MGM laffer slated for summer through Sony

It’s been a long dark stretch for MGM, and even with $500 million in new funding, its trademark Leo the Lion won’t be roaring in movie theaters for another six months.

The first title from the revamped MGM won’t be the 23rd James Bond movie or “The Hobbit.” Appropriately enough, Leo will be back this summer in front of “The Zookeeper,” a comedy starring Kevin James as a lonely employee who begins to hear romantic advice from the caged animals at the zoo.

Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher and Jon Favreau voice the animals in the pic, due out July 8 from co-financer Sony.

The legendary MGM has been mostly absent from the scene since 2009 when it released one film (“Fame”). MGM’s last picture, “Hot Tub Time Machine,” was its only 2010 title as it had pretty much mothballed production, distribution and marketing while management searched for a way to deal with a crushing $4 billion debt load.

“Zookeeper” started impressively, with MGM paying a notable $2 million for the spec script by Jay Scherick and David Ronn and set it up with Broken Road Prods. and Happy Madison, with James and Todd Garner producing. It was one of the last productions that MGM was able to complete — along with “Cabin in the Woods” and a “Red Dawn” remake — before moving into financial limbo in 2009.

In April, MGM and Sony agreed it would be best for Sony to handle “Zookeeper,” given MGM’s precarious state.

Sony then announced a few weeks later that test screenings had gone well enough that it was pushing back “Zookeeper” nine months from Oct. 8 to a more robust summer slot in July.

The first “Zookeeper” trailer came out two months ago and will also be attached to Sony’s romantic comedy “Just Go With It,” which opens Feb. 11.

Besides Sony’s vote of confidence with a choice summer slot, there remains another reason for optimism: 2009’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” another James comedy, which came from some of the same producers — Sony’s domestic gross was an eye-popping $146 million and “Blart” was arguably the biggest B.O. surprise of that year.

As for MGM, the Lion is starting to stir and it has taken two significant steps since finalizing its restructuring on Dec. 20: It signed a deal to leave the MGM Tower in Century City for less expensive digs in Beverly Hills, and it announced on Jan. 4 that it was teaming with Weigel Broadcasting for the national launch of a vintage-TV digital channel. MGM is handling sales and distribution of the channel, dubbed Me-TV and wholly owned by Weigel, with an initial lineup of licensed product from other studios and networks, including Fox (“MASH”) and CBS (“Happy Days,” “Cheers,” “Laverne and Shirley”).

Additionally, Warner Bros. and MGM jointly announced Thursday that Warners will handle worldwide distribution on “The Hobbit,” taking over the international distribution and home video on the films from MGM in exchange for funding MGM’s half of the production costs.

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