Thursday, 22 March 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #871: MGM Update

Not much to talk about today, except there's some motion going on with the once venerable, but until recently long moribund, studio MGM.

First up, they recently told shareholders that they're going to take a loss on the $100 million thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but expect to make a profit from the surprising performance of the more modestly budgeted action buddy comedy 21 Jump Street.  

Both films were co-produced with, and distributed by Sony Pictures.  The report said that they're interested in participating in sequels for both films, but are using Hollywood code to say that if they're going to make The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, they're going to have to be done much cheaper. Which is Hollywood code for replacing director David Fincher.

In other news, MGM has regained full ownership of United Artists.  Now some of you are saying "United Who?" or "What Artists?" and to that I say shame on you.

United Artists was founded in 1919 by a group of powerful stars, producers, and filmmakers who wanted to make films free from the control of the then dominant movie studios, First National (later taken over by Warner Bros.) and Paramount.

The business model was simple, United Artists acted as a sort of distributing mother-ship for independent producers who pretty much ran their own show.  Results were mixed at first, and the studio almost collapsed a few times before it hit its stride.

That stride came in the 1950s and 1960s. Where the other majors were struggling to survive the onslaught of television and were weighed down by their massive overheads caused by their huge production infrastructures and bloated executive suites, United Artists thrived because basically all they had was a comparatively small head office, and a handful of managers. 

This success made it a tempting takeover target and it was purchased by the insurance giant Transamerica.  At first the system kept chugging along, but Transamerica eventually sought to exert more control and managed to drive out all the executives and partnerships that made the company a success. (They went on to found Orion Pictures days after leaving.)

United Artists went on to produce the epic Western Heaven's Gate, directed by Michael Cimino, who was hot after his Oscar winning hit The Deer Hunter.  The budget of Heaven's Gate skyrocketed to the then immense sum of $44 million, and had a total box office take of $3 million.

United Artists was essentially bankrupt, and was sold to MGM, whose films they had been distributing since 1974.  This transformed United Artist from a once successful distributor, to just a division of a slowly sinking ship.

The company faded for the most part, with occasional attempts to revive it during the almost constant reorganizations of MGM/UA.  Then along came Tom Cruise.

In 2006 MGM made a deal with the actor for him and his partner Paula Wagner to take over United Artists.  Sadly, this takeover coincided with a bad slump in Cruise's career, and the whole deal fizzled out.

Now I always thought the deal with Cruise was a mistake. Yes, most of the major founders of United Artists were actors, but it's success came when it separated itself from being the playground of movie stars, into being a serious business partner for independent producers.

This is where my Monday morning quarterbacking comes in.  MGM eventually shut down its distribution arm as part of its latest restructuring. What they should have done, was folded distribution into United Artists, and sold it as a distributor.

Then it may have had a chance of being more than just a name on corporate register.


  1. I got one more question for you D. Do you think Disney will eventually sell off all their "adult" assets and just be a family company?

  2. I don't see them selling off ABC anytime soon, but there is a possibility that they could sell off Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures if they get a price they like.

  3. I'll be super-amused the day Disney sells a brand that has Mickey Mouse in the logo. I'm not kidding.