Peter Bart: Will Ryan Kavanaugh’s Comeback Attempt Sway The Doubters?

I have always been a sucker for comeback stories, especially at a time like this when careers veer dramatically between triumph and cancellation – though some comebacks may raise questions (see below).

In the world of corporate suits, I admired Alan Horn’s remarkable comeback at Disney after Warners abruptly declared him excess baggage. Or Ron Meyer emerging as the boss of Wild Bunch after Universal cut him loose. Or even Paramount levitating Brian Robbins to studio chief after his Eddie Murphy movie bombed (Eddie cast as a literary agent in A Thousand Words!).

At another level, I was impressed by Bill Tennant’s fortitude in reinventing himself as a highflying talent manager after plunging into drug addiction and homelessness – becoming a role model for the similarly afflicted.

On the talent side, the Tom Cruise legend was famously crunched when he was “fired” by Paramount and Valkyrie bombed, only to be rehabilitated with a lavish Mission: Impossible deal (M:I-7 awaits release). Kevin Hart was fired as Oscar host before he even wrote his first joke — today he’s awash in the Shark Tank. Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck are a number again, banishing memories of Gigli, their doomed romantic comedy that sank an entire studio (Revolution). Robert Downey Jr was deemed an insurance question mark until he became a Marvel superstar.

At the nether end of the spectrum, I could also summon a list of once-famous but newly canceled celebrities who now nervously inhabit the Netflix reception room, praying for a Papal blessing from Ted Sarandos.

Do members of the canceled tribe have a chance swimming against the tide? That’s a question facing that all-time Comeback King, Ryan Kavanaugh.

Having piloted Relativity Media through two headline-creating bankruptcies, Kavanaugh is now about to go public with his new entity, TrillerVerz, with a $5 billion valuation (that’s the aim) and a Nasdaq listing. If you’re skeptical whether his venture will become the next Facebook, then ask Kavanaugh, a charmingly persuasive, youthful-looking 47-year-old ever bursting with new schemes.

A friend found him the other day piloting a glitzy production intermixing a live streaming boxing match (Jake Paul was featured) with a hip-hop event, replete with celebrity rappers, its stage packed with gorgeous girls and aspiring influencers. Kavanaugh himself seemed ubiquitous on the set, ordering changes in the lighting and even hurling directions at the boxers. “Ryan was the man in charge, commanding but not necessarily coherent,” my friend assured me. His paycheck cleared and the show seemed on track as a moneymaker.

But that’s just a mere pebble on Kavanaugh’s emerging landscape. The impresario controls a company named Proxima Media, holding a major stake in the social media entity Triller, which last year launched a fight club through Fite, its subsidiary, its events designed to draw younger audiences to a TikTok-like mobile app.

Triller also controls Verzuz, a live streaming music platform, as well as Amplify.com, a customer engagement platform. In sum, the overall entity reports it has invested some $250 million in its ventures, based on Triller’s user base of more than 300 million.

But now the news: Triller is engineering a reverse merger with an ad tech firm named SeaChange with the aim of building TrillerVerz. According to Mahi de Silva, its CEO, the deal “will create a leading voice around the Web3 movement and embrace the power of centralized systems in the multibillion-dollar creator economy.” It will, he insists, become “the voice of youth culture.”

Why a reverse merger? It seems mergers of this type provide a smoother road to the public markets than does the traditional IPO.

I have never mastered the financial weaponry to analyze Kavanaugh’s structures, but somehow it all harkens to the time, 15 years ago, when he led me through the grand design for Relativity. That company’s logo was implanted on a succession of movies, some of which had portentous titles – Limitless, Immortals, even Safe Haven. As Relativity grew, Kavanaugh seemed to grace every awards banquet and was even named Showman of the Year.

Full disclosure: I twice dined with Kavanaugh, found him good company and even invited him to be a guest on the network TV show I co-hosted with Peter Guber. Not only was he a colorful guest but, after his appearance, he even announced that Relativity would sponsor the show’s entire next season. In fact, the show already had a sponsor, but he clearly liked making announcements.

Will Kavanaugh join the ranks of the comeback kings in 2022? It never became clear whether Relativity’s defeat stemmed from an overly optimistic business plan or simply from queasy management. Today, however, despite the cloud of Omicron, the Wall Street Journal reports that there’s a super-abundance of cash out there searching for new ventures – and for comeback specialists prepared to spend it.

I would propose at least one willing candidate.

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