Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns had to disappoint analysts who wanted him to open up about the big question of the day for his company: What’s going on with its reported merger talks with Summit Entertainment? “I’m not going to talk about any specific deal,” he said at the UBS Annual Global Media and Communications Conference. He noted, though, that a consolidation of independent film and TV companies is “a natural thing to happen.” He assured the group that Lionsgate is only interested in deals that add to its value, and don’t require it to either issue stock or take on additional debt. “We’re looking to delever, not lever up,” he says.
With that out of the way, he spoke candidly about the company’s plans for next year where he says “you’ll see us steady state for the first time” cranking out about a dozen movies and about three new TV shows. He’s encouraged about a plan to develop a TV series for ABC based on The Lincoln Lawyer – and Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management. “I’ve known Charlie a long, long time,” Burns said. “Our goal is to keep Charlie working, keep him healthy — and we have a great partner in FX.” Burns says that a series it’s developing for Netflix, Orange Is The New Black, could be as important for the service as Mad Men was for AMC. The series about ad executives in the 1950s and 60s “put AMC on the map.” On the film side, Burns says about 70% of Lionsgate’s productions are profitable. He’s optimistic about the company’s franchises and potential franchises including The Expendables, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it relationship with Tyler Perry. And no Lionsgate presentation would be complete without a lot of upbeat talk about The Hunger Games. He admits that it is “a damn expensive movie for us.” Still he says that while “nobody should buy our stock for one franchise…this one feels like we might have lightning in a bottle.”
For the most part, though, Burns continued a familiar theme at this year’s conference — that digital platforms such as Netflix have given content creators a new lease on life. In the pre-digital era when Lionsgate wanted to sell product in the UK to Sky “we had to go hat in hand. They’d pick what they want and give us a lousy price.” Now Lionsgate has several options, including distribution to XBox game consoles. “For all practical purposes Xbox is an MSO” the jargon term for pay TV operator, he says That’s also important for premium channel Epix. Although it isn’t carried by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or DirecTV, it’s still profitable, Burns says. “You have all these people now competing for professionally produced content. I like that. It becomes a seller’s market.” The channel is focusing on a deal with DirecTV but the Lionsgate exec says he believes all of the major pay TV companies will carry it soon. “Why would you want something available elsewhere and not in your territory?” Burns also is still a believer in home video, including Blu-ray discs. “It’s not the majority (of Lionsgate’s disc sales), but it’s growing a couple of points every quarter.” Meanwhile the company is experimenting with online ventures including movie rentals on Facebook, and discount coupons from Groupon. “I think we’ll do another Groupon deal in the future,” he says. “We look at that as promotion.”
Lionsgate is still licking its wounds from the battle to fend off billionaire Carl Icahn’s takeover effort. Although “we agreed to part amicably,” Burns says that “it was a long, arduous expensive battle that we’re glad to have behind us.” He added that “I don’t think we would have sold half of TV Guide (Network) without Carl in the mix. I’m sorry we had to do that.”