An Indianapolis investor group has struck a deal to buy control of humor publisher National Lampoon, which for a decade has been languishing under the auspices of a Westwood Web syndication and entertainment marketing company.
Four Leaf Management Group, led by managing partner Daniel S. Laikin, agreed this month to buy a controlling stake in L.A.-based J2 Communications.
Once the deal closes, which is expected to occur within 60 to 90 days of the March 6 date of the agreement, Laikin and his partners plan to once again make the Lampoon name synonymous with top-notch comedy.
Laikin said he has already been in touch with a "handful" of the company's fabled alumni, whom he claims are interested in contributing to the company they left years or even decades ago.
The newly formed National Lampoon Acquisition Group will use the brand name as a marketing tool to expand its footprint into film, television, radio, Internet, DVDs, CD-ROMs, books and possibly the resurrection of the magazine, which stopped publishing in 1998.
"National Lampoon was almost a comedy incubator in its time," said Laikin, who owns a home in Malibu and will keep the company based in Westwood. "I'd like to see the alumni come back to the Lampoon and help guide it through the next millennium. These people now make up the comedy community. They have a warm feeling in their heart for National Lampoon. It's somewhat of a nostalgic feel, but they really appreciate the brand and would love to have some relationship with it."
With the first deal still at least two or three weeks away, he would not reveal the names of the comedy stars he has been in contact with.
He did say they are among the list of television, radio, magazine and live stage alumni that includes Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, John Hughes and P.J. O'Rourke.
During the 1970s, National Lampoon was known for its irreverent magazine and its New York City-based comedy troupe called "Lemmings," from which emerged a host of stars that later found their fame and fortune on "Saturday Night Live," and movies, including National Lampoon's "Animal House" and the "Vacation" series.
The enterprise was largely absent from the entertainment industry during the 1990s, producing a few low-budget films that mostly went straight to video.
Although there were plans for the Internet to be the company's primary focus, computer-related operations will temporarily take a back seat as new ownership works to rebuild the brand's place in broadcasting and film, said Laikin.
J2 CEO Jim Jimirro bought the struggling National Lampoon a decade ago, but never leveraged the trademark because his company branched out into a variety of ventures, including video distribution, live musical productions and documentary films.
"I never wanted it to be just in comedy," he said. "They're buying it exclusively because of the company name."
In addition to its now-defunct video distribution operation, J2 produced music and children's videos, as well as sports programming.
In a joint venture with the Showtime channel, Jimirro produced a performance by Elton John and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
J2 also enticed Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes to sit in a room together for a documentary titled, "Champions Forever," which had a limited theatrical and mass market video release.
Laikin and his investment partner, Paul Skjodt, began buying shares in the publicly traded company last July and accumulated a 24 percent stake before persuading Jimirro to sell his 17 percent stake for $3.5 million, said John Kirkland, the investment banker who brokered the deal. The group also paid Jimirro $1.5 million for his stock options and stock appreciation rights.
In the fiscal year ended July 31, 2000, J2 reported net income of $854,000 (64 cents per diluted share), up from a net loss of $1.8 million ($1.07 per share) for the prior year. Revenues for fiscal 2000 were $1.5 million, vs. $1.2 million for fiscal 1999.
Shares of the company hit their 52-week low of $4.88 on Dec. 26, 2000. Laikin's group notified the company in August 2000 that they controlled 22 percent of the outstanding shares and raised the possibility of further increasing their ownership stake, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"Our prediction is that by the time we close the transaction, the shares will be trading at well over $20 a share," said Kirkland.
In addition, Laikin's group has agreed to purchase between 227,273 to 527,273 shares directly from the company, the amount to be determined in part by the stock value when the deal closes.
According to the company, once the deal closes Laikin's group would control 53 percent of the outstanding shares. J2 was trading at just under $14 per share last week.
Jimirro, who created the Disney Channel and Walt Disney Home Video, will receive 250,000 shares in the company next year under the existing employment contract he has with the company.
"Jimirro spent a lot of years closely guarding the brand maybe too closely and not leveraging it," said Laikin. "Luckily, (National Lampoon) didn't fall out of the public's consciousness. It's still the most recognizable brand in comedy."
Brushing aside the remarks, Jimirro said he wants to focus his energies on other areas of the company he started in 1974.
"Why don't we talk in two years and see what's happened then," he said. "Let's let him go forward and make us a lot of money, and then he can say he leveraged it better than anyone else."
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