Lion tamer knows he’s still got a tiger by the tail

IT WAS JUST ONE YEAR AGO this week that Frank Mancuso took the reins at MGM/UA. A thoughtful man, Mancuso felt a distinct reverence for the traditions of the companies coming under his stewardship. These entities represented a great legacy.

And a potential trap.

Mancuso is a cautious executive who likes to build, not tear down, but he came to a rude awakening midway through his first year. In order to make his company function, he concluded, he would have to rip it apart. “It seemed as though MGM was in thegrip of some terrible virus — a loser mentality,” said one close associate. At the present time, only one individual remains on the staff of MGM or UA who was there at the time Mancuso took office, and he’d been a late hire of Alan Ladd Jr.

It was a harsh lesson. Others were to follow. Given the fact that almost 80 projects were in various stages of development under the previous regime, Mancuso set his staff to work to see how many of these could be salvaged. New writers were hired, new drafts initiated.

It was a waste of time. The holdover projects were yet another trap.

Frank Mancuso doesn’t like to talk about these things publicly because he is concerned they will be interpreted as criticisms of his predecessors, and he is not the sort of person who hurls brickbats.

But Mancuso’s associates nonetheless cite these as two big lessons gleaned during his first year at the helm.

IT HAS BEEN AN EVENTFUL YEAR. When asked to sum it up, the 61-year-old Mancuso takes a deep breath and confesses, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life. On the other hand, I feel a great sense of satisfaction.”

The achievements have been considerable. Two completely new production companies have been set up and staffed, a new marketing mechanism set in place. A substantial program of films has been initiated, although, given the inevitable time lapse of the movie business, the initial energies of the Mancuso regime have been devoted to “holdover” films — an often dispiriting task. An additional $ 350 million in working capital has been secured from a consortium of banks led by Chemical, representing the first major financing outside Credit Lyonnais.

MGM/UA has been moving on other fronts as well. A TV operation has been jump-started under John Symes, deals have been made with Showtime, and the Pink Panther franchise has been resuscitated, among other things.

Talk to agents and filmmakers in town and you hear enthusiastic support for the new regime, especially for the energetic and idiosyncratic John Calley, who heads UA. “I’d sooner do business with those guys than anyone else in town,” says one top-ranking filmmaker. “I just wish I had some assurance from on high that they’ll be in place three or four years from now.”

THIS EDGE OF SKEPTICISM is one problem hovering over the new MGM/UA. It’s been a decade now since Kirk Kerkorian came to the decision that the historic studios he controlled could become the basis for a sort of non-stop swap meet, with buyers and sellers hurtling through the swinging doors in breathtaking succession.

That, indeed, was the start of “the MGM virus.” Everything the company attempted seemed consigned to failure, with no management staying around long enough to view the damage.

When Michael Ovitz persuaded Credit Lyonnais to refinance the companies and, in effect, start over, a commitment to management stability was made and that commitment has indeed been kept thus far.

But no one, including Mancuso, is taking anything for granted. Since the company effectively had to start from scratch, the job of assembling a viable program of films has been a tortuous one. While the production slate includes some intriguing projects — for example, “Speechless,” starring Geena Davis and Michael Keaton, directed by Ron Underwood, which is now in production — there is a noticeable lack of “event” pictures or films based on bestsellers. There is no equivalent to “The Client” or “True Lies” or even “Speed.” There is also a marked absence of superstars or superstar directors. The list of filmmakers includes Bob Clark, Rory Kelly, Rachel Talalay and Iain Softley, along with a sprinkling of better-known directors like Walter Hill and Roger Donaldson.

THE ABSENCE OF SO-CALLED “event” pictures is exacerbated by the massive problems engulfing Carolco, Mario Kassar’s high-profile indie, which in moving from TriStar to MGM/UA was slated to become the source of the megabuck projects.

The collapse of “Crusade,” the Schwarzenegger epic, caused more than $ 12 million in writeoffs. “Cutthroat Island” is blowing in the wind as a result of the withdrawal of Michael Douglas and now the decision of Renny Harlin, its director, and co-star Davis to commit to the new Shane Black screenplay, “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” for which New Line paid a record $ 4 million. Other Carolco projects in the pipeline — such as “Showgirls” and “Spiderman”– are rumored to have budget problems, a serious dilemma, since Kassar’s board of directors is taking a tougher point of view of runaway costs.

“In part, MGM/UA’s program of pictures was shaped on the assumption that Carolco would supply the occasional blockbuster,” one MGM/UA exec says. “If Carolco folds or becomes less productive, MGM/UA will be under a great deal of pressure to look elsewhere for this type of product.”

What all this means, to be sure, is that the problems facing Frank Mancuso after one year in office are just beginning. He is a man who inspires both loyalty and confidence. At the same time, his company is dancing around a huge bed of quicksand, and both luck and dexterity will be required if it is to sustain its brisk progress.

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