Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF) , the studio behind the Hunger Games movies and Netflix (NFLX) series Orange is the New Black, is again talking with premium cable channel operator Starz (STRZA) about a potential merger, four months after talks between the two cooled, according to two people with knowledge of the overture.
The deal, if one materialized, would continue the trend toward mergers in the media industry that recently have included cable operator Comcast's (CMCSA) pending acquisition of DreamWorks Animation (DWA) and the union of cable companies Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications (CHTR) .
Lions Gate owns a 15% voting stake in Starz and is seen working in concert with billionaire media investor John Malone, who holds interests in Lions Gate, Discovery Communications (DISCA) and Starz, among others. In February, Lions Gate said in a Schedule 13D filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had informed Starz that it "intends to explore whether there is a potentially mutually beneficial combination of the two companies."
Talks between the two broke off that same month after Lions Gate shares slid by 27% in the wake of disappointing third-quarter earnings prompted by the box office showing of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, which performed well below expectations. The company's shares -- which on Feb. 5 were down nearly 43% on the year -- had regained much of the post-earnings dip by early March and hit $23.43 on June 3, although they have since dropped slightly and closed at $20.55 a share on Wednesday. With the stock trading at $20.58 Thursday morning, shares remain down more than 36% on the year.
The quarter's poor showing highlighted Lions Gate's need to further diversify to minimize the volatile nature of its movie business, sources said. Despite increased output from its television production operations, the studio's hit-driven film business still accounted for 71.5% of its revenue last year, according to its filings. The company is also a 31.2 % owner of the EPIX premium cable channel and streaming service, which it owns with Viacom (VIAB) and the MGM studio.
A Lions Gate spokesman had no comment, and referred inquiries to the company's financial filings.
"The whole cycle is going to go where there will be more consolidation between studios and networks," said Shahid Khan, co-founder of Mediamorph, a New York media industry software and data provider. "If you have a captive source of content as opposed to having to bid in the open market every time you need something, that's synergy from the network's point of view."
Starz remains a relatively inexpensive acquisition, according to media dealmakers. At 13.4 times earnings, Starz, which owns the Starz and Encore premium movie channels, trades at a discount to the Standard & Poor's Media index, a benchmark of the sector's 16 largest companies including Disney (DIS) , Comcast and Time Warner (TWX) . The index trades at a 17 times multiple.
A Starz spokesman did not return an email seeking comment, although two weeks ago CEO Chris Albrecht acknowledged during an industry conference presentation that a consolidation wave in the media industry could include his own company.
Albrecht all but telegraphed mergers between the web of media companies owned by Malone or companies allied with him.
"Once something happens, there will be more things that will happen," Albrecht said. "Once you have the first piece, you'll have that domino effect."
A spokeswoman for Malone's Liberty Media (LMCA) declined comment.
Lions Gate, which operates out of Santa Monica, Calif., but is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, still could face difficulty in pulling off a deal with Starz, Morgan Stanley analyst Ryan Fiftal said. In a Wednesday report he said he's less bullish on a potential merger because of the U.S. Treasury Department's proposed "anti-inversion rules" to stop U.S. companies from moving overseas to lower their tax bills.