Sir Leonard Blavatnik is planning to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in buying up media businesses and producing new TV, films and theatre, according to the boss of the Ukraine-born billionaire’s entertainment empire.
Danny Cohen, the former director of the BBC’s TV output, said the group would also consider larger acquisitions in Hollywood, pointing to the 2011 takeover of Warner Music for $3.3bn as a template for his ambitions. The music business, which is partly listed, is now worth more than $16bn.
“We’ll spend a few hundred million if we can find the right things. I’ve got to keep coming to him with things that he really likes and that are going to do well and make money,” he added. “[Blavatnik] has a real love of the arts and the entertainment industry.”
Cohen joined Blavatnik to run Access Entertainment, part of the billionaire’s Access Industries, in 2016, and has since built up a portfolio of investments across TV, film, gaming, art, theatre and social media.
“The thing Len says a lot is do big things,” Cohen said. “He likes scale. He wants us to do those things. The working model is . . . Warner Music: buying something huge at the right time at the right price. Len certainly has got the appetite.”
He said the group would also look at more traditional Hollywood studio businesses, with some struggling under heavy debt burdens and needing to focus on driving returns. Shares in Warner Bros Discovery slumped earlier this month after the entertainment group warned it was “unlikely” to meet its goals for paying off debt, against the backdrop of rising interest rates. Analysts have also warned over high debts and tough trading conditions at Paramount.
Cohen said they had looked before at studio businesses but the prices being asked were too high. Blavatnik was linked with a bid for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 2010.
Cohen said that it was not possible to say exactly how much the group was aiming to spend because it depended on what assets came for sale. “Len doesn’t give you a pot and says spend this. He thinks in a very strategically flexible way. We’re trying to invest right across the creative sector, across a wide range of entertainment sectors, in high-growth companies.”
He added that the traditional TV and film industry was already consolidated into relatively few larger companies, and also faced challenges in moving to a digitally distributed future, making some deals potentially less attractive.
Several areas will be in focus for investment, he said, including further deals in the “creator” economy where individuals make content for platforms such as YouTube.
Access already owns a stake in Spotter, the YouTube platform that backs creators such as MrBeast, which is now a “unicorn” worth more than a billion dollars.
Access is also seeking to invest more in South Korea as a centre for film and television. “There’s probably no other non English language country, which has had so much success across music, film, television and technology,” Cohen said.
The group owns a stake in Tripledot, a mobile gaming group, and has taken a shareholding in Portal One, a Scandinavian games company combining gaming and television.
Access has also just invested further into A24, a film production house behind the hit film Everything Everywhere All at Once, with plans to back new films as well as a make-up brand spin-off.
While at the BBC and Channel 4, Cohen oversaw production of shows such as Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, and commissioned programmes such as Skins, The Inbetweeners, Call The Midwife and Happy Valley.
Blavatnik, a British-American businessman who made his money in the privatisation of Russian aluminium and oil assets, acquired Britain’s third oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in 2018.
He has since invested in dozens of productions in the West End and Broadway, including School of Rock and Hamilton, and will open a production of The Picture of Dorian Gray next year at the Haymarket theatre with Sarah Snook playing all roles.
Access wanted “to add more theatres on the West End and Broadway”, Cohen said, but “they don’t come up very often”. Post-pandemic, the Theatre Royal has returned quickly to profitability. “We’ve made money and been paying dividends.”
Blavatnik has also branched out into the arts with an investment in a digital gallery in King’s Cross that shows large-scale “immersive” art — for example, a David Hockney exhibition and a Tom Hanks show, both featuring the artists’ voices as well as their pictures. This digital art show is now being taken to other countries. “It’s an authored experience, rather than just putting the pictures on the wall,” Cohen said.
Blavatnik separately owns DAZN, the sport streaming service.
Access owns one of the two commercial broadcasters in Israel, which Cohen said was “challenging” at present given there was “virtually no advertising revenue”.
Cohen, who has been vocal on his concerns about the rise of antisemitism in the UK and other parts of the world after the start of the war, said: “They’re basically showing news 24/7 and we’re just doing what we can to support the team.”