Speaking to a crowd of investors this morning, Lionsgate CFO Jimmy Barge predicted a “nice rebound” for the company’s film operation in fiscal 2020, but cautioned, “I’m not doubling down on the film business.”
In an appearance at a Deutsche Bank investor conference, Barge said film is a “tough business and it’s hit-driven.” The company’s recently reshuffled management team, led by returning film chief Joe Drake, is making strides in his efforts to turn around the film division’s fortunes, Barge said. Lionsgate, he said, will “own more of the rights” in the future, with “better execution on production.” Asked about returning to previous goals of 15 to 20 annual releases, he said “mid-teens” would be a more realistic target.
After a surge in box office in 2017, with Wonder, the second John Wick installment and carryover from La La Land‘s late-2016 release driving revenue, the independent studio’s fortunes have changed. This year, its top domestic grosser has been Overboard at a modest $50.3 million. At about $326 million, year-to-date domestic box office is roughly half of what it was at this point a year ago.
Barge later sought to clarify his remarks, noting that the company “doesn’t need to double down” out of desperation and does still view film as an important asset in a changing media landscape.
“Motion picture studios are becoming much more strategic than I would have thought one or two years ago,” Barge said. As examples, he cited Disney’s move to acquire most of 21st Century Fox and direct some projects to a yet-to-be-launched direct-to-consumer streaming service, as well as Netflix’s ever-increasing film ambitions. Continuing to invest in film production also helps add to the company’s library of 16,000 titles — whose value, he noted, is not fully reflected in the balance sheet.
While he stopped short of making any predictions, Barge said one thing the company is weighing heavily is its first-window output deals with Epix and HBO. When those pacts expire in the next couple of years, he said the company could hold back some titles in order to feed the Starz OTT service, which now has more than 3 million subscribers.
Speaking of Starz, Barge said he doesn’t expect flare-ups with MVPDs such as the network’s impasse with Altice last winter to be “a continuing issue” in the future. “We’re not the network people don’t want,” he said. “By and large the consumer has raised their hand and said, ‘I want that premium package.’” That demand tends to lead to carriage agreements, and Altice and Lionsgate are now “very happy” with their new arrangement, he said.
Blackouts of premium networks are “very unusual,” with the Starz-Altice battle preceded by only one other retrans fight involving Showtime, Barge recalled. With stand-alone streaming now an increasing focus, he said, carriage disputes may not be the crises they used to be. Of the 1.2 million New York City subscribers to Altice’s Optimum cable service, about 900,000 live in Brooklyn, Barge said, and as the Starz OTT efforts increase the company is getting more sophisticated with data mining and targeting. “It’s not hard to find customers,” he said.
That ability for programmers to use targeting is why “the long-term leverage is in favor of the premium network,” he said. “We can go direct to the consumer.”