The last picture show? Debts cast shadow over MGM

The studio responsible for 'Gone with the Wind' among other classics has been forced to shelve the latest Bond film. So can the lion ever recover its roar?
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The Independent Culture

James Bond does not like to be thwarted but occasionally circumstances become too daunting even for the cleverest of Her Majesty's secret agents. And so it is now with word that the next installment of his dashing adventures has been put on indefinite hold because of a pesky thing called money. Or lack thereof.

What our man of action with numbers for a nickname needs now is a device from Q for eliminating financial debt, an aerosol disguised as hair spray – or perhaps an invisible vapour fired from the exhaust pipes of a sexy sports car. The target would not be a dastardly foe sprung from the ice floes of Siberia, but rather an outfit they call MGM.

It is the very considerable cash woes of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc that are behind the shelving of what was to have been the 23rd outing for Bond, in the form of a sequel to the 2008 hit Quantum of Solace with Daniel Craig shaking and stirring audiences worldwide for a third time. Hopes for it were high. Craig was ready, Rachel Weisz was rumoured as a co-star and Sam Mendes was due to direct. Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) was on the writing team.

No film studio has a more storied past than MGM. Think Ben Hur and Gone with the Wind. Indeed, that opening logo of the lion and his roar is almost synonymous with big-budget blockbusters and Hollywood bravado. In truth, however, it has been on a spiral of decline for decades with little left to its name now save for a couple of still valuable franchise assets, the most important of which is Bond. (It has a half-interest in the Hobbit name.)

So parlous is the studio's financial situation – debt is now close to $4bn (£2.6bn) – that its creditors announced as long ago as last November that they could no longer go on. MGM is thus trying to sell itself at auction and, while there have been smattering of possible suitors, including Time Warner, Lionsgate (it recently pulled out), and the Russian tycoon Leonard Blavatnik, there is little sign of anyone offering close to the $2bn the company is seeking.

So it is possible that, almost 90 years after his debut, the MGM lion will see the roar that has already been reduced to a purr silenced entirely.

As the owners of the rights to Ian Fleming's novels, the producing duo of Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, whose company is Eon Productions, came to the not unreasonable conclusion that ploughing more money into a film production for which there may soon be no distributor did not make a lot of sense.

"Due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the future of MGM and the failure to close a sale of the studio, we have suspended development of 'Bond 23' indefinitely," they confirmed in a joint statement. "We do not know when development will resume and do not have a date for the release of 'Bond 23'."

Bond fans should not despair. The decent box office performance of Quantum and before that Casino Royale with Mr Craig minding the store means that 007 is almost certain to see another day. It won't be the first time that a hiatus between Bond films becomes prolonged. It was six years after the 1989 release of Licence to Kill with Timothy Dalton leading the cast before the next in the series came along: GoldenEye starring Pierce Brosnan.

"I have every confidence in Barbara and Michael's decision and look forward to production resuming as quickly as possible," Mr Craig declared yesterday from Toronto, where he is shooting the film Dream House with Ms Weisz.

Nor is it easy to imagine the MGM lion limping forever. Few brands in Hollywood movie-making are more familiar. Yet it is hard to overstate what a mess has been made of the place in recent decades, mostly as a result of successive changes in strategy and especially of ownership. Each buyout seemed to leave the place with less in the way in assets – film libraries and Hollywood lots have all been lost over the years – and ever greater piles of debt.

The studio was never mightier than in the 30s, when it was able to make the boast that it was the only studio that never lost money during the Great Depression. Memorable properties included Northwest Passage, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

After the Second World War, the pace of film-making declined a bit (from 50 a year to about 30) and some of its most expensive stars were cut loose. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable had all been signed to the MGM stable. Still, it continued to deliver some defining hits, including serial big musicals with the likes of Frank Sinatra, and Ben Hur (a remake, in fact) with Charlton Heston.

The corporate shenanigans that were eventually to cripple MGM really began with its sale to the drinks magnate Edgar Bronfman in 1967, who two years later was to sell it to Kirk Kerkorian, a Nevada millionaire who was less interested in making films that sticking the logo on to casino properties in Las Vegas. (Today's MGM casinos are no longer affiliated with the studio.) Others who have attempted to take MGM for their own have included Ted Turner (he was forced to sell after just 74 days) and the disgraced Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti.

With a deadline for final offers recently extended into May, there is still no telling where the story of MGM itself will end. The studio that gave us Doctor Zhivago as well as iconic television properties from the 60s that included the Tom and Jerry animated cartoon series and the spy drama The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is on life support and, according to most analysts, is unlikely now to survive in anything close to its present form.

It is a sad prospect for a studio that used to say that it had "more stars than there are in heaven". It has already far too long that MGM had boasted more owners and creditors than bona fide stars.

9

The number of times MGM has won the Best Picture Oscar.

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