Viacom chief Philippe Dauman makes a sales pitch for stake in Paramount Pictures

Waving a big "for sale" sign, Viacom Chairman and Chief Executive Philippe Dauman touted a "once in a lifetime opportunity" presented by his plan to auction off a large piece of the storied Paramount Pictures movie studio.

"It is a crown jewel out there," Dauman said Monday at Deutsche Bank's Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in Palm Beach, Fla. 

Viacom announced two weeks ago that it would sell a significant stake, or about 40%, of the Melrose Avenue film studio. Paramount is one of Hollywood's original studios, producing such culture-defining hits as "The Godfather," "Forrest Gump," "Mission: Impossible" and "Transformers."

Viacom would like to sell the stake in Paramount by the end of June. Dauman took a moment on Monday to make his sales pitch during the investor conference, saying the sale would produce a "premium valuation" for Paramount.

Observers have mentioned the possibility that a Chinese media company — or a tech giant such as Amazon — might be a preferred partner to invest in Viacom's Los Angeles film studio.

Dauman declined to name potential investors, but said a suitor could help Viacom with its objectives to expand internationally or in the digital space.

"We are at a moment in time where we have the opportunity to marry those strategic opportunities with the right strategic partner," Dauman said. "I feel very good about the kind of players we are talking to."

The sale comes as Viacom is in the midst of a leadership transition amid the deteriorating health of the company's 92-year-old founder, Sumner Redstone. Dauman took over as chairman of the company last month and quickly announced the sale of the stake in Paramount.

The New York media company has grappled with a depressed stock price over the last two years, and looming debts that must be paid for the company to maintain its investment-grade credit rating.

In addition, Viacom's core cable TV channels, including MTV and Comedy Central, also have stumbled in the ratings.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of an interest in Paramount would be used to pay down Viacom debt and "look for business opportunities to drive our business," Dauman said.

He added that the company would use cash on hand to pay off a $350-million note due in April. 

"It will help drive Viacom forward and as well as bring out some of the value that is not being recognized, in this case in Paramount," Dauman said.

Cash-rich investors, such as Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, could give Viacom a much-needed infusion of capital to help expand the studio's film and TV slate, analysts have said.

Paramount has lagged well behind rival studios owned by other major media companies, such as Walt Disney Co., NBCUniversal and 21st Century Fox.

Dauman sought to focus potential suitors' view through the windshield — not the rear view mirror, "looking past the disappointing operating performance over the last couple of years," he said.

Paramount posted a $146-million operating loss in the most recent October-December fiscal. Viacom shares have been regaining ground in the last two weeks.  In mid-day trading on Monday, shares were up 2% to about $39.50.

"We are replenishing the cupboard," Dauman said. "We have an iconic studio with a very high-quality library, which is continually being replenished by high-end films."

The Viacom chief also said he was confident that his team would be able to hammer out a new distribution deal with Dish Networks, one of the nation's largest pay-TV operators.

Investors have been nervous about a potential stand-off between Viacom and Dish over a new distribution deal.

"We are continuing our discussions with Dish," Dauman said. "We have a long and strong relationship. I am very confident that we are going to get  to a mutually beneficial outcome, and we will get to that point sometime in the next quarter."

Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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