Does Lionsgate Have Starz In Its Eyes?

Starz shares are up more than 10% and Lionsgate’s are up more than 6.5% in post-market trading today after the Los Angeles Times reported that the companies are in “advanced talks” to merge. The story offers no deal terms for what it describes as a merger. If any talks bear fruit, though, then Lionsgate likely would end up being the buyer. The studio has a market value of $5.7 billion vs Starz’s $3.8 billion. The report says that Lionsgate would run a combined company.

Lionsgate and Starz declined to comment, but sources tell Deadline that nothing is imminent and said that the newspaper was premature at best.

The Times report comes three weeks after Bloomberg said that AMC Networks was engaged in merger talks with Starz. At the time, Stifel Research analyst Benjamin Mogil wondered whether the news was designed “to accelerate the conversations with Lionsgate.”

The studio’s been seen as a likely partner since February, when Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who controls Starz, made a stock swap with Lionsgate and joined its board. The transaction gave Lionsgate 14.5% of the voting shares of Starz, with an agreement not to go above 14.9% — leaving Malone as the biggest owner with 32.1% of the votes. The agreement left Starz with 3.43% of Lionsgate.

Malone has been eager to find a buyer for Starz. “You need to have partnerships; you need to do more,” Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei said after the Lionsgate deal. “Whether that ultimately leads to acquisitions… you need to be able to do more with bigger people.” Malone’s agreement to join the Lionsgate board “is a way for both parties to get to know each other a little bit better, in a concrete fashion.”

Lionsgate corporate logoThere’s also a logic to a deal that brings Starz together with Epix — the premium channel co-owned by Lionsgate, Viacom and MGM. Both trail HBO and Showtime, which are expanding beyond pay TV to compete with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for online subscriptions.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer told analysts in August that his company’s “happy to be a shareholder of Starz,” adding that its CEO, Chris Albrecht, “is continuing to do really a good job building that brand.”

Lionsgate recently renewed its film output deal with Epix. And Summit has an agreement with HBO that was renewed for a multiyear term that began in 2013.

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