Bye-bye, MGM

Movie News | Apr 8th, 2005

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Famed studio, and UA partner, swallowed up in purchase

LOS ANGELES, California (Hollywood Reporter) — It’s very sad. MGM is gone. So is United Artists.

The deal, expected to close on Friday, for a consortium of companies (including Sony Corp.) to purchase the MGM assets for some $4.8 billion reminds us that in today’s entertainment universe, it’s all about selling DVDs.

Ted Turner was right: It’s the library, stupid. All 4,000 titles.

Truth is, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — the once-star-studded Tiffany studio that produced “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” in 1939, and its United Artists studio, the great lotless indie founded in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith — were long ago reduced to financial transactions. They had been dying little deaths for years.

So much history. So much talent.

We all have our fave MGM moments: Elizabeth Taylor racing her Pie in “National Velvet,” Charlton Heston racing his chariot in “Ben-Hur,” Judy Garland singing the trolley song in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Omar Sharif kissing Julie Christie in “Dr. Zhivago,” the space shuttle twirling in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or Peter Finch exhorting New Yorkers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

MGM produced “Network” during the hard-luck ’70s after billionaire Kirk Kerkorian had squeezed its assets to buy a series of hotels, slap them with the MGM brand and then sell them again.

He had shrunk MGM into a small production company whose pictures were released by the powerful United Artists.

Remember UA? Back then you could walk the halls at 729 Seventh Ave. in Manhattan and see posters for Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home,” Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky.”

These were once mighty studios, packed with talented executives who knew how to nurture talent and release a full slate of movies every year, some of them bound for Oscar glory.

It takes years to grow a global production and distribution machine, which then thrives on forward momentum: Hits yield more hits; Oscars attract more Oscar-hungry stars and directors.

But it doesn’t take much to bring these monoliths down. MGM’s slide began when Kerkorian outbid Edgar Bronfman for the studio in 1969, cannily recognizing the value of the MGM brand.

Over the years, the library was packaged and repackaged, sold and resold. In the mid-’80s, Turner shrewdly bought MGM, then almost as quickly sold it, keeping MGM’s pre-’86 library for himself, using it as a building block for Turner Network Television. (Turner Network Television, and the entire Turner Broadcasting holdings, are now part of Time Warner, parent company of CNN.)

Over the years, the famed Leo the Lion MGM logo was plastered on hotels, airplanes and an ill-fated Las Vegas theme park.

At UA, troubles began when longtime chairman Arthur Krim and president Eric Pleskow sold their studio to Transamerica in 1979 after an unprecedented four-year run at both the box office and the Oscars.

The matchup was disastrous: soon Krim and Pleskow moved on to found Orion Pictures. After hapless Transamerica insurance executive Andy Albeck took over UA, he supervised the megaflop “Heaven’s Gate,” and it was downhill from there.”

In 1981, Kerkorian grabbed the struggling UA for a song and merged it with MGM; nine years later, he sold the MGM/UA combined for $1.4 billion to shady Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti, who eventually wound up in jail.

In 1996, Kerkorian reacquired the studio for $1.3 billion and brought in business executives Alex Yemenidjian and Chris McGurk to build the value of his MGM and UA assets. This they did.

Their cinematic legacy includes the execrable remakes of “Rollerball” and “The Mod Squad” but also the hits “Barbershop,” “Legally Blonde” and the Bond films “The World Is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day.”

As Kerkorian finally closes his latest deal to sell MGM Inc. to the Sony consortium — including Providence Equity Partners, Texas Pacific Group and DLJ Banking Partners — for almost $5 billion, he will make billions; Yemenidjian and McGurk make millions.

Nobody knows quite what will become of MGM and UA. About 250 out of 1,400 employees will stay on, mostly at the home video company, while the rest cash their severance checks, switch to their home e-mail addresses and join their Miramax brethren sending out resumes.

The CD press kit for the upcoming “Amityville Horror” remake, complete with MGM mailing label, is starting to feel like a collector’s item.

Sony will divvy up the outstanding MGM and UA titles for release through its divisions including Columbia, TriStar, Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics. If MGM continues to co-produce films with Sony, it’s mainly to keep the library refreshed, insiders say.

The MGM and UA labels will still show up on surviving franchises like “The Pink Panther,” whose latest incarnation starring Steve Martin arrives in September. (The “Pink Panther,” James Bond and “Rocky” franchises originated at UA.)

But after 20 films and New Line’s smash “Austin Powers” spoofs, it’s hard to see much life left in creaky old James Bond, even if sexy, broken-nosed Brit Daniel Craig (“Enduring Love”), the press-anointed candidate of the moment, does don the famous tuxedo for Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale.”

New Sony corporate chief Sir Howard Stringer originally wanted to acquire the MGM/UA library outright but was forced by his Sony bosses to seek partners.

Now that he heads the company, Stringer might eventually want to buy out the consortium to gain control over MGM/UA, which he could then spin off into a separate public company. MGM and UA already have had many lives.

Sir Howard could even decide to do the right thing. He could remove the Sony logo from atop the studio on West Washington Boulevard that many Hollywood insiders still consider the MGM lot — with its Cary Grant Theater and Irving Thalberg, Katharine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland buildings — and let the MGM logo fly high again.

There’s no place like home.