Senator Entertainment gets an A

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BERLIN -- Germany's Senator Entertainment is set to acquire a 25.1% stake in Alexander van Dulmen's A Company with an option to take majority control of the Berlin-based rights group.

The deal, which will be announced today, links Senator and its French partner -- production/sales outfit Wild Bunch -- with A Company's Eastern European distribution network. Together, the three companies will be able to use their leverage to buy Pan-European rights and presell from Paris to Poland.

The deal follows Wild Bunch's joint venture with Senator, signed in December, that saw the French group take a 50% stake in Senator's art house distributor Central Film. Wild Bunch has similar joint ventures with A Film in Benelux and Bim in Italy.

"With Wild Bunch and now A Company as partners, we can greatly strengthen our position in distribution, presales and financing," Senator CEO Helge Sasse told The Hollywood Reporter.

A Company, now in its fifth year, also will use the fresh capital from Senator to expand and buy into Eastern European distribution firms. At the top of van Dulmen's shopping list is Polish distributor Kino Swiat, with a deal expected in the next 12-18 months.

Last week, A Company signed a letter of intent to buy into Budapest Film's Hungarian VOD platform Filmklik Hungary. Budapest and A Company plan to develop and set up a Pan-European VOD platform based on the Hungary operation, targeting Central and Eastern European territories.

"We've grown very fast in the past five years, but we have come to the limits of where we can go without new capital," van Dulmen told The Reporter. "With Senator, we can take strategic stakes in distribution operations in the territories where we are active, firming up our relationships with buyers there and ensuring better distribution for our films."

For Senator, the deal marks the latest move in Sasse's strategy of expanding the media group beyond Germany's borders. The CEO said A Company's focus on Eastern and Central European territories made it an ideal match for Senator.

"The markets in Eastern Europe are not as consolidated as those in the West, and they offer better opportunities," Sasse said.

He added that creating a Pan-European distribution network was necessary if Senator wants to avoid the fate of competitor Kinowelt, which recently was acquired by Studio Canal in a €70 million deal.

"We have to broaden our base across Europe if we want to resist the pressure for consolidation coming from international companies," Sasse said. "This is necessary not just for Senator to survive but for us to prosper and grow."

Senator International, the company's Los Angeles-based production operation, already is firing on all cylinders. Its first production, Dennis Lee's family drama "Fireflies in the Garden" -- starring Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe and Emily Watson -- had its world premiere Sunday at the Berlin International Film Festival. Senator's sophomore effort, Gregor Jordan's thriller "The Informers" with Brad Renfro, Winona Ryder and Billy Bob Thornton, is in postproduction.

Senator also is investing heavily in high-end television, signing a production joint-venture deal last week with director Wolfgang Petersen's Radiant Prods. The three-year agreement will see the companies produce English-language television miniseries. The first production will be a documentary series on the Cold War.

The only setback in Senator's ongoing success story has been losing its controlling stake in Berlin's leading indie film production group, X Filme Creative Pool. Senator sold the stake back to X Filme management last week.

But Sasse and Senator COO Marco Weber have revved up the company's own German-language production unit. Its upcoming local-language titles include Oskar Roehler's "Lulu & Jimi" and Andreas Dresen's "Whiskey With Vodka."
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