Court plan approved to emerge from Chapter 11

With a key hurdle cleared for MGM’s emergence from bankruptcy, Leo the Lion’s aiming to become a major player again — with Carl Icahn very much a part of its future.

MGM, which has released only one film this year, is on track to begin full-fledged operations in as little as two weeks. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Stuart Bernstein approved MGM’s “pre-packaged” plan of reorganization on Thursday in Manhattan; MGM can now emerge from Chapter 11 by mid-December with $500 million in cash available, once it secures a JP-Morgan Chase loan.

With Spyglass Entertainment toppers Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber in charge, MGM’s expected to seek a separate loan of $265 million-$275 million for its share of the back-to-back “Hobbit” movies.

And it’s likely to see plenty of action within its executive suites and boardroom as Icahn continues to press for a merger between MGM and Lionsgate.

Icahn, who owns 18% of MGM’s debt and 33% of Lionsgate, agreed to support the reorganization plan after it was revised to exclude titles from the Spyglass library — a move that reduced Barber and Birnbaum’s stake in the new MGM from 5% to less than 1%. Icahn’s also been given a board seat on the nine-member board.

How MGM spends its funds will be a concern for showbiz for months to come. The most likely candidate will be the 23rd James Bond movie, with Daniel Craig in his third outing as 007 — the studio will be under some pressure to release a pic in 2012 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Bond pic, 1962’s “Doctor No.”

The rest of the MGM slate is murky at best. Under production chief Mary Parent, who ankled in October, MGM had ramped up production in 2008 by acquiring projects such as Robert Ludlum’s “The Matarese Circle” and jump-starting the slate with reboots of MGM titles such as “RoboCop,” “The Pink Panther” and “Red Dawn” — which is now awaiting release along with “Cabin in the Woods” and “Zookeeper,” which Sony took over and will open next summer.

MGM co-CEO Stephen Cooper, a turnaround specialist brought in in August 2009 to deal with the crushing debt load, touted Thursday’s ruling as a “milestone.”

MGM noted Thursday that its secured lenders will exchange about $5 billion, including accrued interest and fees, for most of the equity in MGM. Barber and Birnbaum will serve as co-chairmen and CEOs.

MGM disclosed a week ago in a court filing that its board would include three members who were part of the creditors committee — Patrick H. Daugherty of Highland Capital Management, Christopher Pucillo of Solus Alternative Asset Management and Kevin Ulrich of Anchorage Capital Group. MGM has also tapped former MySpace co-prexy Jason Hirschhorn and former CBS chief financial officer Fredric Reynolds as directors along with Barber and Birnbaum. Ann Mather, former CFO of Pixar Animation Studios, is also likely to join the new MGM board.

MGM’s assets include the Leo the Lion logo, the United Artists brand, a 4,000-title library and ownership of the James Bond, Pink Panther and “Rocky” series, as well as half-ownership of the upcoming “Hobbit” films.

The plan wipes out the equity interest of MGM’s current owners, the Sony-led consortium that bought it in 2005 in a $4.8 billion leveraged buyout. Jay Goffman, an attorney for MGM, told the court Thursday that there were no objections among creditors.

“We are very pleased that the court has confirmed our prepackaged plan allowing MGM a quick emergence from Chapter 11,” he told Daily Variety. “MGM is now poised for future success.”

MGM’s disclosed in recent filings that it plans to cut the staff to about 320 from more than 400. Moelis & Co., which has been advising the studio since May 2009, is in line for a $9.5 million payment.

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