Stocks and 'Bond' main concerns of Lion in '97

HIGH POINTS: MGM was concerned chiefly with two subjects during 1997: stocks and Bonds.

Leo spent the middle of the year debating the merits of an initial public stock offering — which finally came through in November with a not-terribly-successful issue that raised $180 million. Amid the Wall Street wheeling and dealing however, the studio had time to finish work on its sole shot at feature blockbusterdom for the year: The latest James Bond pic “Tomorrow Never Dies,” which broke into U.S. theaters with a colossal marketing campaign just in time for the holiday moviegoing crush.

During the past 12 months, Leo reawoke to moviemaking after a production hiatus forced by its sale in the fall of 1996 — the seventh studio buyout in 50 years. This latest purchase was backed by Kirk Kerkorian — marking the third time the magnate has been an owner of MGM — with Australia’s Seven Network. With the studio up for sale, MGM had been effectively removed from filmmaking during 1996, leaving little product in the pipeline for 1997.

Without question, the high point for the reorganized MGM/UA feature production machine came late in the year with the Dec. 19 release of United Artists’ “Tomorrow Never Dies,” the 18th visit to the adventures of James Bond, the world’s most famous and finicky martini aficionado. The mythic British superspy, now reincarnated in the suave persona of Pierce Brosnan, has remained the industry’s most enduring and successful movie franchise — not to mention MGM’s most valuable film property.

Responsibility for the all-important Bond pic fell on Lindsay Doran, tapped just more than a year ago by studio chairman and CEO Frank Mancuso to fill the post of president of production at UA. (A few months later, Michael Nathanson took over production prexy duties on the MGM side.)

“Since the day I arrived at UA, my focus has been all about Bond — making sure it was a good movie and making sure it was in theaters,” Doran said. “That’s been the most significant element of the year for me.”

Doran and company saw the task as two-sided: Making sure that the new Bond appealed to traditional 007 purists, while satisfying today’s action audience. “We had to make sure it feels contemporary, but remained true to the James Bond tradition,” she said.

Though the film’s production costs reportedly ran well over budget, the film stands to make decent money for the studio. In less than three weeks in domestic release, “Tomorrow” had cumed $73.3 million domestically. And according to the studio, international box office receipts pushed the film’s take to more than $207 million as of Dec. 31, with several overseas markets still untapped.

According to the studio, the newest Bond is performing 31% better than 1995’s “Goldeneye,” the most successful Bond to date, suggesting that “Tomorrow” will not disappoint.

LOW POINTS: MGM’s public stock offering meanwhile, was less successful than the typical 007 secret mission. Even before opening for public trading, the company reduced the planned 12.5 million-share offering by 3.5 million shares — which were purchased by Kerkorian himself. And when the mid-November issue was in danger of dropping below its opening price of $20 per share, Kerkorian propped up the weak stock by purchasing about $25 million worth during its first three days of trading.

Still, the stock issue raised $180 million in new investment during what was widely considered a soft market.

Another grim moment came for MGM in mid-November, around the time of the MGM stock offering, when Sony an-nounced plans to challenge UA’s sole ownership of the Bond franchise by producing 007 pictures of their own. MGM, which claims sole legal rights to the Bond franchise, responded with a lawsuit to halt Sony’s 007 effort. Among the individuals named in the $25 million suit was Sony president John Calley, himself a former UA prexy. In another move to protect its Bond asset, MGM had purchased underlying rights to the 1983 Warner Bros. 007 film “Never Say Never Again,” the non-UA pic that’s the linchpin of the whole rights dispute.

Sony is expected to respond to the MGM suit by mid-January, and the matter will presumably simmer in the courts for a long time.

While Leo may have been active on Wall Street and in the courts, from a moviemaking perspective, 1997 doesn’t say much about MGM.

Of the 13 films that played under the lion’s trademark during 1997, only three were actually made by the studio: “Tomorrow Never Dies,” the Richard Gere starrer “Red Corner” ($22 million), and period gangster pic “Hoodlum” ($23 million.)

The rest of the slate consisted of product the studio inherited through its midyear purchase of indie film companies Orion Pictures and Goldwyn Entertainment from John Kluge’s Metromedia Entertainment Group. None of the small films stood out at the box office, but “Ulee’s Gold,” which grossed $6.2 million, has been a critical favorite, garnering star Peter Fonda a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.

OUTLOOK FOR ’98: The coming year will see MGM beginning to regain its stride. Between acquisitions and self-generated product, MGM and UA may release as many as 19 features during 1998. Some of the most anticipated are Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “The Man in the Iron Mask,” set for a spring release; “Species II,” due out in summer; and “Ronin,” with Robert DeNiro starring under John Frankenheimer’s direction.

One of the most important jobs for MGM during the past year has been the successful re-establishment of the studio as a place where movies get made, Nathanson said. “Between the Bond release, and our being just as competitive in the development arena as any other company, we’ve shown filmmakers we’re just as much a viable option as any other place in town,” Nathanson said. “We’re in business with many different talented people right now.”

Though MGM has not lined up any long-term deals with high-profile producers, Leo has begun to amass a few prominent projects and stars, such as Jim Carrey and producer Irwin Winkler.

MGM is leading off its 1998 production with “Sight Unseen,” starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino. Later in the first quarter, production will begin on teen creeper “Disturbing Behavior,” comedy “Super Dave: The Movie” and “Molly,” with Elizabeth Shue.

Notable among UA’s future plans is a film based on “Cold Mountain,” the Civil War novel that later became a surprise bestseller. Anthony Mingella (“The English Patient”) is slated to produce.

And readying themselves for a summer shoot are Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, hoping to repeat their “First Wives Club” success with UA’s “Avon Ladies in the Amazon.”

“This past year has really been all about looking forward to getting things going and shooting (in 1998),” Doran said.

– Paul Karon

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