UBS: Lionsgate exec talks Sheen

Burns addresses 'The Hunger Games,' Icahn fallout

Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns said that, despite the actor’s falling out with CBS, he and company honcho Jon Feltheimer have faith in Charlie Sheen. Lionsgate’s upcoming FX skein “Anger Management,” he said, is on a budget that allows for exec producer Joe Roth to remain in near-constant production if necessary. “We could make a hundred episodes of that show in two years, and that’s the plan – to keep Charlie working.”

The comments were part of Burns’ address to Swiss banking giant UBS’s 39th annual Global Media and Communications confab. Regarding Sheen’s reported volatility, Burns told the aud (mostly finance industry foks) that “Jon felt very strongly that all you had to do was team him up with the right showrunner,” and Lionsgate’s pick for the job is sitcom vet Bruce Helford.

Burns didn’t comment on reported merger talks with Summit – a deal that would combine two of Hollywood’s largest independent studios – but he did talk about Lionsgate’s various projects.

The company has a lot riding on “The Hunger Games,” and Burns said he has high hopes. “The movie doesn’t even roll out until March, and I’ve had over a hundred emails – requests from shareholders wanting to bring their kids to the premiere.” The franchise-launch pic, based on the extremely popular YA novels, doesn’t pose much of a marketing challenge. “The interesting thing is they (“The Hunger Games” and upcoming Schwarzenegger starrer “Last Stand”) have this built-in audience so you don’t have to kill yourself creating awareness of the brand.”

Burns emphasized the company’s cost-effective approach to production. “‘Expendables 2’ is shooting in Bulgaria right now,” he said. “That’s how cheap we are.”

And what about the company’s joint venture – TV Guide? “It’s a fixer-upper,” he said, but there’s nowhere to go but up. “The sub fees are terrible, the CPMs are terrible, so I don’t think anybody is going to rush to take it off the air as we’re making an investment in programming.”

Regarding the company’s partial stake in that net, Burns blamed Carl Icahn’s attempt at a hostile takeover of Lionsgate last year. “I don’t think we would have sold half of TV Guide without Carl in the mix,” he said. “Pretty disappointed we had to do that.”

The company, Burns said, watched and learned when VOD dates for “Tower Heist” created a flap, and those lessons have helped it create its own strategy. “We’re gonna try to piss off as few people as possible,” he said. “We’re going to have a window (for thriller “Abduction”) right before Christmas for little girls who are going to want to watch Taylor Lautner, then a month later we’re going to have it on DVD, and we’ve priced it… not cheaply, but aggressively.”

As with every media company, Lionsgate is looking to streaming for growth. “(Epix) get our new theatrical product, but there will be competiton on a non-exclusive basis with some of that product.” Burns said that he recently bought stock in Netflix and to expect more deals between his company and both Apple and Amazon.

Regarding further growth potential, Burns cautioned the aud not to count out packaged goods, pointing to year-on-year growth in Blu-Ray, and said that international biz presented a major opportunity. “Look at China and India,” he said, “a combination of about three billion people and I think we got maybe a nickel out of there last year. There’s no reason ‘Mad Men’ couldn’t be a big hit in China.”