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Exhib Mann looking for its man

Lewine eyed, but theater chain still without owner

Mann Theaters remains a circuit in search of a new owner.

Until recently, it appeared the new guy in charge would be someone with a familiar name — Pittsburgh businessman Jeff Lewine, who operated the circuit until a 1999 bankruptcy reorganization. But it appears Lewine has yet to convince current owners Paramount and Warner he has the financial wherewithal to reacquire the 171-screen chain.

So the studios soon may broaden their focus to other suitors, even though Lewine claims he’s secured all the financing he needs for the deal.

“We’re ready to go,” he said Thursday.

Under terms of a proposed agreement with Lewine, he would buy back all circuit assets except the Chinese theater. Hollywood’s historic six-screener would remain with current Mann owners Paramount and Warner Bros. under Lewine’s management.

Downsized and stabilized

The circuit has been downsized –and from all reports greatly stabilized — since Par and Warners took over via the bankruptcy reorg. But Par and Warners are believed eager to ankle the domestic exhib biz and hope to dispose of most of the chain.

Distribs generally have reversed course and no longer view biz synergies from exhibition as worth the trouble. Just last year, Sony and Universal exited long-standing ownership stakes in the Loews Cineplex chain.

It’s unclear what other Mann suitors may be waiting in the wings, with reps of Regal Entertainment and some other chains having recently kicked tires without coming to terms. Broad deal points with Lewine were hammered out some time ago ( Daily Variety, Jan. 3).

Under those terms, Lewine would pay a “substantial amount of money” to Par and Warners, which together paid about $90 million to acquire the circuit during reorg proceedings. Lewine also has been asked to create a multimillion-dollar contingency fund to be tapped if operations crater again.

Cemented Chinese deal

The circuit, which hit a peak 360 screens by the mid-1980s, was founded by the late Ted Mann in 1973 when the onetime Midwest drive-in operator acquired and renamed the 276-screen General Theater chain. One of the properties Mann thus acquired was the historic Grauman’s Chinese, which was also renamed.

Five of Mann’s 21 L.A.-area theaters are located in Westwood, three are elsewhere in California and three in Colorado. The Westwood venues are considered key, as the area has been historically lucrative for exhibition.

It’s also been much-contested turf among various distribs. That prompted Par and Warners to buy Mann first via their Cinemerica joint venture before Lewine’s ownership stint and then to reacquire the circuit in bankruptcy court.

So, it’s unlikely the partners would sell Mann — and especially its choicest venues — to just anyone. Well-placed sources said studio execs will consider only buyers considered friendly to studios’ distribution needs.

“Mann in its day was one of the preeminent exhibitors in Southern California, and Westwood Village was its base,” observed Steve Sann, a Westwood civic activist. “We would like to see that whoever comes in will run the chain at the highest level.”

The chain is managed by an Encino, Calif.-based exec group led by industry vet Ben Barbosa. It’s unknown whether Lewine, who previously operated Mann under the umbrella of WestStar Holdings, would bring in his own exec team.