MGM is aching to be taken seriously. The studio that once provided the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Network is now relegated to distributing such high-end fare as Heartbreakers, AntiTrust and 3 Strikes. Okay, that‘s slightly facetious. But under former casino-boss-now-studio-corporate-chairman Alex Yemenidjian and studio chairman Chris McGurk, the studio has risen only somewhat phoenixlike from the rubble of the last five years. Once on life support under former chairman Frank Mancuso, MGM has resurrected itself under its current major domos with high-end and low-budget pictures, along with split-rights deals and the buyout of a cable cabal that includes Bravo, American Movie Classics and Women’s Entertainment. These guys almost look like they want to create a true-to-life film studio, not just a seat-warming investment for owner Kirk Kerkorian and his Tracinda Corp.

The resurgent company is looking to projects like Hannibal, which grossed $350 million worldwide; Legally Blonde, with its unexpected $93 million domestic windfall; the remake of Rollerball; the next Bruce Willis film, Hart‘s War; and the upcoming John Woo war extravaganza Windtalkers to put MGM on the lot with the big boys, even if it still has no literal lot to speak of.

With the current Willis film, Bandits, MGM and co-finance partner Hyde Park Entertainment were planning on a $100-million-plus domestic-gross blockbuster to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, the studio ran into the juggernaut known as 911. MGM is to be commended for looking a dire situation directly in the face and releasing the film anyway (perhaps marketing and distribution chief Bob Levin’s first major decision), but it will be lucky to hit $50 million domestic, with larger ramifications for the rebuilding studio.

”We never planned on this even remotely,“ said one executive. ”Who did? While it‘s been a disappointment, we’ll still make money.“ Another marketing honcho nonetheless admonished the studio for the film‘s ”failure.“ ”It’s just that we can‘t afford any misses,“ he said. ”We don’t want singles, we need Barry Bonds.“

The problem for MGM is that, with the exception of the James Bond franchise, the studio rarely puts that kind of money into a single film. It needs a home run every time. With Windtalkers and Rollerball now set for 2002, MGM will depend heavily on both. (Rollerball has been pushed back twice now, which may or may not be an indication of how the studio perceives it.)

MGM will be struggling to repeat this year‘s film revenue, between $400 million and $500 million. Not a bad haul for a transitional studio, but most of that was on account of one movie, Hannibal. As for television, new cable deals don’t make up for the lack of a network. Yemenidjian and McGurk are going one step at a time to rebuild — as the 2001 year-end report contends. They are on the prowl for split-rights deals whenever possible and are slowly developing major star-driven material, though stars are somewhat reluctant to rely on MGM‘s beleaguered image in marketing. And they’ve revamped the distribution and marketing staffs under Levin. If they don‘t succeed, it will be back to the co-financing and low-budget drawing boards.

The studio only has a single major co-financing partnership, with Hyde Park, and no one is banging on MGM’s door to handle product. Wall Street still does not consider the studio to be investment-grade, so it‘s a tough sell to high-end investors too. And rumors persist that Kerkorian wants to sell. One bright spot may be the hire of Bingham Ray to handle United Artists in its newfound specialty-film arena. Regardless, there are still more questions being asked than answered about MGM.

Not-So-Happy Campers

Screenwriter Daniel Waters is laconic about his current contretemps with New Line Cinema over his first directing effort, Happy Campers. His $12 million film was supposed to be released by the mini-major and was taken to Sundance this year to help bolster the marketing campaign. When New Line chairman Bob Shaye screened the piece pre-Sundance, he decided it wasn’t the lighthearted Meatballs that he had expected, but more like a Happiness he never wanted. Shaye and co-chairman and CEO Michael Lynne sent Waters‘ handiwork straight to video.

”I’m telling people that the movie ended with the kids at the camp blowing up the World Trade Center, and that‘s why Bob Shaye won’t release it,“ laments Waters, who wrote the blacker-than-black Heathers.

Shaye could have been responding to the film, or he could have been frightened of Time Warner‘s button-down sensibility, which would never have allowed for New Line’s Boogie Nights and would likely blanch at Happy Campers. And as the studio is worried sick over the upcoming performance of The Lord of the Rings, it may have behooved Shaye — who disliked Happy Campers from the start — and the executive corps to keep Waters‘ film under wraps.

The film initially had been set up by former New Line chairman of production Michael De Luca, who often took such risks with films like Boogie Nights. When he was deposed, his films were sent packing with him. ”De Luca’s orphans,“ Waters calls them.

”If I had known that my life would be inextricably linked to Little Nicky and Town & Country, I would have lit more candles in church,“ he says.

Now Waters is hoping DreamWorks, which is where De Luca landed, will take an interest. But he may be caught in no man‘s land with New Line taking the film straight to DVD and video, and allowing no window for theatrical.

New Line wouldn’t comment.

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