Studio battles chronic setbacks

Thirty years ago an amazing thing happened in Hollywood: MGM had a good run.

Movies like “That’s Entertainment” (1974), “Network,” (1976) and “The Goodbye Girl” (1977) did well at the box office. Newspapers praised the studio’s comeback.

Of course, management responded by firing the head of production, Dan Melnick, and the SEC launched an attack on Kirk Kerkorian, charging that he was operating the company as though it was a private entity even though it was 49.9% publicly held.

It all served as a reminder that Leo the Lion can’t win. If cats have nine lives, Leo better have 40.

MGM was back in the tank again last week as Harry Sloan was bounced as CEO and Stephen Cooper was given the reins. Cooper is a specialist in restructuring companies and peeling off assets and most recently applied his wizardry to such distinguished companies as Enron and Krispy Kreme.

Burdened with $3.7 billion in debt, Cooper will doubtless be looking for assets to sell, not movies to make, but he’s hardly the first to take on that role. Previous owners of MGM have sold everything from its backlot to William Wyler’s personally annotated shooting script for “Mrs. Miniver” to Elizabeth Taylor’s powder blue gown from “Raintree County.” Even Tarzan’s loincloth was auctioned off.

For generations, it seems, MGM has had a death wish. When Jim Aubrey took over as president in 1970, he took pride in canceling pictures by David Lean and Fred Zinnemann. Later, when he saw “Jaws” on the studio’s production charts, he saw to it that it was canceled, too.

When I was hired as senior vice president for production in 1983, MGM’s then newly installed president, Frank Yablans, assured me that Kerkorian had given him “an open checkbook.” His admonition: “If we succeed, it’s back to the halcyon days. If we don’t, Kirk locks up the studio and throws away the keys.”

Alas, we didn’t succeed — that famous MGM undertow saw to that — but Kerkorian decided on a better plan than tossing the keys. Instead, he decided to sell the studio. And Kirk has been buying and selling it ever since.

That’s where Harry Sloan messed up. A tough-minded businessman who made his big score in European television, Sloan became enamored of the MGM logo and its fabled library of 4,000 titles. And just as Kerkorian had come up with the epiphany of reviving United Artists in the ’80s, so Sloan decided not only to restore that company but to name Tom Cruise as its production chief.

Leo’s curse was soon to materialize, however. UA’s first movie was the dreadful “Lions for Lambs,” directed by Robert Redford. Meanwhile, Sloan’s strategy for MGM of focusing on tentpoles never got off the ground.

So now some insiders are wondering, will Kerkorian materialize yet again to save the day?

One day during my misbegotten MGM career, my assistant told me Kerkorian was calling. Calls from the great man were rare, so I eagerly picked up the phone to hear Kirk himself on the line. “Peter, this movie Michael Crichton is shooting, I’d like to drop by the set.”

“Great idea,” I responded, remembering that Kirk had famously never been on a movie set. “They’d be thrilled to see you.”

“Well, who do I have to call …?”

“Kirk, you own the studio. Don’t call anyone — just walk right on. I’ll go with you if you like.”

I realized then that, in Kirk’s mind, he didn’t really own the studio. He was sort of renting it. Temporarily. And probably that was the reason why among all the various owners he, alone, has profited from his MGM experience.

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