H’w’d talent poised to leap with lion

After three anemic years, Hollywood’s talent markets could get a booster shot from the planned stepped-up production output of MGM/UA.

That’s the consensus among top talent agents, attorneys and Hollywood executives eyeing MGM/UA chairman Frank Mancuso’s bid to rebuild the studio’s slate. Mancuso’s $ 400 million proposition calls for a doubling of the number of releases to be distributed by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists banners , from 10 to at least 20.

Erwin More, partner at the talent management firm More/Medavoy Management, expects it will be six months to a year before MGM/UA’s full force is felt on the creative side of the business, but he expects it to be felt.

“Any time there are more job opportunities, you create a competitive market,” he says.

While delighted over the prospect of heightened competition, some veterans think $ 400 million — the credit line advanced by MGM owner Credit Lyonnais — isn’t anywhere near sufficient to fund the production and development programs of two studios.

The assumption among many showbiz players is that MGM/UA will have to concoct elaborate co-financing deals to become a viable competitor with the other majors.

Moreover, some skeptics wonder how the newly resuscitated MGM/UA will be able to find enough screens for its product, given the heightened output of Disney, Par’s aggressive bid to bolster production under chairman Sherry Lansing, Turner Entertainment’s emerging bid for beefy slabs of New Line Cinema and Castle Rock Entertainment, and the presence of the start-up Savoy Pictures.

Others, particularly talent brokers, are bullish on the prospects generated by a revamped MGM/UA. They see that increased competition created by the studio could benefit a wide array of talent, ranging from A-list stars to writers and actors in the middle, who are constantly working but still make less than $ 1 million a year, says John Burnham, senior veepee at the William Morris Agency.

“It offers tremendous opportunities by virtue of assignment, and the chance at stardom for those who have been knocking at the door,” he says.

Already, script peddlers are anxiously anticipating signs of life — a blip, a boomlet, a boom — in the spec screenplay market, following 30 months of erosion that began with a prolonged slump at the box office and the type of cost containment called for in the 28-page Katzenberg Memo. “Competitively, MGM is going to have to go out after the top, hot commercial projects: the big books and spec screenplays,” says one top literary agent. “It needs to get a ‘Firm’ or a ‘Cliffhanger,’ and I think Frank Mancuso is going to be looking for just that.”

Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock says the most likely end result of an upright MGM/UA is “one more bidder going after the top talent.” But he also expects the studio to focus first on screenwriters as it begins what amounts to one of the most ambitious turnarounds in Hollywood history.

“Top screenplays attract top directors, who attract top talent,” says Pollock , who has become lyrical amid the box office boom sparked by “Jurassic Park.”

Some insiders say writers being wooed by MGM/UA include Gary A. Ross, who wrote “Dave” and often collects up to $ 100,000 to improve characters in a “go” movie; “The Fugitive” co-scripter Jeb Stuart; “In the Line of Fire” screenwriter Jeff Maguire; and Barbara F. Benedek, who wrote “Men Don’t Leave” and “My Girl” and who consistently gets paid a lot of cash for doing rewrites.

Attorney Bob L. Johnson predicts that MGM/UA could “serve to broaden the existing talent pool,” particularly if the studio moves to outflank slow-moving competitors no longer willing to take risks.

“I think you’ll see a greater array of stories — more stories with ethnic characters and more character-driven stories,” says Johnson, who represents such clients as producer/screenwriter Preston Whitmore and director Eric Meza.

MGM/UA is reportedly hoping to include in its strategy such actors as Christian Slater, Laurence Fishburne, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, Angela Bassett, Andie MacDowell, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tommy Lee Jones, Nancy Travis, Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp, Nick Nolte, Matt Dillon and Denis Leary. All deliver bigger opening grosses than their $ 750,000 to $ 5 million salaries would suggest.

Mancuso’s expertise in marketing and distribution enhance MGM/UA’s credibility in the big-budget world of tent-pole properties, an arena populated by $ 1 million screenwriters like Diane Drake (“Him”), Richard L. Friedenberg (“A River Runs Through It”), Jeffrey D. Boam (“Lethal Weapon 2”) and Michael France (“Cliffhanger”); so-called “gross from dollar one” directors like Jonathan Demme, Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall and Steven Spielberg; and $ 5 million to $ 19 million stars including Geena Davis, Jack Nicholson, Jodie Foster and Tom Cruise.

Many question whether MGM/UA will be able to effectively marshal its financial resources and regain the credibility and goodwill lost when Giancarlo Parretti purchased the studio, bartered away much of its future and promptly ran into trouble with the feds.

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