Paramount was worried.
The budget for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a historical epic about a conspiracy to steal oil rights from Osage Native Americans, had ballooned to $200 million. The film was set to star Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and was to be directed by Martin Scorsese, but period pieces, even those with A-list talent, are dicey commercial propositions. The studio let it be known that it was interested in finding a co-financier. Along with heavy-hitters such as Netflix and Universal, there was a surprising bidder in the mix — MGM. And though the studio ultimately lost out to Apple on rights to the movie, MGM’s hot pursuit of the Scorsese picture was a statement-making moment.
“In the industry, we certainly felt it conveyed it was a new day at MGM and we were going to stretch ourselves for certain filmmakers,” says Michael De Luca, chairman of MGM’s film group.
Indeed, aggression has been the hallmark of MGM since January, when De Luca took the reins at a studio that many in the movie business felt was seriously lacking in ambition. In short order, the company has landed several buzzy projects, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” which will be directed by “Hamilton” wunderkind Thomas Kail; Ridley Scott’s “Gucci,” a salacious true-crime thriller with Lady Gaga; and “Project Hail Mary,” an adaptation of “Martian” author Andy Weir’s novel of the same name that’s set to star Ryan Gosling and be directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. In a sign of its newfound willingness to pay for hot properties, MGM shelled out $3 million for the rights to “Project Hail Mary.”
“We thought it was one of those films that would eventize itself based on the people involved,” De Luca says.
Pamela Abdy, a former New Regency and Makeready executive who De Luca tapped in April to serve as motion picture group president, says that the company is committed to being filmmaker driven.
“If you look at the projects we’ve been announcing and securing, the one thing in common with all of them is a director at the center who has real authorship,” says Abdy. “We will always go after filmmakers who have a strong point of view.”
There are other commonalities to the films they’ve decided to back.
“Themes are really important,” says De Luca. “When you look at ‘Hail Mary,’ the story is about everyone needing to work together on Earth even with an alien species. That feels relevant. ‘Fiddler’ is about religious persecution and family tradition and wanting a better life for your children. That feels universal.”
What’s made these deals more surprising isn’t just that MGM is the studio that has emerged with the rights to some of the hottest projects in Hollywood. It’s that it is outbidding other studios in the midst of the coronavirus, a time when other companies have been reluctant to spend money.
“We took an approach of trying to zig when others are zagging,” says De Luca. “In a period of uncertainty, some are choosing to be more conservative. That leaves a lane open to us to be aggressive and pursue material that we think is commercial. I liken it to storing acorns for the winter.”
De Luca came to prominence in the 1990s as president of production at New Line, years that saw the studio make hits that included “Boogie Nights,” “Seven,” and the Austin Powers series. In the ensuing two decades, he’s had brief stints as an executive at DreamWorks and Sony, but has largely stuck to producing films, including “Captain Phillips,” “Moneyball” and “The Social Network.” He says he was intrigued by the offer to run MGM because he believed that the studio could make the kind of movies that he once championed at New Line.
“Big studios carry certain burdens that we don’t,” says De Luca. “Our business plan doesn’t call for us to release tentpoles every quarter or spend all our time in franchise management.”
Before De Luca assumed control, MGM had a mixed track record. The company had emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 and successfully got its balance sheet in order by leveraging its most durable franchises, “The Hobbit” and James Bond. However, its other efforts to reenergize its library of classic titles achieved only intermittent success. It scored with “Creed,” revitalizing the “Rocky” franchise in the process, but stumbled badly with a costly remake of “Ben-Hur.” De Luca and Abdy are developing sequels to “Creed” and another past hit, “Legally Blonde,” but they seem more focused on restocking the cupboard with fresh material than they are with searching for titles to revisit.
Of course, the rumor du jour is that De Luca has been tapped to prepare MGM for a sale to a streaming service like Apple, which is looking for a library to exploit and some filmmaking expertise to tap into, both of which MGM and its newly minted chairman offer in abundance. De Luca plays down that suggestion.
“Pam and I,” he says, “are going to make movies that add value to the studio and its library.”