most of Fox’s slate for at least the next two years, although the studio hopes for a longer-term partnership. Deal does not include animated pictures and certain smaller-budgeted films, as is typical for such pacts with Fox.

While studio execs hope to close a deal by Monday, a transaction may not be finalized until the beginning of 2013.

Fox declined to comment. Seelig did not respond to requests for comment, and Magnetar could not be reached.

Seelig’s investors will help fund roughly between a quarter and half the budgets of qualifying films, according to sources. New deal could include the next two installments of “Avatar,” the first of which is tentatively scheduled for release in 2015. Dune and U.K.-based financier Ingenious Media co-financed the original 2009 hit.

Fox has been looking to extend its longstanding arrangement with Dune, as Variety first reported in August. Sources close to the talks say both sides will continue to try and lengthen their relationship, but another slate-financing deal could mean a different role for the New York-based financial firm.

Fox’s relationships with its co-financiers are among some of the most highly regarded in the industry. Its partnership with Dune dates back to 2005 and has been renewed multiple times since — a better track record than almost all deals at the other majors. Some observers credit that to an alignment of interests that’s better than most, in an arrangement that keeps in mind the relativite priorities of the respective parties.

Fox’s investors also tend to participate in a broad swath of Fox’s films. The hefty investment allows partners to share the rewards from moneymakers such as “Avatar” while spreading out the losses from any B.O. misfires. It’s also different than some slate deals, which sometimes exclude a studio’s most profitable tentpoles.

Dune and Fox are a little more than halfway through their most recent deal, which was established in 2010.

The studio’s famously cost-conscious approach — often credited to or blamed on recently ankled chairman Tom Rothman — also appeals to financiers at a time of skyrocketing marketing costs and increasingly expensive tentpoles.

Fox’s new arrangement is notable at a time when nearly every studio is on the hunt for fresh capital, which has been far less readily available since the 2008 financial crisis.

A respected financial figure well known to the studio, Seelig led Dune’s flagship 2005 deal with Fox, which was funded by roughly a dozen investors (It’s understood that Seelig has not been involved with Dune for some time, however)

At the time, Wall Street was high on the movie business, and almost all of the major studios landed hundreds of millions of dollars of investment coin between 2005 and 2008. Since the recession, however, the studios have faced a drought of equity, caused in part both by the credit crunch and a slew of slate deals that didn’t produce the returns investors had expected.

Now, every studio — with the exception of Disney — is on the hunt for new money. Sony and Universal are notable since their Relativity Media-arranged coin has all but dried up.

Litigation relating to these sorts of deals has added baggage: Paramount is in the midst of another lawsuit by its investors — from Melrose II — while Aramid Entertainment Fund, an investor in Sony’s Beverly I slate financing arrangement, is in litigation against Relativity Media, which arranged the original deal, and hedge fund Fortress in February over its stake in Sony’s slate. That suit didn’t name Sony or accuse the studio of any wrongdoing, but Aramid’s public unhappiness hasn’t helped what has become an image problem for slate financing.

New deal with Seelig provides tangible evidence that Wall Street investment in Hollywood content hasn’t totally dried up.

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