£100m expansion by Really Useful

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The Independent Online
Really Useful, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's live entertainment company, will spend more than £100m on new media opportunities, including the production of seven films over the next five years. It is also exploring whether to join one of the four consortia preparing bids for the new Channel Five.

A spokesman confirmed that Patrick McKenna, the group's chief executive, had talked to music and film producer PolyGram, a 30 per cent shareholder, about a change in dividend policy to help Really Useful finance acquisitions and film development. PolyGram declined to comment on the discussions.

Currently, dividends are paid at the rate of 90 per cent of after-tax profits to the company's two shareholders, PolyGram and Sir Andrew, who owns the remaining 70 per cent. A less liberal payout would help finance the purchase of film distribution rights and new theatres, and to develop new films. An animated cinema version of Sir Andrew's long-running West End musical, Cats, is now in the works, in conjunction with Steven Spielberg.

Films are planned based on other Lloyd Webber hits such as Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love. The company may develop films from material not presently owned by Really Useful, whose shows have been seen by 100 million worldwide, and have generated $4bn.

Sir Andrew also announced yesterday he would not accept the resignation of Edgar Dobie, his US executive, who had misrepresented box office receipts from the musical Sunset Boulevard, starring Glenn Close, to the trade magazine, Variety. He said in a letter to the show's cast and crew that the tickets had been given to charities at a nominal cost, to allow them to see performances starring Ms Close's understudy. These tickets were reported as sold at face value. "This was an idiotic decision," Sir Andrew wrote.

In addition to its productions, Really Useful owns theatres, promotes concerts and has begun to invest in television and film production. Fully 83 per cent of company revenues are generated outside Britain.

Really Useful earned pre-tax profits of £42m last year, on revenues of £110m, after paying £66m in royalties to co-producers and collaborators.

Mr McKenna wants to channel some of that money into other live entertainment ventures, as well as into the possible bid for Channel Five.

Really Useful declined to specify which of the consortia bidding for Channel Five had been approached. The leading contenders for the new channel are: media and information company Pearson, with partners MAI and European broadcaster CLT; a second consortium led by BSkyB with Granada and US cable company TCI; and Mirror Group, with NBC Superchannel and SelecTV.

PolyGram's controlling shareholder, Philips, confirmed yesterday it was considering a Channel Five bid with Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Associated Newspapers.

PolyGram had no comment on whether it was involved directly in discussions about a Channel Five bid.

PolyGram paid £100m for its 30 per cent stake in Really Useful in 1991. PolyGram's own titles include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.