For the past week, a team of 30 lawyers and bankers has been holed up in the Century City offices of Loeb & Loeb, hammering out a deal to acquire the beleaguered Weinstein Co.
In the middle of the action is Maria Contreras-Sweet, a Hollywood outsider, backed by billionaire Ron Burkle, who out of nowhere last November placed a $500 million bid on the table that included the assumption of $225 million in debt. Amid the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, the company seemed headed for bankruptcy. Contreras-Sweet’s plan was to rescue it, rebrand it and put women in charge.
She’s poised to close the deal on Feb. 11. Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother, will take the company’s Dimension brand and a single unreleased film, “Polaroid.”
The rest of the company — a 277-film library, including Dimension releases, 50 seasons of TV programming and five unreleased films — will belong to Contreras-Sweet and her group of investors. The group has not yet decided what to call the new company but is leaning toward the name Wonder Hill.
In Hollywood, the pending sale has left people scratching their heads. Little is known about Contreras-Sweet, who has never worked in entertainment. She
hasn’t spoken publicly, except to let it be known that she wants to erase the stain of Harvey Weinstein. Her representatives did not respond to Variety’s multiple requests for an interview.
Few details have emerged, deepening the mystery around the sale. Variety has learned that Burkle, one of Contreras-Sweet’s primary investors, will own
20% of the new company, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction. Burkle was friendly with Weinstein, attended Cannes with him and invested in several of his movies.
Contreras-Sweet also plans to make David Glasser — who for years was Weinstein’s right-hand man — the new CEO. The question remains: Will this be a new company or a fresh coat of paint on the status quo? Contreras-Sweet intends to retain the entire 137-person workforce and bring on new creative executives. The company will also expand its presence in Los Angeles while shrinking its New York office. She also plans to grow the London office, now consisting of just two people, to as many as 10.
Industry insiders are privately wondering: Who exactly is Contreras-Sweet?
She certainly has an inspiring story, which includes a long track record of civic involvement. She came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 5. Her mother raised six children by working long hours in a poultry plant.
|Contreras-Sweet led the Small Business Administration for President Obama.
Contreras-Sweet went to college and got a foothold in politics as a legislative staffer before moving into corporate public affairs. In the late 1990s, California Gov. Gray Davis appointed her to a high-ranking position overseeing a massive state agency. After leaving government service, she enlisted real estate billionaire Ed Roski to invest in a new bank, Promerica, that was geared toward lending to Latino small businesses.
“She has tremendous style, and charm and class and intelligence,” says George Kieffer, a longtime civic leader who chairs the UC Board of Regents. “She has a very wide reach of people she knows.”
Promerica — which later became ProAmerica — was founded in 2006, just before the Great Recession. It struggled for several years to become profitable. It was also tiny, never growing beyond a single branch. Contreras-Sweet was executive chairman, a position that is not required under regulations and one that most small banks do without. Though she had no prior banking experience, she drew compensation in 2013 of $500,000, according to a financial disclosure report, a large sum for such a small bank.
After a decade, ProAmerica was sold off to another bank. By that point, Contreras-Sweet had been tapped by President Obama to head the Small Business Administration. During her tenure, she helped promote businesses operated by Latinos and women. Contreras-Sweet left office with the change of administrations in 2017. According to her sister, Ana Barbosa, a group of investors led by Burkle approached herlast fall with the idea of acquiring the Weinstein Co.
“The opportunity presented itself, and she set out to seek the adventure,” Barbosa says. “I think the investors thought she would complement their effort. They saw her as a person who could run it. They were willing to put the money up front.”
Like Contreras-Sweet, Burkle has long been a presence in California political circles. One of her board members at Promerica, Carlton Jenkins, was also a longtime partner in Burkle’s investment firm. Another board member, Sol Trujillo, serves on the board of WPP, the investment firm with a major equity stake in the Weinstein Co. Burkle has not publicly acknowledged his role in the Contreras-Sweet bid, preferring to remain out of sight. But his Yucaipa Cos. investment firm is centrally involved, as is Dallas-based Lantern Capital.
The major deal points have already been worked out. According to a source involved in the sale, the buyers — represented by Loeb & Loeb — will assume $225 million in secured debt and invest another $275 million in equity. Of that, some $125 million will go to unsecured creditors, and an additional $20 million to $30 million will be set aside as a settlement fund for Weinstein’s victims. Approximately $100 million will be left over in cash, which will be plowed into the new company. The current owners — including Bob and Harvey Weinstein, WPP and Goldman Sachs — will see their equity completely wiped out. Contreras-Sweet is still rounding up other investors, who may include prominent Hollywood women.
Contreras-Sweet is not especially wealthy, according to her financial disclosures. In addition to her income from the bank, she made $122,000 in 2013 from PepsiCo as a member of its ethnic advisory board. In 2017, her total assets — excluding her primary residence — were valued between $326,000 and $815,000. As with the bank, she would be taking on a top job at the new Weinstein Co. without prior industry experience.
“She has tremendous style, and charm and class and intelligence. She has a very wide reach of people she knows.”
George Kieffer, UC Board of Regents chair
“She hasn’t run a film company, but I think she’ll figure a way to figure it out,” says Kieffer. “I think that she’s had enough experience in enough positions by now to know that you hire great people and manage them well, and when she needs to be engaged directly she will be.”
It will be a challenge. Even before the scandal, the company faced financial straits that required repeated investor bailouts. Harvey Weinstein had a habit of overspending, as with the Netflix series “Marco Polo,” and in recent years suffered costly film flops such as “Tulip Fever” and “Burnt.” The situation became grave after Weinstein’s sexual misconduct was exposed. Deals fell apart one after the other, release dates were canceled and the company sold off “Paddington 2” just to make payroll.
The company, which has been in suspended animation since October, also plans to announce new projects soon, including “Mayor of Kingstown,” a show from director Taylor Sheridan.
As for Contreras-Sweet, it remains to be seen whether she will be an active manager or merely a figurehead. Also uncertain is whether the Weinstein Co., stripped of its namesake and its name, can be a viable business and return to its once creative glory days.