Kara Swisher

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Silver Lake Grabs Large Minority Stake of WME to Push Digital Initiatives

Large private equity firm Silver Lake is buying a large stake in powerful Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, which is being described as a way to turbocharge its digital efforts.

While the pair would not disclose any financial details of the deal, which they are calling a “strategic partnership,” sources said Silver Lake is acquiring 31 percent of WME.

“Over the years, we have been brick-building, as we have been doing more and more digitally,” said Patrick Whitesell, co-CEO of WME with Ari Emanuel, in an interview today. “But the opportunities are so vast, there is a need for more capital to do more.”

Whitesell and Emanuel said they had been considering a range of investors, especially among media entities, but that they wanted to work with Silver Lake since it had more digital experience as an active investor in technology.

Skype, for example, was the driver of the sale of Internet telephony giant Skype to Microsoft for $8.5 billion, while WME reps stars such as Matt Damon and Hugh Jackman, among others.

“In addition to capital, we really wanted a partner to help us build it out that had more technology expertise,” said Emanuel. “We are good with brands and creative and talent, but there are many more Silicon Valley opportunities.”

In fact, WME has long tried to up its digital portfolio to respond to the needs of its clients and the changing nature of entertainment distribution as consumer Internet use has exploded. That’s included a digital advertising effort, as well as one in online gaming.

Silver Lake, which has most recently looked at investing in Yahoo, it was a chance to get closer to a trove of premium entertainment content.

“You have two forces at play, ubiquitous distribution and four billion people connected,” said Silver Lake’s Egon Durban. “As that distribution has been commoditized, the only way to differentiate is through A-plus content.”

Along with the core investment, WME and Silver Lake said they will also be considering other possible deals together as they move forward.

“There is nothing we like more than handing our best partners more money,” said Durban, who will join WME executive committee and also help create a technology advisory counsel at the firm.

Calling Marc Andreessen! Actually, in an interesting factoid, it was the well-known tech investor and entrepreneur who introduced Durban to Emanuel.

But this movie has been shown before and is not the first Hollywood-tech hookup to happen. A variety of efforts have waxed and waned over the years — most of which have largely been underwhelming.

Last year, for example, Accel Partners invested $40 million in Legendary Pictures and, back in 2008, Accel, the then William Morris Agency and AT&T formed an investment consortium to focus on Southern California start-ups.

Most closely related was the 2010 deal, in which TPG Capital took a 35 percent stake in Creative Artists Agency.

Here is the official press release on the Silver Lake-WME deal:

WME Press Release_5 02 12_FINAL

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of Pets.com would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”