U’s pic partner poised to end slate pact

Elliott Management refinances for titles greenlit by year's end

Universal Pictures’ primary film financing partner is completing a refinancing agreement that will help fund U pics greenlit through the end of this year.

But after that, Elliott Management appears to be planning to exit the movie biz, and the Comcast-controlled Universal at present does not have a new slate financing partner of Elliott’s size on board.

The Gotham-based fund, which had been a major investor in Relativity Media, is refinancing its $200 million revolving credit facility, sources tell Variety. Comerica Bank, Union Bank and Bank of America are involved, and hope to expand the facility to at least $300 million, according to knowledgeable sources. On top of that, the banks want to put a $150 million “accordion” in place – a structure that won’t cost Elliott anything to borrow from until they need it. Deal is expected to close Friday.

Elliott is already on the hook for at least $200 million in future production financing, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the arrangement. U takes nearly 12.5% distribution fee off the top of each title Elliott helps fund.

All parties involved in the deal declined to comment.

If Elliott had wanted to re-up its Universal deal, negotiations would have likely already begun. But sources with knowledge of both companies say there are no talks to extend the deal, and Elliott appears to be backing away from showbiz investments. Last year, the hedge fund sold a majority of its stake in Relativity to billionaire Ron Burkle, three and a half years after investing in Ryan Kavanaugh’s firm.

Elliott’s refinancing is the latest indicator that banks are warming again to lending in Hollywood, based on their faith in the long-term value of content. Lionsgate, Legendary and Village Roadshow all recently completed substantial refinancings backed by their movies.

Elliott and U first pacted in 2008. Relativity Media topper Ryan Kavanaugh arranged the deal, dubbed “Beverly II,” which gave Relativity the right to help choose which pics Elliott would finance with the studio. In exchange, Relativity received a hefty producing fee per film. The amount has never been disclosed, but under the terms of a similar arrangement with Sony, Relativity was to be paid $1 million and 2% of the gross per film, according to a lawsuit filed in February by Aramid Entertainment, an investor in the Sony slate.

The 2008 deal called for Elliott to back half the budgets of 75% of U’s films greenlit through the end of 2012.

If Elliott and U do not extend their relationship, the studio will have to fill a large hole in its film financing activities. That’s especially daunting during Hollywood’s drought of equity investors willing to risk money on movies, as opposed to more secured loans from banks.

So far, Elliott has backed nearly 50 films, including hits like “Ted,” “American Reunion,” “Safe House” and “Bridesmaids.” But it’s also included pricey misfires like “Tower Heist” and “Cowboys and Aliens,” as well as disappointments like “Get Him to the Greek” and “Public Enemies.”

Every Hollywood major with the exception of Disney in recent years has sought outside money to help finance film slates.

Wall Street sunk an estimated $15 billion into film slates between 2004 – 2008, according to FINalternatives, a news website focused on the private equity and hedge fund biz. But less than stellar returns for many of those investments have cooled Wall Streeters’ interest in gambling on the film biz. Studios also face pressure from corporate parents to reduce their risk, especially as tentpole production and marketing costs rise. Universal’s miss with this summer’s “Battleship,” for example, spurred Comcast to take an $83 million write-down in the second quarter.

Among the other majors, 20th Century Fox is in the midst of renewing its deal with longtime pic partner Dune Capital Management (Daily Variety, Aug. 14). Warner Bros. is set for the time being between Village Roadshow and Legendary, although the studio is open to more outside coin. Paramount, Universal and Sony are aggressively seeking third-party investors, while Disney, with its robust merchandising and promotions business, doesn’t usually rely on third-party capital.

But while the studios have become revolving doors for potential investors, few have gotten close to writing checks. As Variety reported in March, attorney John LaViolette has been working with global investment firm StormHarbour for months to try and raise as much as $1.2 billion to finance pics at Sony and Universal, but multiple sources close to the situation say no agreement is imminent.