MGM sits out summer, eyes public $

Where’s Leo?

While the other major studios jostle for high stakes in the 1997 summer box office demolition derby, MGM’s Leo the Lion is, for the seventh time in the last 50 years, quietly re-inventing himself from scratch.

Not by choice. Last year’s sale of the studio and its resultant production pause has left MGM and its sister company UA with pipelines devoid of big summer movies. There’s also a singular absence of the other accouterments of continuity — deals with high-powered filmmakers or independent production entities, for instance.

In short, MGM, in true showbiz tradition, is raising the curtain yet again — new management, new funding, new alliances and tough new challenges.

Under MGM chairman and CEO Frank Mancuso, the studio is attempting to use the current time-out from the box office fray to strategic advantage.

Among the crucial tests that Leo faces in the months ahead:

Solidifying MGM’s long-range financial picture — including restructuring debt and finding new production coin — and a possible IPO.

Whipping up a solid and definitive slate of films from MGM president Michael Nathanson and UA prexy Lindsay Doran, two execs who are each heading a studio for the first time.

Digesting the most desirable parts of the recently snagged Orion Pictures and Goldwyn Entertainment while spitting out the rest.

Ramping up MGM TV — which has yet to score a network show and has just lost the head of its international division — into a viable and synergistic adjunct to the film division.

Hitting the box office target with James Bond’s 18th caper, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” which bows in late December after protracted script problems, and comes slap up against 20th Century Fox’s “Titanic.”

Stabilizing relationships with exhibitors in order to gain key screens and crucial playing times after a long dry spell punctuated with box office disappointments.

The Bond release Dec. 19 will kick off the Lion’s first full calendar of production after last year’s management-led buyout, backed by Kirk Kerkorian and Australia’s Seven Network.

Slate announcement due

The studio is a few weeks away from officially announcing its full slate. Mancuso has said the studio is aiming to release 10 to 12 pics per year, topped off by several acquisitions.

However, Nathanson and Doran have pushed the development process forward to the point where the outlines of a 1998 lineup are discernible.

Seven months into the job, UA prexy Doran is finding the task of filling the studio pipeline daunting, and quite different from her job as head of Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises. “I’m used to doing it one movie at a time as opposed to a slate of movies,” she admits.

Several projects inherited from her predecessor, John Calley, have been nurtured, including “Hoodlum,” the studio’s only summer release, and “Supernova,” a big visual effects movie.

The producer of “Sense and Sensibility” does not want to be second-guessed about her tastes. “The first month, I had to educate people and say, ‘Don’t bring me things about women in long dresses.’ ”

As if to prove the point, Doran has purchased a wacky holiday-themed comedy, “Son of Santa”; snapped up the rock ‘n’ roll satire “Weasels” on a telephone pitch; optioned the space thriller “Legacy”; outbid other studios for the spiritual drama “Dragonfly”; and plunked down $500,000 outright for J.D. Zeik’s political thriller, “Ronin.” She also set in motion a possible future franchise by acquiring with producer Gary Lucchesi the rights to the 18 Quiller mystery books by Adam Hall, at the instigation of senior exec VP Jeff Kleeman.

Identity crisis

But the label has yet to develop an identity, and if industryites have been scratching their heads at how UA differs from MGM, the confusion is justified. Doran herself resists defining her label. “It’s not commercial versus art movies,” Doran insists. “One of the things that attracted me to the job was that UA was ‘Goldeneye’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’ ”

Like her MGM counterpart Nathanson, she stresses that individual tastes guide the divisions, not some overriding philosophy or mandate from above.

Over in the MGM corner, three months after ankling Warner Bros.-based New Regency, Nathanson seems optimistic about “Red Corner,” the Richard Gere starrer that wraps July 4. “Species II” has begun lensing under producer Frank Mancuso Jr. in a bid for an MGM franchise. And at least four new pics begin lensing shortly.

Nathanson says he’s looking for tentpole pictures and hoping that “The Court Jester” will be one of those, with Mike Myers expected to star.

Nathanson has shown an ability to move quickly by picking up comedy projects like “Dirty Work” with “Saturday Night Live’s” Norm MacDonald set to star, the romantic drama “Distance Calls,” and paying $700,000 against $1 million for the spec comedy “Molly,” which is on the fast track with Amy Heckerling to direct.

Orion layoffs seen

As the assets of Orion Pictures and Goldwyn Entertainment are merged with MGM, insiders expect wide layoffs among Orion’s 250 employees. Non-contract staffers will be offered the MGM severance package of six months’ salary.

Goldwyn, however, is likely to stay more or less intact as the company becomes MGM’s specialized film arm.

Integrating the Orion and Goldwyn libraries, with all of their rights and licensing documentation, into MGM’s sales systems, will be a major task, as well as divvying up any attractive development projects between MGM and UA.

At the same time, the already-announced slates of Orion and Goldwyn will fall into MGM’s lap.

As the slate takes shape, MGM execs are talking with Wall Street firms about long-term financing alternatives, including an initial public offering. MGM has met with JP Morgan, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, although several other banks have scheduled meetings as well.

Going public is not yet a “go” at MGM, however, and Wall Streeters who have met with the company come away with the impression that its shareholders and management are divided over the question of the offering — particularly its timing.

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