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Hollywood's Silent Partner : Boston Ventures Parlays Its Connections, Zeal for Secrecy Into Huge Entertainment Deals

March 25, 1989|KEITH BRADSHER | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — It has been said that Bostonians dislike seeing their names in print as much as Los Angeles rcrresidents revel in it. True or not, the statement seems to fit Boston Ventures, a tight-lipped pair of low-profile, interlocking partnerships that manage more than $300 million in entertainment and media investments.

The names of Boston Ventures' corporate and individual investors in various deals read like a casting call for Hollywood high rollers: oilman and former movie mogul Marvin Davis, television producers Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio, former San Diego Chargers owner Gene Klein, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, Rupert Murdoch's News America Publishing, Warner Communications, General Cinema Corp. and Los Angeles-based Pacific Theaters Corp.

When Metromedia's top four executives decided in December, 1983, to buy the communications giant, they did not start off by calling a Wall Street investment bank--even though a managing director of Lehman Bros. Kuhn Loeb served on the board. Instead, they contacted Boston Ventures, then a 3-month-old venture capital partnership that had not yet done a deal.

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The executives were impressed with the competence of the partnership's senior director, former Bank of Boston Executive Vice President William F. Thompson, and thought that they needed his commercial banking contacts to raise money, recalls Stuart Subotnick, now executive vice president and a general partner of a reorganized Metromedia Co. But another plus turned out to be that, despite the importance of the deal to Boston Ventures' survival, the partnership never sought to promote its role by disclosing details prematurely.

"Bill comes from a bank believing that discretion is important. There were no leaks about anything," said Subotnick, unhappily remarking how rare this was. The partnership's fees for the two months of negotiations leading to the $1.45-billion deal, he added, came to $4 million.

Some of the deals brought together since then by the partnership's six professionals and lubricated with the investors' cash have involved firms that are also well known in Southern California: the 1984 acquisition of Billboard Publications, the 1985 purchase of movie camera maker Panavision from Warner Communications and last year's acquisition of Motown Records. And the pace of deals has been accelerating, with half a dozen publicly disclosed transactions in the past year alone. "They look around at a lot of deals," an investment banker in Los Angeles said.

With the activity has gone a zeal for secrecy unusual even among bankers. Throughout deals involving companies with thousands of employees and wide use of public airwaves, Thompson and the other five directors of Boston Ventures have been very reluctant to grant interviews.

Boston Ventures spokeswoman Martha Crowninshield, who became the partnership's sixth director and partner three years ago when she left her job as head of entertainment industry lending at the Bank of Boston, repeatedly refused to speak for this story, or even take phone calls. "Boston Ventures has a policy of not talking to the press. However, if you'd like to come by, our receptionist will tell you the same," her secretary said.

A reporter attempted to visit the company's directors anyway at their penthouse offices in downtown Boston but was not allowed into the elevator by a guard downstairs. "That's what they provide security for," the guard said.

The reticent behavior seems to be infectious. Executives at MCA Inc., Boston Ventures' partner in the $61-million purchase of Motown Records, cited the partnership's hostility to public mention in refusing to discuss the deal.

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Such secrecy is not entirely unusual for private partnerships. Publicity may irritate participants in deals, especially the sellers of privately held companies. And news reports of huge profits may attract the unwanted attention of the Internal Revenue Service.

Finally, some partnerships shun the press out of a perception that their investors wish to stay out of view. This seems to be true in the case of Boston Ventures' backers, who are reluctant to comment on their holdings in the company.

"We really are not active at all, and it's a small investment that's sitting there," said Peter Farwell, a spokesman for General Cinema, a Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based movie theater owner and luxury retailer.

"We are an investor. We are very happy. No other comment," Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News America Publishing, said in a statement. A Warner Communications spokesman made a similarly worded remark.

Investors have little reason to complain, as Boston Ventures has profited handsomely from the recent run-up in the price of media and entertainment properties. For example, the partnership joined company executives in 1984 to purchase Billboard Publications, owner of Billboard and Musician magazines, for $40 million. Within 2 1/2 years, the publisher was resold for $100 million.

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