MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)



STRUGGLE, DECLINE, AND DISMEMBERMENT

Mayer's departure scarcely improved MGM's fortunes. Schenck and Schary were both out by the mid-1950s, leading to a quick succession of top executives at both Loew's and MGM. Mayer himself attempted to regain control in 1957, but the effort failed and he died late that year—just before MGM announced the first annual net loss in its history. The studio moved very tentatively into TV series production and was among the last to open its vault to television syndication, although MGM did lease The Wizard of Oz to CBS for a color broadcast in October 1956, making it the first Hollywood film to air on prime-time network television. The program was a ratings hit, and another signal of an industry transformation that was leaving MGM behind. Loew's/MGM fought the Supreme Court's 1948 Paramount decree, the anti-trust ruling that mandated theater divorcement, to the bitter end, with Loew's finally divesting of MGM in 1959. The studio enjoyed one of biggest hits ever that year in Ben-Hur , but subsequent big-budget remakes of Cimarron (1960), King of Kings (1961), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) were disappointments.

MGM produced a few major hits in the 1960s, notably Dr. Zhivago (1965) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The latter, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999), provided major impetus to the auteur-driven New American Cinema of the late 1960s, as did MGM's earlier release of Michelangelo Antonioni's (b. 1912) Blow-Up (1966). But the studio had no real stake in this movement, nor did it pursue any other production or marketing trends during the late 1960s, when it was plagued by frequent changes in leadership and struggles for corporate control. These struggles culminated in 1969, a year in which MGM posted its biggest loss ever ($35 million) and was taken over by Las Vegas mega-developer Kirk Kerkorian. Though Paramount, Warner Bros., and United Artists were acquisition targets as well, they were bought by diversified conglomerates, which allowed them to continue operations despite the industry-wide recession. Kerkorian, conversely, was a financier and real-estate tycoon who was primarily interested in MGM for its brand name and the value of its library, and had no inclination to underwrite its failing movie production–distribution operation.

Kerkorian immediately installed former CBS president James T. Aubrey (1918–1994) to run the studio, with instructions to cut costs and reduce output. One result was MGM's successful run of low-budget "blaxploitation" films, notably Shaft (1970) and its various sequels and television spinoffs. But soon Aubrey began to dismantle the studio, auctioning off a treasure trove of memorabilia and archival material, and selling the MGM backlot for real-estate development. The most drastic move came in 1973, the year that Kerkorian opened his MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (then the largest hotel in the world), when Aubrey sold MGM's distribution operation to United Artists, which had been acquired in 1967 by Transamerica, and announced that MGM would produce only a few pictures per year.

Thus, just as the movie industry began its economic recovery, MGM ceased operating as a major Hollywood producer-distributor. Its most successful pictures at the time, aptly enough, were That's Entertainment! in 1974 and its 1976 sequel, documentary celebrations of MGM's past glories. While MGM foundered in the late 1970s, Kerkorian's real estate business thrived, enabling him to purchase United Artists in 1981 when that studio was reeling after the Heaven's Gate debacle, as huge cost overruns on an unreleasable film forced UA into bankruptcy. Returning to active distribution, Kerkorian ramped up production at "MGM/UA" after the merger, although few films of any real note were produced by the company until 1986, when it was purchased by Ted Turner (b. 1938)—who then promptly sold UA and the MGM trademark back to Kerkorian, and sold the MGM lot to Lorimar, a major television producer.

Thus began an even more intense period of chaos, confusion, and legal wrangling for MGM, during which time the company repeatedly changed hands, was in continual litigation over the ownership of its library and several of its key movie franchises, and was increasingly difficult to define as a "studio"—particularly after Lorimar sold the lot (in 1989) to Warner Bros. MGM produced a few hits like Thelma & Louise (1991) and was involved in the theatrical or home-video distribution of many others, including United Artists' James Bond films ( Golden Eye , 1995; Die Another Day , 2002). After ownership passed from Turner to Kerkorian and then in the early 1990s to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti (then owner of Pathé's film operation) and to Credit Lyonnais (which foreclosed on Parretti), Kerkorian put together a consortium to repurchase MGM in 1996. That led to further acquisitions, particularly in MGM's library holdings, which became sufficiently robust to attract multiple offers. In 2004 Kerkorian sold MGM to a media consortium whose principals included Sony (which bought Columbia Pictures in 1989) and the cable giant Comcast for $4.8 billion.

This acquisition finally aligned MGM with a global media conglomerate, but it scarcely signaled a return to active motion picture production. Sony and Comcast clearly were interested in MGM for much the same reason as Kerkorian had been previously—that is, for its brand name and library holdings (along with the James Bond and Pink Panther franchises that MGM acquired via UA). And the amount the new owners paid well indicates the value of "branding" and "software" in the current media era. Thus, even as the Sony group announced plans to reduce MGM's output to only a few films per year, it is quite likely that the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer name (and logo), along with its classic films, will maintain their currency, and will serve too as constant reminders of Hollywood's Golden Age.

SEE ALSO Star System ; Studio System ; United Artists

Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Crowther, Bosley. The Lion's Share: The Story of an Entertainment Empire . New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957.

Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty-Seven Roaring Years . Revised ed. New York: Crown, 1979.

Eyman, Scott. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Fordin, Hugh. The World of Entertainment: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals—The Freed Unit at MGM . New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Marx, Samuel. Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints . New York: Random House, 1975.

Ross, Lillian. Picture . New York: Rinehart, 1952.

Schary, Dore. Heyday: An Autobiography . New York: Little, Brown, 1979.

Thomas, Bob. Thalberg: Life and Legend . New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Thomas Schatz



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