Lion low after rocky ’96

HIGH POINTS: “It was a transitional year,” Metro Goldwyn Mayer Inc. chairman Frank Mancuso said, characterizing with some understatement what was a

tumultuous year for the venerable studio, which came under new ownership halfway into 1996.

The moment when it became clear that new ownership meant Mancuso and his team stayed in charge was perhaps the highest moment for those involved.

“The Birdcage,” which kicked off MGM/UA’s year with a splash at the box office. Critical raves and healthy ticket sales for 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas” a pickup by United Artists from Lumiere culminated in a lead actor Oscar for

Nicolas Cage.

LOW POINTS: The real drama began in May as the studio was put on the block by French bank Credit Lyonnais, whose five years of ownership came to a legally

mandated end. A swarm of bidders kicked the tires and the studio’s finances underwent a very public airing with the futures of Mancuso, MGM prexy Mike Marcus and UA head John Calley the subject of much speculation.

“As a manager you have to set aside what you are going through personally andkeep the company focused,” Mancuso said in retrospect.

Making the comeback of the year with the winning bid of $ 1.3 billion was former MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian, who in alliance with Australia’s Seven Network, backed Mancuso’s management team buyout.

While Leo made headlines on the business pages through spring and summer, the box office story grew scanty as the film production rally that had made MGM/UA

the success story of 1995 petered out. After “Birdcage,” the majority of MGM/UA’s releases were pickups or co-productions, mainly from Rysher, Spelling and Largo. B.O. was tepid. Worse, the greenlighting process had stalled.

“So much energy went into the 11-month process of the sale,” Mancuso said, “we virtually shut down because of uncertainty.”

But not long after the sale, three years of management momentum was knocked for a loop by the departure of UA prexy John Calley to the top post at Sony.

And the departure announced this week of MGM Inc. exec VP Mike Hope leaves Mancuso without one of his longtime trusted lieutenants.

OUTLOOK FOR ’97: MGM/UA has a mandate to produce 12-14 pics a year, with acquisitions of five or six more to feed the pipeline, but is understood to be

operating on a tight budget.

Some cutbacks are anticipated, say insiders, who are predicting some staff layoffs.

But Marcus insisted that momentum can be recaptured: “We’re competitive. We have four or five other movies on the verge. Two of them above the industry (budget) average of $ 35 million.”

First up will be “Red Corner,” a drama set in China starring Richard Gere, and “Ump,” which has caught the interest of Sylvester Stallone.

Relationships with Rysher, Spelling and other suppliers will continue, Marcus said, until the studio’s own production moves into high gear in 1998. Rysher’s “Turbulence” is MGM’s first big 1997 release.

MGM also has development deals with Summit Entertainment and Largo. “I think people are going to be surprised,” Marcus said, hopefully.

Calley’s successor as UA chief is Lindsay Doran, former head of Sydney Pollack’s production company and producer of “Sense and Sensibility.”

“We hope to be in production on three or four (films) by April,” Doran said, affirming continuity with her predecessor’s tastes as well as with Mancuso’s, under whom she served as an exec at Paramount.

Upcoming projects are expected to include Randall Wallace’s “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

The effort to resuscitate the lucrative James Bond series after 1995’s blockbuster “Goldeneye” continues. The studio is depending on director Roger Spottiswoode to begin lensing “Bond 18” in the first quarter of 1997.

“We have the foundation to proceed,” Mancuso said. “We’re back in the movie business again.”‘

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