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SAVOY PICTURES GETS THE STAR TREATMENT
Considering that it was Robert DeNiro's directorial debut, A Bronx Tale did a fast fade at the box office. No matter. In mid-October, two weeks after releasing its inaugural film, Savoy Pictures Entertainment filed registration statements to raise an estimated $60 million in additional stock and subordinated debentures. Even in Hollywood, where hyperbole rules, it's hard to exaggerate tiny Savoy's takeoff: Only 21 months after its founding, the New York-based film company's stock has soared (chart), and it has already raised more than $400 million in debt and equity.
True, Savoy is not your garden-variety startup. Its backers include such prominent names as Chicago's Pritzker family, Japanese trading giant Mitsui & Co., and New York investment banker Herbert A. Allen Jr. Nor are these ordinary times: With telephone and cable companies throwing billions at anyone capable of putting images on celluloid, Wall Street has made even the newest and weakest entertainment companies hot properties.
Savoy's two founders have had propitious timing before: Victor A. Kaufman and Lewis J. Korman are former top executives at Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc. who ran another startup, Tri-Star Pictures Inc. in the mid-1980s. Both made millions, along with Tri-Star's backers, when Sony Corp. paid $3.4 billion for Columbia and Tri-Star in 1989.
Now, Hollywood executives say Kaufman and Korman are assembling another studio to make another sale. The two are noncommittal about their intentions. Yet as Korman notes: "We thought the values couldn't get any higher than when Sony bought Columbia. But it just keeps going up."
Savoy's team knew they were on to a good thing when Ted Turner plunked down $260 million in mid-July for another Hollywood minnow, Castle Rock Entertainment. Castle Rock has produced such hits as In the Line of Fire and A Few Good Men, but its film library contains a paltry 12 titles.
Kaufman and Korman want to build a similar reputation for a few big hits. They've lured such Hollywood heavyweights as Rambo producer Andy Vajna and former Universal Pictures Chairman Frank Price to Savoy's board by giving both hefty stock options. And they recently signed The Fugitive director Andrew Davis to make three big-budget films.
Betting on pricey projects has almost ruined studios such as Carolco Pictures Inc. Savoy hopes to avoid that by selling its films' foreign and home-video rights to other studios, which will allow it to cover more than half its production costs. To retain domestic rights, Savoy has taken the risky step of building a distribution system, which forces it to absorb huge marketing costs. Those expenses for A Bronx Tale accounted for most of Savoy's $4.4 million in losses in the first nine months of 1993. "It's just not a healthy decision to take on the major studios toe-to-toe," says former Carolco President Peter Hoffman.
GRACE PERIOD. Kaufman insists that Savoy can afford to take losses for a while before it starts having hits. Home Box Office Inc. has pledged more than $300 million to the company for pay-TV rights to its films. And the company carries only $139 million in debt--less than a third of its total capitalization. Savoy plans to release 12 films in the next year and as many as 23 a year by 1995. The company might also invest in theater chains, a cable channel, or a video-game manufacturer.
Kaufman and Korman say the more quality films they make, the more likely they are to have winners. But their coming attractions give few clues of success. Shadowlands, a period love story with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Wing- er, has the potential to be a critical, though perhaps not commercial winner. Less promising is Serial Mom, which Savoy describes as an "offbeat comedy," starring Kathleen Turner as a car-pooling mother who becomes a serial killer.
Savoy is clearly still finding its legs creatively. So it helps to have backers such as Herbert Allen, a leading entertainment-industry banker whose mere participation in Savoy has been enough to boost its stock. Is Wall Street counting on Allen to peddle Savoy to a hungry telephone or cable company? "It's got to make some films first," he cautions. But will Savoy eventually entertain offers? "Our plan is to maximize shareholder value," says Kaufman. In today's frenzied environment, that's not all that different from hanging out a "for sale" sign.Ronald Grover in Los Angeles