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The MGM ever-delayed debacle: In the jungle, no one can hear you roar

So, I was busy writing a blog on another subject which may or may not see the light of day later, and I come across this story, written by Deadline’s Nikki Finke, about how MGM is on the verge of bankruptcy, and has a $4 billion debt to erase. Actually the past 20 years were a bumpy ride for the firm of Leo the Lion (and his family, The Lionhearts. Yes, I did my homework again, but my curiosity knows no bounds.)

So, I’ll do the Cliff’s Notes version, but the firm with the Lion has been passing from owner to owner. First, there was the very Français Pathé Frères, and the French bank Crédit Lyonnais. During their tenure, successful movies like Thelma and Louise were made. There was also businessman Kirk Kerkorian, who owned MGM no less than three times in the span of 20 years, and finally, from 2004 onwards, Sony and several equity partners, trust funds and banks. But during those 7 years, no really successful movies were produced to speak of.

It’s no wonder that MGM has only one remaining viable franchise, and that is the 007 one. The reason why the studio can’t exploit its catalogue is simple: all the pre-1986 classic movies and cartoons like “Tom and Jerry” and the Tex Avery shorts were sold to Ted Turner and Time Warner more than 20 years ago. Sure, MGM bought off other failing studios such as Orion Pictures. But even moderate successes produced by Orion, like the first “Addams Family”, are not their property.

In short: upcoming Blu-Ray restored and remastered editions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind”, sure to garner profit from movie lovers….won’t be saving MGM, even though it was originally produced by the studio.

So, there it is, folks: a studio with a whopping 4,000 movies in its vaults, produced in-house or by other studios, and unable to exploit them correctly.

In 2006, worldwide distribution for DVD and Blu-Ray reverted to Fox Entertainment. Did you hear about any “special editions” of forgotten movies such as “Heaven’s Gate”, the swan song of Michael Cimino? Neither did I. Oh sure, there was the “Rocky” collection, but nothing really groundbreaking.

This is what we get, for example.

Each MGM DVD of “catalogue” has the same tasteless cover art. I know of…hum, heard of adult DVDs that have better design than this.

Sure, the Stargate franchise does well on DVD. And apparently, two movies are on the way (one for SG-1, another for Atlantis), and the premiere of “Stargate Universe” will surely reboot the franchise…once again.
But then, other long-running franchises such as “The Outer Limits” second incarnation have barely been released on DVD, in their unedited, non-syndication form. Nevertheless, they are one of the better-remembered sci-fi series of the 1990s? So…what’s the hold up? Poor sales can be fixed with the right marketing. Why not start producing more TV shows again?

In the past few years, MGM has taken bizarre decisions. It’s not a studio that big, never has been since the 1980s. Under the supervision of Harry Sloan, its biggest recent move was the hiring of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner to oversee a “reborn” United Artists. To prove his willingness, Cruise starred in the first two movies: one was “Lions for Lambs”, written by Matthew Carnahan and directed by Robert Redford. It was sure Oscar-bait, right? Wrong.

The movie tanked, and the “New York Times” estimated that UA lost $50 million over the promotion of the movie. Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” fared better, but still underperformed. Now all development at UA seems to have stopped. Bringing over Mary Parent from Universal led to an “ambitious” slate of films, including Drew Goddard’s “Cabin in The Woods” slated for release in 2010. So yeah, the upcoming remake of “Fame” will do well, if not domestically, at least internationally. But bringing in trucks of cash for the studio? Nope!

MGM partnered with, among others, The Weinstein Co. to finance a lot of their recent movies, but it doesn’t even ear n a dime in DVD sales (Harvey and Bob do, through Genius Corp.). So, last month, they brought in turnaround specialist Steven Cooper to oversee a potential restructuring, that, from the look of things, may come sooner rather than later. Steven Cooper worked miracles for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts; will he tidy up the MGM kitchen as well? Compared to Lions Gate, which is a mini-major with Oscar-winning projects (Crash being the most famous), the Lion firm pales. Lions Gate has profitable filmmakers (African-American mogul Tyler Perry), and great cash cows in the Saw franchise, as well as a flourishing TV division, producing Weeds and Mad Men. Why can’t MGM do the same? When DreamWorks severed its ties with Paramount and John Lesher, the president of the studio, got shown the door, his replacement was ordered to put more projects in the pipeline and revive franchises. It shouldn’t be that hard for MGM to follow the same template.

But in order to achieve these things, it seems that time has run out. The goodwill of the shareholders, too.

About the Author: Lordofnoyze

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