It became abundantly clear last week that the Lion was going out with a whimper, not a roar. News that an obscure numbers guy named Daniel Taylor would become president of once-regal MGM was a vivid reminder that the studio had ceased to exist as an autonomous entity. Future decisions would rest in the hands of Sony and the consortium of investors who’d come up with the $4.8 billion acquisition price.

So who is Daniel Taylor and what will he do? No one seems quite sure; yet another executive may even be placed above him.

What is clear, however, is that Alex Yemenidjian and Chris McGurk will shortly depart. Development of future MGM projects will rest with Sony’s production troops. MGM will somehow cough up six movies a year, of which four will be co-funded by the equity group involved in the acquisition, which could spell a complex greenlight process. The Century City edifice that only recently became headquarters to MGM will be empty — a sad monument to a once-great company.

“The damn place looks like a Vegas spa anyway,” snaps one MGM alumnus, who won’t miss the offices but will greatly miss the studio.

I remember speaking with Yemenidjian when he first was handed the keys to Kirk Kerkorian’s misbegotten kingdom. Like so many newcomers to Hollywood, he felt he had the business figured out. Committees would strategize on new movies, scrupulously projecting revenue streams from each territory and medium. Costs would be diligently policed, overhead trimmed. The Yemenidjian dictum: This isn’t as risky a business as everyone thinks.

Well, he remained true to his prudent precepts, and his record overall surpassed that of most of his predecessors — frenzied functionaries like David Begelman and Frank Yablans. But the glitzy hits that created the MGM legend eluded Yemenidjian and his team. He could foster a “Barbershop” but not a “Singin’ in the Rain.” Louis B. Mayer’s Dream Factory had been stripped of his Big Dream.

So here’s the problem facing Daniel Taylor: It’s not that no one knows who he is, it’s that no one cares.

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SUBHEAD: The art of “no”

The film community is delivering its flowery farewells to Sherry Lansing this week, but I doubt anyone will cite perhaps her most remarkable skill: the art of saying “no.”

Executives in this town spend most of their time saying “no,” and most hate doing it. Indeed, some have developed such a pathological avoidance mechanism they drive colleagues crazy. Filmmakers and their agents spend months thinking they have the green light when they’ve actually slammed into bright red. One top executive was let go last year partially because of a chronic inability to break the bad news.

Lansing was among the few who could close the door on a project and still make the filmmaker feel as though he’d won an Oscar nomination. She could say, “Honey, you’re brilliant,” when her real message was, “Honey, you’re fucked.”

One studio chief who understands this dilemma is Sony’s Amy Pascal. “You simply have to tell the truth,” she says. “That’s where it begins and ends.”

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SUBHEAD: Inhaling laughs

Aspen, Colorado, was packed with agents and producers searching for hot new talent last week, but the act that captured their attention was a throwback to a previous generation.

Yes, Cheech and Chong, together again, were hilarious, heartwarming and downright ubiquitous. With Chong newly released from prison (he was convicted of selling bongs) and the team reunited after 20 years, the Stoners Emeritus were all over the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, dispensing laughs, advice and even an occasional song.

Few comedy teams achieved such extraordinary cachet in their prime — “Up in Smoke,” released in 1978, grossed over $44 million in the U.S. Their re-emergence in Aspen served as a reminder that they are brilliantly self-invented characters. Cheech Marin is a thoughtful, well-read art collector, the son of a Los Angeles police officer. Tommy Chong, whose father is Chinese, is a superb raconteur, married with children and a resident of the staid Pacific Palisades.

Their public identified with them as crazed pot-smoking rebels. They are now writing a new movie for New Line that will doubtless advance that legend. And those attending their performances in Aspen concluded they will still get the last laugh.

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