New advice for H'wood

JPMorgan creates consulting unit

Two former top execs of Sony Pictures Entertainment will lead a potentially watershed new Hollywood consulting venture for JPMorgan.

Former SPE president Alan Levine and the studio's one-time co-president Ken Lemberger will be based at the investment bank's longtime headquarters in Century City, where the initiative will complement film-finance operations.

John Miller, veteran managing director of JPMorgan Securities in Los Angeles, will have ultimate responsibility over both the film-finance operations, known as JPMorgan's Entertainment Industries Group, and the new consulting unit, JPMorgan Entertainment Advisors.

"This could be transformative for our business and what we want to accomplish," Miller said.

He declined to project revenue of the new unit but said the startup unit is as much about relationship-building as generating immediate new income for the firm. JPMorgan's entertainment finance operations are known to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the parent firm's top-line revenue.

"I've been talking to Alan and Ken for literally years to try to do something like this," Miller said. "We have had — and will continue to have — the dominant position in the film-finance business. But because of that, the question has been: How do you grow that business?"

Timing of the venture could prove propitious as there has been a recent surge in activity by nontraditional producers in Hollywood. JPMorgan Securities — known for financing film slates for dozens of Hollywood majors and independents over the years — has largely stayed out of those more aggressive recent forays, which have tended to tap hedge funds and other new channels of funding.

But the leading execs in the new venture, which also will include JPMorgan vet David Shaheen, emphasized the breadth of clients the advisory unit will target.

"Over time, the type of clientele that we have is going to evolve with the industry," said Levine, who will leave his post as counsel to the Ziffren Brittenham law firm. "The mandate of this group and the mission of this group is to provide a very, very wide range of financial and strategic advice to all sorts of clients in the media and entertainment space."

Added Lemberger, who will leave his position as counsel to the law firm of Kay Scholer: "We've been engaged in very sophisticated transactions for some time (and) along the way both of us have observed that there is an acute shortage in expertise on the part of the nonstudio players in these transactions. We're hoping to be able to supply that kind of assistance."

Officials said some clients might need advice on business startups, while others will be focused on restructuring existing operations. Still others might be looking to navigate technology issues like digital cinema.

JPMorgan EA will offer consultation on financial and strategic issues but stop short of providing actual funding. Miller likened the venture to consulting units at top accounting firms, a transforming evolution that rippled through that industry a decade or two back.

"I think of this almost as an R&D group for the industry," Miller said.

Execs stopped short of listing inaugural clients, but Miller said the unit is launching with about a dozen projects.

Levine was president of SPE from 1994-96, heading operations on its Culver City lot just after the regime of Peter Guber and before the tenure of John Calley.

Lemberger held several posts at Sony and Columbia TriStar over 23 years dating from 1979.

Shaheen joined JPMorgan in 1993 and is an executive director.

Additional hires for the unit are expected in coming months, officials said.

JPMorgan Securities' recent big deals included a $750 million recapitalization for Revolution Studios. Completed in December, the transaction was designed to allow founder Joe Roth to complete a final slate of six films and allow Revolution investors to recoup funds.