Amazon’s announcement of its $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM emphasized the value of the MGM movie library to the Amazon Prime streaming service. But the transaction raises big questions about what will become of existing MGM’s television group, headed by Mark Burnett.
Burnett is already a big winner in the deal as he is poised to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars as the owner of a small stake in MGM. The producer who made his mark with “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” gained equity when he sold his previous production banner, One Three Media, to MGM in two transactions in 2014 and 2015.
Another big question is the fate of Epix, MGM’s premium cable channel. Epix was once largely focused on movies from its original studio partners, MGM, Lionsgate and Paramount Pictures. But after MGM bought out the channel entirely in 2017, the channel has stepped up its original series production.
The official word from Amazon and MGM is that no decisions have been made about personnel and how the two companies may integrate operations. Sources close to the situation said the marathon sprint of talks about a deal began in earnest about a month ago and were focused entirely on coming to terms on the price tag. There were no discussions of how existing MGM executives and operations would mesh with Amazon Studios as part of the deal negotiations. With a change in ownership, MGM’s top executives undoubtedly have to set new employment contracts if they are to stick around.
Still, with a deal of this size, surely some what-if scenarios have been considered. Industry sources see a strong likelihood of MGM’s film team, led by Michael De Luca, sticking around under the Amazon umbrella. But there’s less clarity about how the TV assets will be handled. Representatives for Burnett, MGM and Amazon declined to comment.
Burnett has been an unconventional leader for MGM. He’s an active producer on a number of high-profile productions which means he rarely keeps regular office hours. He’s also well-known as an entrepreneur who is always in the hunt for deals, IP and partnerships.
On Burnett’s watch, MGM TV has acquired production banners such as Evolution Entertainment, and established joint ventures such as Gato Grande Productions for Spanish-language content. Signs that change was afoot for MGM came earlier this year when Steve Stark, longtime head of scripted content, segued into a production pact with the studio.
Amazon Studios has a well-established TV infrastructure led by Mike Hopkins, senior VP of Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Studios, and Jennifer Salke, president of Amazon Studios. Burnett would be a big personality to fit into that mix especially in a formal executive role. Industry sources close to Burnett say that one logical scenario would be for Burnett to have a broad-based production arrangement with Amazon and MGM.
Burnett is vacationing with family in Iceland this week. He addressed MGM staffers at a remote town hall event on Wednesday. He told the team that he was “excited” by the possibilities of the transaction, according to a source. He emphasized that he has a good working relationship with Salke from serving as executive producer of “The Voice” during Salke’s previous tenure as head of NBC Entertainment.
Burnett’s employment contract is believed to run through at least 2023. MGM TV’s track record in recent years has been spotty. The studio delivered a home run in 2017 with Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Burnett’s long-running series “The Voice,” “Shark Tank” and “Survivor” have remained stalwarts for their respective networks. But the roster of new hits has been thin.
As for the fate of Epix, industry insiders say it’s hard to imagine Amazon wanting to operate a single linear cable channel. But one option could be to turn Epix into something of a barker channel for Amazon Prime Video shows and possibly even other items from the vast Amazon retail service.
Amazon has also started to invest big in sports rights, committing to NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” for $1 billion annually for 11 years as of 2022. It’s possible that sports could be an option for Epix down the road.
The Amazon sale marks the third time that Burnett has sold his company. In 2011, Burnett sold a majority stake in his Mark Burnett Productions to Hearst, which led to the formation of One Three Media. In 2014, Burnett and Hearst sold a majority interest in One Three Media to MGM, which named Burnett head of the newly revived United Artists Media Group. The following year, he sold the remaining 45% to MGM and became head of its worldwide TV group. The sale to MGM was worth about $120 million to Burnett.
(Pictured: Mark Burnett)