When Walt Disney Co. decided to sell off what’s left of Miramax Films, it was L.A.’s wealthiest residents who heard the siren song of Tinseltown’s glamour.
Although studios weren’t too interested in buying Miramax, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, billionaire brothers Tom and Alec Gores, and construction mogul Ron Tutor launched a bidding war for it.
Burkle, who formed a partnership with the studio’s co-founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, reportedly were in exclusive negotiations with Disney to acquire Miramax at press time with a $625 million bid.
But the fight among the wealthy businessmen over the studio has been an unusual spectacle. That’s because the usual Hollywood players didn’t make it to the final round of bidding. Independent movie studio Summit Entertainment, which reportedly pulled out of bidding in February, and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., which expressed interest in Miramax but has been distracted by a takeover battle with billionaire investor Carl Icahn, decided it is not the right time for a purchase that had been estimated to cost as high as $700 million.
“It is interesting because, let’s face it, where are the established, existing players in the hunt?” said Lloyd Greif, the chief of downtown Los Angeles middle-market investment banking firm Greif & Co. who has known Burkle for decades. “None of the logical names showed up to the party. This is an anomaly for sure.”
Tutor said the prospect of exploiting Miramax’s 700-film library, which includes contemporary classics such as “Pulp Fiction,” “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love,” was an attractive one.
“I think it’s a very good asset,” Tutor said of Miramax. However, he declined to elaborate on what he may have done with Miramax. “That’s something the media doesn’t need to know. It’s a business transaction.”
A longtime investor in the entertainment industry with business partner David Bergstein, Tutor refers to himself as an absentee owner in their venture, and is often called a silent partner. He lost interest in the studio after he heard that Burkle and the Weinsteins entered into exclusive negotiations.
Tutor isn’t certain whether he and Bergstein would pursue the purchase if the opportunity returned.
“We will see if that happens,” Tutor said. “But let’s just say we are not as interested as we were before. So why conjecture?”
Representatives for Burkle and the Weinsteins did not respond to requests for comment.
Representatives for Tom and Alec Gores also declined to comment. However, a source with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed that the brothers bid on Miramax and would still be interested if Burkle and the Weinsteins can’t conclude the purchase.
Industry insiders said Miramax would be a good buy for Burkle, the Gores or Tutor if they’re looking to make money in Hollywood.
“I’m not surprised that Ron Burkle or anyone else that wants to take a shot in Hollywood is interested,” said David Tenzer, an entertainment attorney and former motion picture business affairs executive at Creative Artists Agency. “It’s hard not to be impressed with that asset. The Weinstein brothers played an enormous role in creating the modern independent film business and Miramax is the vehicle they used to do that.”
Not only does the library have value for licensing, sales and distribution, but the Miramax brand has good will attached to it, Tenzer said. There’s still some work to do, however.
“I think Miramax is going to have to reinvent itself and reconnect to the marketplace as a true independent as opposed to an independent owned by a major studio,” he said.
A representative for Disney declined to comment on the sale. According to reports, the company announced in October plans to cut Miramax’s movie production from six to eight per year to three, and several months later it began folding Miramax’s operations into Disney’s studio, a move that was part of the entertainment giant’s restructuring of its movie studio operations.
Disney is now focused on distributing films from subsidiary Pixar and Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios, which the company struck a distribution agreement with last year. What’s more, Disney is expected to develop movies based on Marvel characters after acquiring Marvel Entertainment Inc. last year.
Because of Disney’s downsizing of Miramax, a buyer wouldn’t be purchasing a fully operating studio – which means that any buyer would have to invest in restarting production – but instead would acquire the catalog, which features six unreleased movies, including “Last Night,” with Keira Knightley, and “The Baster,” with Jennifer Aniston. The lack of original productions makes Miramax less attractive to major media companies, which look to maximize revenues by selling packages of new movies and older films to TV networks and retailers.
Harvey and Bob
The Weinstein brothers founded the Oscar-winning studio in 1979 and became legendary for their many low-budget, high-profit hits, including seminal independent movies such as “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” After they sold the studio to Disney in 1993, they continued to run Miramax, producing bigger-budget independent hits that won Oscars and made millions. They left Disney and founded the Weinstein Co. in 2005.
In recent years, the Weinsteins invested in fashion house Halston and produced a string of box office bombs, including “Nine” and “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” The company has reportedly gone through multiple rounds of layoffs and restructured $500 million in debt.
They’re teaming up with Burkle because they need his deep pockets to buy back the family business – Miramax is named for their mother and father, Miriam and Max.
Burkle started building his billion-dollar fortune in the 1980s, when he invested in currencies and commodities. He then began acquiring and turning around small grocery stores and formed investment firm Yucaipa Cos. in 1986.
Burkle’s more recent investments have been higher-profile, including Al Gore’s Current TV, Sean “Diddy” Comb’s clothing line, Whole Foods Market and Barnes & Noble. He’s fighting for control of the bookstore chain.
He’s also famous for his famous friends – U2 singer Bono and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But it’s not just the stars that make him a viable candidate as a Miramax co-owner, it’s his role in Source Interlink Cos.
Burkle’s Yucaipa acquired a controlling stake in Source Interlink, a Bonita Springs, Fla., publishing and distribution company, in the early 2000s. Source Interlink’s units include Alliance Entertainment LLC, which distributes DVDs and CDs to music and video retailers, and mass retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Walgreens and Kmart. (Source Interlink is going private as part of a 2009 Chapter 11 filing.)
Greif said Burkle’s background controlling Source Interlink and Alliance means that he could well be successful in capitalizing on the Miramax library.
“Ron knows a lot about the distribution and retail business,” he said. “And if you think about movies, they play in theaters and after they have theatrical runs, they sell through retail outlets. He knows about retail and knows how to ensure that assets are going to be exploited to the maximum.”
Still, it won’t be easy to make money. The independent film world is struggling as DVD sales and movie attendance decline amid the world of downloaded films and other digital media entertainment.
“Things are changing at an enormous rate in the independent world,” said Jason Squire, who teaches the movie business at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “The major studios have closed down their independent distribution arms and there is a decline in home video revenue that used to be a reliable revenue stream. The costs to open a movie and market a movie continue to grow, which puts pressure on smaller projects, more intimate independent-style specialized movies.”
But Greif said Burkle, who is known for influencing or even controlling the companies he invests in, wouldn’t be in over his head.
“Ron is a very shrewd investor,” he said. “He wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t have a management team in control that he has confidence in, and if he didn’t have control of the purse strings.”
Burkle’s got one executive producing credit to his name: The little-known 1999 drama “The Secret Life of Girls.”
While Burkle is the frontrunner, industry experts said the Gores brothers would also make good owners.
Tom and Alec Gores built their fortunes running private equity firms Platinum Equity LLC and the Gores Group LLC, respectively, and made billions acquiring struggling companies, turning them around and selling them at massive profits.
Tom Gores has dabbled as an executive producer. Credits include the Lindsay Lohan flop “I Know Who Killed Me,” the feel-good basketball movie “Crossover” and Andy Garcia drama “Lost City.”
While those titles weren’t particularly impressive, analysts say the Gores’ corporate turnaround results certainly are.
“The Gores are very serious people with a high level of expertise in the business,” Squires said. “So it’s very interesting to follow that part of the story as well.”
Tutor has been involved in the entertainment industry primarily through his business partner, film financier Bergstein. Bergstein’s recent productions include Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” the Forest Whitaker drama “The Air I Breathe” and the Ray Romano romantic comedy “The Last Word.”
Tutor is better known as a force in the construction industry, forming the Tutor-Saliba Corp. in 1981 with Naseem Saliba. Tutor-Saliba merged with Perini Corp. in 2008, and Tutor now served as chief executive of the publicly traded construction company, which has a market cap of $1.2 billion and is based in Sylmar.
But his Hollywood endeavors have become problematic.
A U.S. bankruptcy court judge appointed an interim trustee in April to examine the operations and books of five of Bergstein’s companies, including production and distribution companies Capitol Films and ThinkFilm. Tutor is named in the litigation. The move came after a group of creditors pushed the companies into involuntary bankruptcy, alleging they are owed millions.
Tutor said if they had won the bidding for Miramax, the studio would be kept separate from the companies involved in the legal tussle.
The wrangling hasn’t been enjoyable.
“What’s been happening hasn’t been very pleasant as an absentee owner and investor,” Tutor said. “I think it’s a fair assumption to say that I’m a little soured on it, but one really doesn’t have anything to do with the other.”
Certainly, not everyone can stomach the movie business, even as investors. “It’s not for everybody,” Greif said. “You have to have a cast-iron belly for this kind of investing. I don’t see this starting a trend.”
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.