UK independent investment firm Terra Firma Capital Partners has expressed an interest in bidding for United Cinemas International (UCI) the multinational exhibition company owned by Vivendi Universal and Viacom, according to The Times newspaper.

The move on the 120-site estate, which spans Europe, Asia and Latin America and is valued at an estimated £400m, has emerged as an early possible rival bid to that of UK property investor, Robert Tchenguiz, among others. Previously this month UCI appointed Merril Lynch to manage an auction of the company.

At the same time, Tchenguiz, already a minority shareholder in the Odeon circuit, is also reported to be negotiating a buyout of WestLB's 43% stake in the Odeon cinema group.

Other companies thought to be interested in acquiring UCI include Vue Entertainment, private equity firm HgCapital and JP Morgan Capital.

The Times additionally reports that Vue (the combination of Warner Village Cinemas UK and Spean Bridge Cinemas) is also interested in buying WestLB's stake in Odeon if the deal with Tchenguiz does not materialise.

Further complicating the situation, according to various reports both Odeon and Vue have separately held takeover discussions with Cine-UK (another venture capital-backed circuit) - which itself is also considering a bid for UCI.

Whichever company ends up buying UCI - a sale is inevitable, even though the current price tag is believed to be too high - competition and monopoly issues are sure to follow.

Unlike Odeon, which has both a substantial high street presence and thus conversion potential, as well as an estate principally founded on freehold properties, UCI cinemas tend to be edge- or out-of town sites with lengthy leasehold contracts.

Vue acquired Warner Village Cinemas' UK estate of 30 sites and 329 screens for £250m in May 2003/

Venture capitalist Cinven sold the Odeon chain, the UK's largest circuit with over 600 screens to WestLB and its partners for £431 in March 2003.