Lionsgate (LGF) , once in the enviable position of balancing two mega-franchises, is now struggling to remain relevant among moviegoers. And investors have responded accordingly.
Last October, Lionsgate was sitting pretty in the stock market. On the horizon, the company had the final release of what was sure to be one of the year's biggest blockbusters, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2." A merger between Lionsgate and the Starz movie channel was in advanced talks. And the stock price for Lionsgate was at a robust $41 a share.
Fast-forward eight months, and that auspicious period had unraveled. The final "Hunger Games" installment disappointed enormously at the box office, coming in as the lowest-grossing chapter of the franchise both domestically and worldwide. The deal for a Lionsgate-Starz merger has yet to happen, although talks recently started up again. And the company's stock price is struggling to stay above $20 a share these days.
Although earnings for the quarter ending on March 30, 2016, came in above expectations, that overperformance was mainly due to the strong performance from Lionsgate's television sector, which has produced such hit shows as "Mad Men" and "Orange is the New Black." As it becomes clear that it will be difficult to find a new film franchise that will generate as much revenue as "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games," the company has placed increased emphasis on Lionsgate Television. For example, Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns stated at a recent conference that he expects the television division will become a billion-dollar business in the next three to five years, generating half of the company's top-line revenue.
However, increased profitability from the television sector does not get the film sector off the hook. And indeed, the latter has struggled to produce new, profitable franchises that investors can reliably hang their hats on. The latest "Divergent" installment bombed at the box office this past March, calling into question the financial viability of the forthcoming final movie in the franchise. Just this month, "Now You See Me 2," which Lionsgate was confident enough about to begin planning a third installment well before the second's release, opened considerably below its predecessor at the box office. That's to say nothing of "Gods of Egypt," Lionsgate's attempt at a franchise-starter, which became one of the biggest flops of the year thus far.
Lionsgate has been smart about minimizing its risks on its big-budget films, often pre-licensing the foreign rights to limit its financial exposure. The studio usually attempts to limit its exposure to about $15 million before the marketing spend on a given movie. While this practice does limit the upside for the studio on big hits, it allows the company to avoid large write-offs on big misses. However, if Lionsgate wants to restore investor confidence in full, it needs to start putting some films firmly in the "big hits" column--especially films that will kickstart franchises.
Lionsgate has recognized this and has acquired a number of properties that could be developed into lucrative franchises. Next year, the studio will release a film version of "Power Rangers" in March and a "My Little Pony" movie in October. As ComScore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian notes, "These two movies are key to any franchise expectations the studio has." Indeed, Lionsgate has high expectations: it has already announced that it hopes to make five to seven more "Power Rangers" films, but it may be tough to expand the appeal of these movies beyond fans of the properties. "Power Rangers" will struggle for attention among the potentially-nostalgic older crowd, given that new movies featuring Wolverine, King Kong and King Arthur are all also coming out in March. And "My Little Pony" will have to work hard to attract an audience other than young girls and "bronies" when it releases later in the year.
Other projects in development include "Monopoly," based off of the Hasbro games; "Kingkiller Chronicles," based on Patrick Rothfuss's fantasy books; "MacGyver," a film version of the '80s TV show; "Chaos Walking," adapted from Patrick Ness's young adult book series; "Robin Hood: Origins," a gritty take on the classic character; "Magic Tree House," from Mary Pope Osborne's children's book series; and "Emperor," based on Conn Iggulden's books about the life and death of Julius Caesar. As Vice Chairman Michael Burns recently pointed out, Lionsgate rarely leaves rights to properties un-monetized, which makes it likely that we will see films based off of all these properties within the next five years or so.
It is difficult to gauge how well these movies will do before they go into production, but the acquisition of these properties shows that Lionsgate at least has a long-term plan. In the short-term, the remainder of the studio's 2016 slate consists almost entirely of original movies. The company has always been a large backer of non-original fare, especially in the days before "The Hunger Games." Modestly-budgeted originals may be solid single or doubles for the studio, and though they may not be blockbusters, they also expose Lionsgate to little downside. "None of them are going to break the bank in terms of budget," Dergarabedian says. As Lionsgate goes longer and longer without a major franchise to claim as its own, the company may see its stock price move closer and closer to pre-"Hunger Games" numbers, which never exceeded the single digits.
Thus, Lionsgate needs to hope that the movie properties it has acquired will break big, even with the safety net of its TV division. Investors should keep an eye on the studio in the meantime: as "The Hunger Games" showed, all it takes is one appealing movie with franchise potential to reverse a company's fortunes.