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‘Leaving Neverland’ Producers Among Those Struggling for Royalties as Kew Media Group Ceases Trading (EXCLUSIVE)

Canada’s embattled Kew Media Group will continue to cease all trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) following a permanent cease trade order by the Ontario Securities Commission, as the firm’s portfolio of production companies scrambles to exit what one executive has called “a sinking ship.”

Several people with direct knowledge of the company’s finances have told Variety that the producers of HBO and Channel 4 documentary “Leaving Neverland,” one of Kew Media Distribution’s top-earning titles last year – selling into every territory in the world except China, Kew said in July – are among those who are heavily out of pocket, with large amounts of royalties still unpaid.

It is understood that discussions around payment are still ongoing with Kew Media Group, whose financial turmoil was first revealed in its third-quarter earnings in November, which showed a net loss of CAD$6.4 million ($4.8 million) for the period and a 5% dip in revenues (CAD$47.5 million/$35.9 million) from the year prior. The report also disclosed a debt load of CAD$104.9 million ($79 million).

At the time, the business pointed to poor performance by its U.S. and Australia-based producer Essential Media, which lost a number of “key series” including Discovery’s “Texas Flip ‘N Move” when DIY rebranded to Magnolia.

In December, Kew began a strategic review that could see the business wholly or partially sold off as it looks to pay back its lenders. At that point, it also claimed that CFO Geoff Webb had filed “inaccurate information regarding working capital” in its financial reports.

The Ontario Securities Commission first issued a temporary cease trade order (CTO) to the publicly traded company on Jan. 16 with a 15-day window – a directive that was made permanent on Thursday. Kew must demonstrate it can meet all TSX requirements by May 19 or face removal.

Kew Media Group was launched in 2017 by Alliance Atlantis’s Peter Sussman and Blue Ice Group co-founder Steven Silver, self-proclaimed “content guys” who set up shop as a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), a vehicle that drums up investment through an IPO, with funds then used to acquire existing companies.

The business burst onto the scene in a dazzling buying spree that saw it snap up several prominent Canadian production companies for $104 million ($78 million), including Bristow Global Media, Frantic Films and Our House Media, as well as London-based film and TV distributor Content Media.

The acquisition of Content also brought the likes of “Going Clear” doc maker Alex Gibney’s production outfit Jigsaw Productions and former Endemol staffer Peter Cowley’s Spirit Media into the Kew Media stable. The business later bought factual distribution powerhouse TCB Media Rights and also took stakes in Two Rivers Media and Awesome Media.

Variety understands that a number of these companies are now looking to quickly extract themselves from Kew.

One Kew-backed business owner told Variety that the company’s producers became conscious of financial distress during the second half of 2019, but was not expecting the scale of the damage.

“We were conscious from their third-quarter results that they hadn’t done well,” said the source. “But the share price had tanked before this, and we thought it was a bad quarter. We weren’t imagining this.”

It is believed that Jeff Norton’s Awesome Media, which specializes in YA and literary IP with crossover TV potential, is fielding outside interest from both private equity groups and traditional media buyers, while Paul Heaney’s TCB is also entertaining offers from numerous investors.

Earlier this month, Kew-backed “Dance Moms” producer Collins Avenue was acquired by Asylum’s The Content Group, while Alan Clements’ Two Rivers Media bought out Kew’s minority stake in the business through increased backing from its remaining investors, Noble Grossart Investments and Channel 4’s Indie Growth Fund.

The trouble at Kew has, overall, come as a surprise to the industry. The execs who helm Kew-backed production companies, such as Julie Bristow (who left the business in November), Jeff Collins and Paul Heaney, are well respected, public-facing figures with substantial profile across the industry. Similarly, Kew’s entry in the documentary space via Jigsaw and other third-party deals, such as “Leaving Neverland,” was also seen a major boon for the unscripted arena.

The release of some of these companies back into the market will be seen as a major blow for Kew – if it is able to refinance and remain afloat – but one that will also feed the M&A headwinds blowing full force across the market.

Kew Media Group declined to comment for this story.

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