Artisan bids heating up

Lions Gate rejoins pack in pursuit of co.

Initially outfoxed in an auction for the Gotham film company, Lions Gate is back in the Artisan hen house.

Several other suitors also remain in the hunt, as Artisan continues a company auction commenced in April. Miramax and Marvel execs have huddled preliminarily about the possibility of a joint bid for the company. And they’re not the only ones joining the fray.

Another group figuring in eleventh-hour auction action is led by ex-Sony exec Jeff Sagansky, who is on the Lions Gate board and ultimately could align his efforts with a Lions Gate bid. Yet another bidding group involves former UPN chief exec Lucie Salhany, while a well-publicized offer from ex-USA Films topper Scott Greenstein and film producer Stanley Jaffe also continues apace.

Execs at Lions Gate, a film and TV company based in Vancouver and L.A., have lusted over a combo with Artisan for years. But Artisan management has been cool to such overtures and in April nixed an early Lions Gate bid as too low.

New bid expected

Lions Gate reps have been sorting through Artisan’s financial data for about a week and are expected to deliver a bolstered bid for the company soon. It was unclear how many other final offers have been received by auctioneer Allen & Co. to date, but all parties are working toward a conclusion of the process in the next few months.

The Greenstein-Jaffe group is believed to have made a fully financed cash offer approaching $150 million, plus the assumption of $70 million in debt. But a key source suggested that may not be the high bid received to date.

Current Artisan owners would like to wrap up a deal with somebody by the end of the year. So Lions Gate may have just a few more weeks to deliver a newly boosted offer for the company.

Meanwhile, some other one-time Artisan suitors seem to be slipping by the wayside. The Mark Cuban/Todd Wagner investing partnership were among those ultimately opting out of the latest round of bidding.

Even Marvel seems to have cooled its ardor after early keen interest in making a cash- and stock-based offer for Artisan, whose library cash flow would help smooth out the comics giant’s income volatility. But sources suggest due diligence unearthed enough info about Artisan’s cost structure to shape a more cautious attitude among Marvel execs.

So the company now is engaged in talks with various prospective partners, including Miramax. One financial community source suggested Marvel ideally would like to limit its participation to a minority interest in Artisan.

“They are two great companies,” Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik said, referring to Artisan and Marvel. “But it’s just speculation.”

Owners will vote

Artisan’s current owners consist of four equity blocs, each of which will get a vote on choosing a winning bid, with three votes needed for a sale. The voting groups are Chicago-based investment firm Richland Gordon, Canadian broadcaster CTV, Boston buyout firm Audax and Artisan management including chief exec Amir Malin.

All but the management group would like to cash out of their holdings at the right price, but each has a slightly different perspective on the proceedings.

“There’s been a great deal of friction among all of the parties,” observes one financial community source.

Lions Gate will likely deliver an all-cash offer, either tapping recently productive public markets or cobbling together a mixture of private equity and debt financing.

The Jaffe-Greenstein group would tap money from the Thomas H. Lee investment firm, but it was unclear whether reported support from Boston Ventures, Bear Stearns and others remains part of its funding. The passage of time over the six-month Artisan auction may have caused a turnover among its financial partners on the bid, sources suggested.

Sagansky is aligned with Providence Equity, a sometime entertainment investor that last surfaced as a backer of MGM’s bid for Vivendi Universal Entertainment.

Providence’s support, like that of Sagansky, soon could be consolidated into a Lions Gate bid. Also aboard at this point are private equity investors Sam, Alec and Tom Gores.

The Salhany bid, placed through a Massachusetts-based group dubbed Echo Bridge, is said to be backed by Lehman Bros.