Final reel for WB?

Studio puts last Euro exhib on the block

ROME — Italy’s Warner Village Cinemas is on the block, which could mark the end of Warner Bros.’ exhibition biz in Europe.

Dresdner Bank is fielding offers for the country’s largest exhibition circuit, which has 146 screens in 14 hardtops.

Warner Village Cinemas Italia is owned and operated by the joint venture between Warner Bros. Intl. Cinemas and Australia’s Village Cinemas Intl.

U.K. private equity company Terra Firma Capital Partners — owner of the UCI chain — and Italy’s Medusa are potential buyers. Terra Firma recently acquired Warner Bros.’ Spanish cinema chain.

Calls to Warner Village Italia in Rome were not returned on Monday. However, the move is consistent with Warner’s strategy of seeding underserved markets, and then moving on.

Italy’s box office is suffering a 17% slump for 2005 to date and analysts predicta 10% drop for the full year — not an ideal selling climate.

However, the Italian market is underdeveloped in terms of screens and admissions compared with France, Spain and Germany, so there is room for growth.

If Warner Village does not get the right price for the Italo circuit, Warner Bros. may decide not to sell, according to one source close to the negotiations.

In Italy UCI operates 73 screens, while Medusa — the film arm of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media and entertainment empire — has 66.

Other top Italo exhibition players are France’s UGC and Pathe, and local chain Cinecitta Cinema.

Italy is the last Euro country where Warner Bros. Intl. Cinemas still has screens. Terra Firma owner Guy Hands — a British financier who is the most bullish buyout player in European exhibition — acquired Spain’s Warner Lusomundo Sogecable Cines de Espana in May.

Warner Bros. exited exhibition in the U.K. and Portugal in 2003 to focus on cinema construction in China and other Asian territories.

(Leo Barraclough in London and John Hopewell in Madrid contributed to this report.)

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