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During precarious times, mergers build strength

American Film Market 2012

Size isn’t everything, but with the independent film market facing strong headwinds all around the world, some of its biggest players are relying on expansion and the $230 million deal for eOne to buy Alliance, Studiocanal’s acquisition of Hoyts Distribution in Australia and New Zealand, and Lionsgate’s new output deals with Alliance in Spain and Studiocanal in Germany are all signs of large companies huddling together to prosper in hard times.

“It’s a reflection of how tough it is out there,” says Studiocanal U.K. CEO Danny Perkins. “It’s really difficult in a lot of international territories, so you want your output to be of a level to get decent deals, whether from home-entertainment retailers, VOD platforms or TV.”

Since Lionsgate merged with Summit, the combined company has been building on Summit’s old foreign strategy of signing long-term output deals with the strongest local players.

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“It’s a case of strength meets strength,” says Lionsgate U.K. topper Zygi Kamasa. “You want to make sure they can pay, not just now but in five years’ time. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the bigger companies are the ones that can afford the bigger films that we are supplying.”

Lionsgate has its own distribution in the U.S. and the U.K., and eyed Australia before deciding against an acquisition. “It would have been such a big management distraction for not a lot of upside,” Kamasa says.

“Our output deal with Village Roadshow generates huge upfront payments, and we don’t have to worry about the P&A,” he says. “We have a really successful model that works with distribution in two territories, plus the Summit model of output deals, which has worked so well for them.”

It’s a structure designed to finance the kind of tentpoles that previously characterized Summit rather than Lionsgate. These bigger pics are commanding more value in a tough theatrical and ancillary marketplace, while smaller films are struggling to sell on DVD or pay TV, and aren’t getting the ratings on free TV.

The eOne/Alliance combo — subject to approval by Canada’s competition authority — is intended to bring together eOne’s distribution arms in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Benelux and Australia with Alliance’s operations in Canada, the U.K. (Momentum) and Spain (Aurum). Reinforcements also include eOne’s TV distribution and film sales arms, and Alliance’s growing investment in film production.

The theory of achieving multi-territory scale makes sense. But the practical realities of combining the two companies remain unclear. Alliance has already spent months in limbo, stretching back to Cannes, when the negotiations first leaked out, or even earlier, when Goldman Sachs started touting the company as up for sale.

As eOne toppers in Canada await the greenlight, which could take several more months, there’s little sign of any internal blueprint for combining the two entities. On the Alliance side, there’s a sense of frustration, but also a hope that the strength of its operations will be recognized. “Why buy a Ferrari and take it apart?” asks one insider.

In the U.K., eOne’s lucrative output deal with Lovefilm and Momentum’s with Netflix mean it might not make immediate sense to combine the two companies into one. U.K. producers are hoping the companies retain their separate identities. “That Momentum/eOne rivalry has got a lot of British films made,” says Protagonist CEO Mike Goodridge. “If you take out Momentum, that’s a big-spending buyer out of the game.”

For sales agents, any reduction in the number of buyers is a bad thing. “But if consolidation makes the companies stronger and more successful, it’s good for us,” says FilmNation’s Glen Basner. He also predicts that when big companies combine, it creates space for new players to emerge.

“When companies go through consolidation, and people are losing their jobs, some of them will be entrepreneurial and start new companies, so that will refresh the marketplace,” he says. “The story isn’t told in the combination of companies right now; it will be told in 18 months when we see new players coming through to compete.”

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