Lion, webs talk pic pact

Output deal would be first for networks

NEW YORK — MGM has held discussions with at least two broadcast networks about an output deal for all of the studio’s theatrical movies over several years.

That’s the word from Jim Griffiths, president of worldwide TV distribution for MGM, who said that the success in U.S. theaters of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and the ambitious slate of movies the studio has in the works have forced the broadcast networks to take notice.

The MGM blueprint for an exclusive long-term deal with a broadcaster for the studio’s output follows on the heels of the recently disclosed negotiations by CBS and New Regency, which would commit the network to buying all of the movies produced by New Regency over a multiyear period. So far, CBS has bought only the five that New Regency produced for distribution in 1999: “Entrapment,” “The Fight Club,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Pushing Tin” and the Sarah Michelle Gellar starrer “Simply Irresistible.”

A multiyear output deal, whether by MGM or New Regency, would represent the first time a broadcast network has agreed to buy a guaranteed number of movies from an outside company. Such arrangements are more common between studios and pay TV networks.

The most logical candidates for a multiyear output deal would be CBS and NBC because, unlike Walt Disney’s ABC and News Corp.’s Fox Network, they don’t belong to media conglomerates that also include a motion picture company, which can funnel a steady supply of movies to the network.

While the output deal is still in the early stages, Griffiths said the strong domestic box office performance of “The Thomas Crown Affair” has energized MGM’s TV-distribution sales force to renew its search for network buyers of a whole group of still-unsold theatricals.

Various sources say ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as the cable networks TBS and USA, are all interested in buying the broadcast window of “Thomas Crown,” which, based on its current gross in U.S. theaters, could fetch as much as $9 million as an exclusive standalone, covering about three runs over four years.

But Griffiths said he’s also preparing to offer some other MGM theatricals to the broadcast and cable networks, possibly in the same deal as “Crown Affair,” such as “Stigmata,” a supernatural thriller with Gabriel Byrne and Patricia Arquette, which opens later this week. Griffiths said “Stigmata” could benefit from the voracious appetite moviegoers have developed recently for pictures in the supernatural genre such as “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project.”

Also available to the networks for the first time in more than 15 years are the first 11 James Bond movies, which went exclusively to Ted Turner’s TBS through November 2000 when he bought the MGM library in March 1986. TBS has no right of first refusal on the pictures, so MGM is shopping the titles to all of the networks, possibly as part of an overall deal that would include newer Bond pictures.

Griffiths said he’s also talking up the new version of “Leaving Las Vegas,” which never landed a network deal. Mike Figgis, who directed it, has re-edited the movie to conform to broadcast standards, Griffiths said.

And Leonardo DiCaprio’s first theatrical release since “Titanic,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” is available, as is “Tea With Mussolini,” starring Cher.

MGM is buoyed by the trend in the last year or two of shared-window deals in which a broadcast network takes a top-grossing picture and a cable network, in order to grab a batch of runs of the hit movie, agrees to buy up to a half-dozen lesser titles.

The most recent example of this strategy, in a deal completed last week, was the Fox Network’s pickup of Universal’s “American Pie,” a movie it was eager to get its hands on. Fox brought in its cable sibling FX to pick up four low-end Universal titles — “The Trigger Effect,” “The Underneath,” and two made-for-cable movies: “The Twilight Man” and “The Assassination File.” These movies, which wouldn’t work on Fox, will be playable on FX, which will also get some runs of “American Pie.”

Some available MGM movies that would be of more interest to cable than to broadcast are “At First Sight” (Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino), “The Mod Squad,” “The Rage: Carrie II,” “Hoodlum” (Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia) and “Ulee’s Gold.”

Finally, MGM is re-releasing the 1968 feature-length Beatles cartoon “Yellow Submarine” to U.S. multiplexes, and Griffiths said he’s ready to sell it to a network as a 1999 Thanksgiving special.