Warner Bros. poised to extend partnership with Village Roadshow

Warner Bros. is poised to extend its partnership with one of its two main co-financiers, while the fate of the studio’s ongoing relationship with its other key investor remains uncertain.

Village Roadshow Entertainment, which put up half the money for such franchises as “Sherlock Holmes,” “Happy Feet” and “The Matrix,” has raised $380 million in new equity. The funds put the Australian company on stronger financial footing and will allow its Hollywood unit, Village Roadshow Pictures, to begin talks to renew its longtime deal with Warner. Their current arrangement is set to expire in 2014.

“We’re now going to get into high gear picking movies for 2013, ’14 and ’15,” said Village Roadshow Pictures President Bruce Berman, whose firm has been partnered with Warner Bros. for 15 years.

“If Warner wants us, we’ll keep working with them past the 20-year mark,” added Greg Basser, chief executive of Village Roadshow Entertainment.

Less clear is the future of Warner’s business ties with its other long-standing partner, Legendary Pictures, which helped fund “The Hangover” and “Inception” and has a 25% stake in this summer’s highly anticipated sequel “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Headed by Thomas Tull, Legendary is embarking on an ambitious slate of its own projects, including next summer’s big-budget action film “Pacific Rim,” directed by Guillermo Del Toro, and a picture based on the life of baseball’s Jackie Robinson.

Legendary has had a largely successful run with Warner, but as it becomes a more independent company with its own films and a comic book division, opinions are mixed in Hollywood as to whether it will stick with Warner after its current agreement expires in 2013. A Legendary spokeswoman declined to comment.

Village Roadshow’s new capital infusion, led by investment firm Trinity Opportunities, will allow the production company to further tap the $1-billion debt facility that it set up last year, giving it a much larger pool of money at its disposal.

With the additional funds, the company plans to start co-financing six to eight Warner movies per year.

While Village Roadshow was making that many films in the mid-2000s, its production pace has slowed in the last few years as its access to capital was limited by the global financial crisis. Only two movies backed by Village hit theaters in 2011, and four will be released by the end of this year.

The company, which has been partnered with Warner since 1997, has been stung lately by several box-office disappointments. Last December’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” was a hit, but November’s animated sequel “Happy Feet Two” was a surprise flop. The recent “Dark Shadows,” starring Johnny Depp, also lost money.

Village Roadshow is already committed to co-finance Warner’s dramas “Gangster Squad” and “The Great Gatsby,” both of which will be released later this year.

“Our criteria remains the same: We believe in a mix of commercial movies that have a good chance of doing business internationally as well as domestically,” Berman said.

The company will also use the new funds to help grow its China-based unit, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia. That division will launch with a slate of three films, including director Stephen Chow’s “Journey to the West,” which is scheduled for release in February.

Village’s Asian arm will also co-finance Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi,” along with China Film Group and Wanda Media, to hit theaters next year as well.

The new venture will start off modestly, said Basser, spending far less on its initial slate of movies than Village Roadshow Pictures invests in its Hollywood productions.

Several other American film companies, including Legendary, are launching similar businesses in China.

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