French Media Giant Vivendi Eyeing Stake in Lionsgate-Owned Starz

French media company Vivendi is reportedly considering a minority stake bid for Starz, the pay-TV/subscription streaming video company owned by Lionsgate. The interest follows media reports about Roku teaming up with Apollo Global Management for a separate minority bid for Starz, which Lionsgate acquired for $4.4 billion in 2016.

Lionsgate last year said it would entertain offers for Starz, which includes about 20 million subscribers to its SVOD services, in an effort to up the platform’s market value. Starz premium pay-TV platform competes against Paramount Global’s Showtime and Warner Bros. Discovery’s HBO.

The Financial Times, citing sources, reports that Vivendi’s Canal+ unit is eyeing submitting a bid as a way to consolidate Starz’s streaming business with its 24 million streaming subs split between Europe and Africa. Vivendi currently owns 80% stake in Universal Music Group, which owns several albums in The Beatles catalog.

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As the global SVOD market continues to evolve, subscriber bases underscore market strength and a fiscal leverage when creating and acquiring content. Despite losing 200,000 subs in its most-recent fiscal quarter, Netflix remains the market benchmark with 221 million subs — a tally that has enabled the SVOD pioneer to dominate content spending in Hollywood and beyond.

Both Lionsgate and Vivendi have not commented on any possible negotiations. Lionsgate reports fourth-quarter and fiscal year 2022 results later this month.

Roku Reportedly Eyeing 20% Stake in Starz

Roku has reportedly partnered with Apollo Global Management to submit a bid for a 20% stake in Lionsgate-owned multiplatform digital distributor Starz. Roku, which co-launched the subscription streaming video-on-demand market with Netflix in 2008, has been looking to up its presence as a digital content distributor, in addition to streaming gateway for third-party streaming services.

The Wall Street Journal, citing sources, said Roku and Apollo are looking to act on Lionsgate’s decision to spin-off Starz, which the studio/distributor acquired for $4.4 billion in 2016. Apollo acquired Redbox from Outerwall for $1.6 billion in 2016, before spinning the kiosk vendor off last year to SPAC Seaport Global Acquisition.

Lionsgate, which believes Starz is undervalued, has been busy licensing digital rights to original and catalog content to The Roku Channel and Amazon Freevee, previously partnered with Roku for original movie, Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas, which Lionsgate produced.

Starz ended 2021 with about 20 million subscribers. Lionsgate in March sold its majority stake in subsidiary Starz Play Arabia for an undisclosed amount. The service has about 2 million subscribers.

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Heels: The Complete First Season

DVD REVIEW: 

Lionsgate;
Drama;
$34.98 two-DVD set;
Not rated.
Stars Stephen Amell, Alexander Ludwig, Allison Luff, Mary McCormack, Kelli Berglund, Allen Maldonado, James Harrison, Roxton Garcia, Chris Bauer, David James Elliott.

The Starz series “Heels” examines the behind-the-scenes drama of a fictional independent family run wrestling organization in rural Georgia.

Former “Arrow” star Stephen Amell is a natural choice to headline the series, given he’s such a huge fan of professional wrestling he actually participated in storylines and matches for WWE.

Amell plays Jack Spade, who runs the Duffy Wrestling League and also serves as its champion. Jack is the DWL’s primary “heel,” which is wrestling parlance for a bad guy. His brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) is the DWL’s primary face, aka good guy, and the top contender for the title.

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While the DWL remains a popular attraction among the locals, it is struggling financially, fending off a glitzy, well-funded upstart organization from Florida. By day, Jack works as a salesman for riding lawnmowers, though he remains dedicated to keeping the DWL alive to maintain the legacy of his father (David James Elliott), who committed suicide a year earlier and whose plight is depicted in flashbacks.

Wrestling fans should enjoy some of the nods to the inner workings of professional wrestling, but the show also works simply as a family drama. Non-fans will get a good lesson in the mechanics of the wrestling business, including terms such as “kayfabe,” which refers to the presentation of the fictional storylines and characters as if they were real. This often extends to performers who are friends in real life but enemies in the ring avoiding each other in public just to keep up appearances and help sell their feud to the audience.

While the matches might be staged, the competition behind-the-scenes is very real, with the wrestlers jockeying for position among the company’s roster. Solid performers will get a push, and loyalty is rewarded.

 

When Ace’s ego begins to blur the lines between his character and his real self, the in-ring feud between the brothers boils over into real life, which could have a devastating impact on the future of the DWL.

The flipside of kayfabe, however, sometimes means pretending things that weren’t planned were indeed part of the intended storyline all along, so as not to give the impression the organizers don’t have a handle on what they’re doing.

 

With Ace as a wild card in Jack’s attempts to steer the DWL toward lasting success despite the pressure of a rival organization, the series manages to apply the framework of wrestling storylines to the Spades’ family drama. The potential for betrayal constantly looms, subverting audience expectations over how the DWL’s in-ring storyline is supposed to play out.

The eight episodes of the first season provide a solid foundation for a series that can be enjoyed by both wrestling fans and casual viewers alike.

Starz Sells Majority Stake in StarzPlay Arabia SVOD Service to Investor Consortium

Lionsgate-owned Starz March 17 announced a majority equity stake sale of approximately 57% in StarzPlay Arabia, the SVOD streaming service with about 2 million subscribers across 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, to a consortium of investors based in Abu Dhabi. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Starz and Lionsgate will maintain commercial agreements for content licensing to the venture. The transaction remains subject to regulatory approvals and certain administrative procedures.

“StarzPlay Arabia marked our first international initiative at a time when streaming internationally was still nascent,” Jeffrey Hirsch, president/CEO of Starz, said in a statement. “It served as a template for growth that allowed us to rapidly scale the brand around the world now in over 60 countries.”

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Consortium investors include E-Vision, (previously known as Etisalat Group), ADQ, an investment and holding company based in United Arab Emirates.

Maaz Sheikh, co-founder and CEO of StarzPlay Arabia, said the deal would enable the streamer to grow by focusing on original content production and advanced customer personalization.

“We thank them for their trust in our vision as well as our shareholders Starz and SEQ Investors for originally backing our idea and enabling us to turn our start-up aspirations into a flourishing business reality,” Sheikh said.

Season 1 of Wrestling Drama ‘Heels’ Due on DVD Feb. 15

Lionsgate will release the pro-wrestling drama Heels: The Complete First Season on DVD Feb. 15.

Set in a close-knit Georgia community, the Starz series follows a struggling small-town family owned wrestling promotion, the Duffy Wrestling League, as two brothers and rivals, Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) and Ace Space (Alexander Ludwig), war over their late father’s legacy. In the ring, someone must play the good guy, the face (Ace), and someone must play their nemesis, the heel (Jack). But in the real world, those characters can be hard to live up to — or hard to leave behind.

The cast also includes Mary McCormack, Kelli Berglund and Allen Maldonado.

The first season consists of eight episodes.

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Analyst Eyes Lionsgate Stock Price Upside With Starz Spin-Off

Lionsgate could see its stock price surge 50% following the spin-off of its Starz digital media brand, and ongoing content production for third-party distributors, according to a Wall Street analyst.

Last November, Lionsgate disclosed it would entertain spinning off the Starz unit as a standalone publicly held company. Starz, which has more than 18 million subscribers across multiple branded streaming platforms worldwide, including StarzPlay Arabia, is currently headed by Jeffrey Hirsch.

Writing in a Jan. 4 note, Wells Fargo analyst Steven Cahall said Lionsgate’s shares could reach $25 valuation if it concentrates its “pickaxes” on the current “gold rush for content” within the media landscape as streaming services compete with legacy distribution platforms such as linear TV on original programming to attract subscriber eyeballs.

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“One thing we learned on our recent ‘LA Bus Tour’ is that the demand for content continues to increase,” Cahall wrote. “Independent studios like Sony Pictures, Lionsgate, Skydance, A24, Hello Sunshine, and various others are in a great position to sell the pickaxes during this gold rush.”

Specifically, Cahall contends Lionsgate can piggyback on the combined $100 billion content production frenzy media giants such as Netflix, Disney, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, Apple and Amazon Studios will spend this year producing shows and movies.

The analyst cites Lionsgate’s licensing of the “Mad Men” franchise across multiple streaming platforms as an “all-time [industry] high” within the syndicated content market.

Revenue from Lionsgate’s 17,000-title film and television library totaled a record $784 million for the trailing 12 months through the last fiscal quarter (ended Sept. 30, 2021). The Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio/distributor completed the acquisition of the 200-title Spyglass Media Group library in the quarter.

Last year, Lionsgate released slavery drama Antebellum, starring Janelle Monae, actioner The Protégé, co-starring Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a comedy co-starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, all on premium VOD.

“We foresee Lionsgate’s content studios making more shows and more movies,” Cahall wrote. “We think ‘profit ultimates’ are being written up as downstream movie rights can be pre-sold, while PVOD lowers the cost structure for middle-budget film releases.”

Netflix Leads Parks List of 2021 Top 10 U.S. SVOD Services

Netflix topped the list of Parks Associates’ 2021 top 10 U.S. paid subscription over-the-top (OTT) video services.

The list is based on estimated numbers of subscribers through September 2021 from the firm’s OTT Video Market Tracker.

The 2021 list shows the first change in the top three services since the firm started tracking the providers in 2015. Disney+ has moved into the top three, moving ahead of Hulu in number of subscribers. HBO Max moved into the top five, while Paramount+ (rebranded from CBS All Access) jumped to number seven on the list. New entrant Discovery+ is right behind at 11.

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Parks Associates’ 2021 Top 10 U.S. Subscription OTT Video Services (SVOD):

  1. Netflix
  2. Prime Video
  3. Disney+
  4. Hulu
  5. HBO Max
  6. ESPN+
  7. Paramount+
  8. Apple TV+
  9. Starz
  10. Showtime 

 

The research firm reports that, based on quarterly surveys of 10,000 U.S. broadband households, more than 80% of broadband households have at least one OTT service and that the churn rate for OTT services is 44%, with consumers adopting multiple subscriptions and experimenting with different services.

“While the Disney+ content portfolio may have allowed it to leapfrog stablemate Hulu in 2021 rankings, its position reaffirms the collective power of the Disney Bundle triumvirate: Hulu, Disney+ and ESPN+,” Paul Erickson, director of research of Parks Associates, said in a statement. “ViacomCBS’s successful rebrand and content-fueled reformulation of CBS All Access into Paramount+ have allowed it to leapfrog Apple TV+ into seventh place behind ESPN+, and time will tell if the service will break into the top five.”

“Broadband providers added an estimated 6.4 million residential customers to date in 2021, showing rapid growth,” Kristen Hanich, director of research at Parks Associates, said in a statement. “The importance of bundling pay-TV with home broadband is diminishing though — our Home Services Dashboard finds that only 38% of U.S. broadband households bundle pay-TV with their home internet service, a significant decline from past levels.”

The role of online TV continues to grow, with consumers embracing OTT services offered by familiar providers, according to Parks.

“In Q3 2021, 19% of U.S. broadband households reported subscribing to a vMVPD service, nearly double from the previous year,” Eric Sorensen, contributing senior analyst at Parks Associates, said in a statement. “By 2024, the U.S. vMVPD subscriber base will increase to more than 23 million households. All players will continue vying for the leading positions.” 

CEO Jeffrey Hirsch: Starz Well-Positioned for Standalone Operations

When Lionsgate in early November disclosed it would entertain spinning off Starz (with 18 million SVOD subscribers) as a standalone publicly held company, the studio/distributor was looking to jumpstart investor interest in what it considered to be an undervalued asset.

Speaking Dec. 8 at the virtual UBS Technology, Media and Telecom conference, Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch said the decision underlined Lionsgate senior management’s desire to align with shareholders and “do something structural” to the business.

Hirsch, together with vice chairman Michael Burns, has been out front on investor forums touting the Starz brand and its focus on creating content targeting black and female viewers.

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Starz, which Lionsgate acquired in 2016 for $4.4 billion, has transitioned the brand from pay-TV distributor to over-the-top video, including StarzPlay Arabia, a non-consolidated equity method investee. StarzPlay International subs grew 97% year-over-year to 7.5 million across 60 countries.

“That’s exciting for everybody at the company because obviously if you look at the stock price and the valuation, we weren’t getting credit for the tremendous work we’re doing at Starz but also what we’re doing on the studio side,” Hirsch said.

While providing no updates on any possible asset sale, Hirsch said Starz is prepared to operate as a standalone company when that time comes.

“We have a CFO, we have a head of HR, we have a separate marketing group,” he said. “So, all of the personnel stuff that would have to happen to actually break the company apart is already in place. I think that’s something pretty easy to do.”

As a separate company, Starz would remain significantly linked with Lionsgate. Ten of the platform’s current 12 original series are produced by Lionsgate.

“We talk to them almost daily about all aspects of the business,” Hirsch said. “We’ve done a couple of early renewals. And we really are tied-at-the-hip partners.”

Lionsgate Mulls Starz Spin-Off as Unit Adds 1.3 Million Q2 SVOD Subs, Tops 18 Million Worldwide

Starz, the multiplatform distribution network owned and operated by Lionsgate, Nov. 4 reported an increase of 1.3 million subscribers in the second quarter (ended Sept. 3). The increase brings the global sub count to 18 million across Starz’ multiple branded streaming platforms, including StarzPlay Arabia, a non-consolidated equity method investee. StarzPlay International subs grew 97% year-over-year to 7.5 million across 60 countries.

The sub increases come as Lionsgate announced it would entertain spinning off the SVOD unit as a standalone publicly held company. Starz is currently headed by Jeffrey Hirsch.

“On Nov. 2, the company’s board authorized the management’s team to explore potential capital markets alternatives for its media networks business (Starz) including, but not limited to, a full or partial spin-off, split-off, issuance of a tracking stock or other transactions,” Lionsgate said in a regulatory filing.

Lionsgate acquired Starz in 2016 for $4.4 billion. Since that time, the company has transitioned the brand from pay-TV to over-the-top video, with additional platform launches overseas. At the same time, Lionsgate management feels Starz has not been properly valued by the market.

“The world has certainly changed because you have enormous competition and a lot of streamers around the globe,” Michael Burns, vice chairman of the board, said on the call. “But we think we’re very well positioned in that world.”

Overall, Lionsgate’s media networks unit totaled 30 million subs (including pay-TV), with segment revenue of $384.7 million, par with the previous-year period. Operating profit decreased to $5.5 million, driven by higher programming and content spend and marketing costs.

“Starz drove growth … with the strong premieres of three new series in the quarter,” CEO Jon Feltheimer said in a statement.

The media networks segment includes the domestic distribution of Starz branded premium subscription video services through OTT platforms and distributors and on a direct-to-consumer basis through the Starz App.

It also includes StarzPlay International, which represents revenue primarily from the OTT distribution of the company’s branded subscription video services outside of the United States.

Through March 31, media networks also included other streaming services, which represented primarily formerly owned Spanish language streaming service Pantaya. Lionsgate sold its interest in Pantaya earlier this year.

Michael Burns: Lionsgate Focused on Catalog Acquisitions as Well as Original Content Spending

In the crush of original content production across studios and streaming platforms, Lionsgate has taken a slightly different path, focusing equally on catalog library acquisitions, in addition to original TV shows and movies.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio/distributor this year acquired three separate movie libraries, including a 20% stake in Spyglass Media Group, securing distribution rights to more than 200 movies and most of the The Weinstein Co. library. Lionsgate also owns stakes in Trimark Pictures, Artisan Entertainment and Summit Entertainment.

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“The ability to buy these libraries when everybody else is standing still, that’s a strategic advantage,” Michael Burns, chairman of Lionsgate, told an investor group.

Speaking Sept. 21 at the virtual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, Burns said Lionsgate has spent $20 billion on content over the past 20 years — much of it on third-party libraries. The company generated in excess of $700 million in revenue on catalog content in 2020.

“The [movie] license business ages extremely well,” Burns said. “We have all the Weinstein product from 2005 to 2018. We’re the largest holder of Quentin Tarantino movies now. We have an opportunity right now to monetize library product like never before. It’s a terrific time to be in the content business.”

Burns said that in addition to SVOD, the burgeoning ad-supported VOD and FAST streaming platforms in the U.S. (i.e. Pluto TV, Tubi, The Roku Channel, etc.) and worldwide has created new distribution opportunities.

“AVOD has turned out to be a great business for us, domestically, as all these players emerge. And they just opened internationally,” he said.

On the conference call, Jeffrey Hirsch, CEO of Starz, said the premium channel is now generating more revenue from digital distribution than pay-television. Linear and streaming now account for 30 million combined subscribers.

“The brand’s streaming platforms are now operating in 59 countries outside the U.S.,” Hirsch said. “We think we are really positioned to capture market share outside the U.S.”

Meanwhile, at a time when industrywide consolidation sees Amazon acquiring MGM and Discovery taking control of WarnerMedia, Lionsgate remains a prime target for third-party acquisition. In the last earnings call, CEO Jon Feltheimer said the company would not be distracted by industrywide “concept of scale,” while at the same time remaining open to discussions with “everyone” and listening to “everything.”

The reality is not lost upon Burns.

“We expect to see more consolidation in the media sector,” he said. “That’s a given. We are one of the last big independent media companies. Our size allows us to be nimble. We are the PT boats surrounded by battleships. We are going to continue to identify ways to increase the value of our stock price.”