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Category:    Home > Essays > Studios > MGM - The Lion Sleeps Tonight... & Forever

MGM: The Lion Sleeps Tonight… And Forever

 

 

In order to firm up their position on HD software and hardware, Sony and some partners bought out the MGM Studios, but much misinformation turned up in all the media coverage over the deal.  It was back in 1989 that Sony bought Columbia Pictures, a deal that shocked everyone, from the Coca-Cola Company.  Coke thought they could turn the company into a combination art studio/promotional opportunity to promote their soft drinks.  It did not work out.  The company was not in great shape and Coke lost interest.  After spending literally billions of dollars, Sony rebuilt the company into one of the biggest studios on Hollywood or anywhere.

 

For a company that began in the old days as a small “little sister” studio in the “poverty row” part of town, Columbia built itself into a major by the 1960s before a rocky road set in during the 1980s.  In the case of MGM, they began as the Triangle Studios, then formed in mid-1920s as the biggest studio in Hollywood.  When Germany’s UFA Studios went downhill, they became number one in the world.  They were still a mighty entity until the late 1960s, when Seagrams (who had recently bought and sold Universal Pictures and Music, only to now own all of Warner Music, itself no longer part of Time Warner) and Time Life bought a majority interest in the company for three years.  It did not last, they did not know what to do with it, or could agree on how to run it.

 

Kirk Kerkorian took over in 1969, then took the MGM name and made it synonymous with casinos and hotels.  He also, like other struggling Hollywood studios, sold off back lots.  Debbie Reynolds suggested they turn it into an amusement park and charge money, but they ignored her.  Universal would later turn that idea into a multi-million dollar business.  Production slowed to six films a year by the mid-1970s and United Artists took over.  When Transamerica drove the talent out of UA (who went to form Orion) and Michael Cimino’s ambitious, but out of control Heaven’s Gate cost over $44 Million and made back $1.5 Million, UA went bankrupt and MGM/UA was formed as Kerkorian bought it up.  Back then, studios were not as expensive to buy.

 

The most famous buyer of the studio before Sony was Ted Turner, who bought MGM when he could not afford the CBS network.  When he could not afford to revive the company, but still wanted exclusive product for his fledgling company, he kept the MGM part of the catalog and sold back the UA part and all theatrical film units back to Kerkorian.  That means by 1986, the original MGM was finished and ended with Turner, which is why Warner Bros. owns all the MGM films to 1986.  They got them when they recently bought Turner out.

 

Ironically, Sony bought the MGM soundstage and remaining studio land a good few years ago, renaming them the Sony Pictures Studios.  MGM/UA eventually became MGM again, but only had MGM films from late 1986 to date.  That might seem confusing, but that is what happened.  So, the MGM Sony just spend all those billions of dollars for is actually United Artists, plus some other great film catalogs Kerkorian bought to strengthen this latter-day MGM’s market position.  They included Orion, American International, Filmways and The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

 

In the old days, United Artists was also a “little sister” like Columbia, but had no studio space and was a financial backer and distributor of films instead.  They may not have kept the rights to as many films as the other companies in town, but less overhead helped them out.  By the 1950s, UA became a force to be reckoned with and by the 1960s, James Bond, The Pink Panther and classics like Midnight Cowboy made them a powerhouse.  Add the great B-movies of American International, the Classical Hollywood product of Samuel Goldwyn (never a part of MGM to begin with) and the great Orion hits of the late 1980s and all of the 1990s, then the money spent makes sense.

 

What is really happening is the retiring of the United Artists name in just about all cases and the absolute retirement of the MGM name.  Disney knew the value of the lion logo and licensed it for their Disney/MGM Studios in Florida, though MGM in any form had nothing to do with it.  The point was that the logo was so famously linked to big, glossy filmmaking that Disney knew this would add appeal to that studio space.  Mary Tyler Moore famously spoofed the logo with a young cat for her Mary Tyler Moore (aka MTM) Productions and even the roar itself remains one of the most famous and successful soundbytes in history.

 

With so many bad films being made by major companies, so many expensive releases that bore people, loose money and just do not work, it feels like a bad omen when its use is being ended.  The MGM Lion may not have had nine lives, but it was close.  The dream that the company could somehow, like a Hollywood dream, come back to life and make the world (at least the world of cinema) great again goes silent.  The studio began in the silent era, when the roar could not even be heard at all.  An earlier roar was not as powerful or crackling.  When the studio released megabomb Cutthroat Island, the film at least had the honor of introducing the digitally enhanced version of the roar.  Some thought it was too loud, but with its discontinuation, that might seem like a fondly remembered annoyance.

 

Obviously, the MGM films and name will live on, but it is the last chapter in the long life of a dream factory.  The company barely lived into the digital High Definition era, but helped make it possible.  It is then ironic that it was bought out as it stood over high definition software.  If Sony does for that catalog what they have done for Columbia Pictures, people will be rediscovering great films for decades, and hopefully centuries and millennia to come.  United Artists started with a lozenge logo, then the finely cut UA logo, but it is ironically associated with the Transamerica tree.  The sides would zoom up and outwards like the opening of the TV show Dynasty.  That is a coincidence, but was UA’s peak time.  Lady Columbia holds a torch in the Columbia Pictures logo and people do not know her or it as much.  That says something about audience identification, no matter the few times her face and body have been changed over the decades.  There will be no new MGM lion, yet it will be remembered more strongly.  That’s what starting as a major, possibly the major studio, meant.  Leo was the lion’s name and he can now retire for good.

 

 

[This is a home page letter from April/may 2005]


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