A lot of people in Hollywood are asking that question today after word spread over the weekend that DreamWorks Animation’s board met last week to consider a potential offer that would put a $3.3B valuation on the independent studio. Few up to now figured SoftBank into the mix of possible buyers, but you can’t blame the Japanese Internet and telecom company for that. The No. 3 wireless provider in its home country, and a player in the U.S. following its $21.6B acquisition last year of Sprint, CEO Masayoshi Son said in SoftBank’s latest annual report that his company “is not really a telecommunications company; it is an Internet company, and its core business is the Internet. SoftBank Mobile and Sprint are really to serve as platforms for the era of the mobile Internet, which is focused on mobile devices. By providing all manner of services and content on these platforms, we are aiming to create a comprehensive ecosystem that other companies will never be able to rival.”
SoftBank last year erased any doubt that entertainment is part of its vision: It bought online game company GungHo Online Entertainment and Finland’s Supercell. It also offered $8.5B for Universal Music, but parent company Vivendi rejected it. SoftBank has had more luck with its investments. It owns 32% of Chinese e-retailer Alibaba, making it the largest shareholder in the latest Wall Street darling. SoftBank also owns 42.9% of the voting shares of Yahoo Japan. SoftBank’s U.S. shares have appreciated nearly 77% over the past two years. But investors have been skeptical about its acquisition spree; the stock is only up 1.5% over the past 12 months. A deal with DWA would add to those concerns. SoftBank is down about 3% today.
That might not bother CEO Son. The UC Berkeley grad is said to be Japan’s richest man, with a net worth of $22.3B after making several big and early bets on the Internet. He owns nearly 21% of SoftBank.
What would he do with DWA? SoftBank could “use popular DWA characters such as Shrek to brand and market mobile services globally,” Wunderlich Securities Matthew Harrigan says. Other analysts say the Japanese company could pick up the studio and its library for a bargain price, even if it pays a premium over its current market value: DWA has been in Wall Street’s doghouse after reporting losses for three of its past four original films: Mr. Peabody And Sherman, Turbo, and Rise Of The Guardians. Even with today’s 26% increase in DWA’s share price, the company is down nearly 21% since the beginning of this year.
But others say the logic of a deal eludes them. “From SoftBank’s end, this appears to be about media empire building,” says Cowen and Co’s Doug Creutz. “There appears to be little strategically interesting about the deal.” And it might not happen: SoftBank’s Son is known to “change his mind on deals” with a 180-turn on a bid for T-Mobile last year being “the most recent obvious example,” said Topeka Capital Markets’ David Miller. He also notes that DWA seems to lurching. DWA hired its COO, Mark Zoradi, in July, and CFO Fazal Merchant started his job on September 15. Said Miller, “Never in the history of this sector do we recall a scenario where a board of directors at a public company hires a brand-new CFO and then two weeks later agrees to sell the company!”