Bond 25: What’s up with MGM?

MGM’s Leo the Lion logo

With all the fuss about Bond 25 since Danny Boyle departed as director, one aspect hasn’t gotten much attention.

What’s up with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the home studio of the 007 film franchise?

It was Eon Productions’ 007 social media outlets that announced Boyle’s departure. Nothing new on that front since Eon’s Aug. 21 announcement.

MGM controls half of the Bond franchise along with Eon and its parent company, Danjaq.

MGM reported second-quarter financial results back on Aug. 7, back when Boyle still was slated to direct Bond 25.

The studio had a conference call with investors on Aug. 7. At that point, Christopher Brearton, who has the title chief operating officer, said everything was great 007-wise.

“The big film news of the quarter was our announcement that we were partnering with Universal Pictures for the international distribution of Bond 25. We are very excited about this deal. Universal’s exceptional international distribution and marketing organization make this an important new partnership for MGM.”

MGM, through a joint venture with Annapurna Pictures, is slated to handled U.S. distribution of Bond 25. Brearton said MGM is positioned to retain more value from Bond film box office.

“We couldn’t be more excited about the film,” Brearton said of Bond 25.

That was then. This is….well, we don’t know. MGM has said nothing about Bond 25 since Boyle’s departure. Eon? It has said nothing other than Boyle is out because of “creative differences.”

MGM, it should be remembered, still hasn’t named a new CEO since Gary Barber departed in March.

The studio has a successful TV operation. Its movie operation? Well, it’s latest film, Operation Finale (released by the MGM-Annapurna joint venture) came in at No. 4 for the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 weekend with an estimated $6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. No. 1 was Crazy Rich Asians, with an estimated $22.2 million in its third weekend of release. (MGM rolled out Operation Finale on Aug. 29.)

You’ve got to wonder what the MGM brain trust thinks about the uncertainty surrounding Bond 25, especially because it (and presumably Universal) are paying the bills.

Is the studio pressing for a quick Boyle replacement to ensure Bond 25 meets its previously announced fall 2019 release date? Is there really anything it can do about it? Or can it only sit by and watch to see how Eon resolves the situation?

On the other hand, there are a few known aspects. MGM remains one of the weakest Hollywood studios in an era where a 20th Century Fox, a much healthier operation, can get swallowed up (by Walt Disney Co. in Fox’s case).

British tabloids have ignored the MGM angle of the Bond 25 saga. It may still be one worth watching.

So who is going to buy 007’s home studio?

MGM’s Leo the Lion logo

It seems as if Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s days are numbered as an independent studio. So who ends up with 007’s home studio?

A new era of media consolidation is underway. And MGM is a small fry.

AT&T Inc. has completed its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, parent company of Warner Bros., CNN, TBS and other media properties. The move comes after a U.S. court approved the deal earlier this week.

Comcast, parent company of Universal, is trying to buy most of the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox, including the 20th Century Fox movie studio.

Comcast is offering $65 billion in cash after 21st Century Fox agreed in December to accept $52.4 billion in stock from Walt Disney Co. An all-out bidding war is expected from the two media giants.

MGM supposedly is trying to go it alone. But, in this new media reality, that seems a long shot at best.

MGM is mostly owned by hedge funds following the company’s 2010 bankruptcy. Hedge funds rarely invest for the long run. They mostly look for a quick turnaround. The fact that the hedge fund owners have held on to their ownership for eight years is remarkable enough.

Given how volatile the situation is, making a prediction about who will buy MGM seems foolhardy. But it seems likely somebody will at some point.

Comcast’s Universal recently won the rights to distribute Bond 25 outside the U.S. So Universal may have a foot in the door. Maybe.

Here’s another question worth asking.

Would a bidder for MGM get out its checkbook and buy out Danjaq, parent company of Eon Productions?

After all, if you’re going to go to the trouble of buying MGM, shouldn’t you buy all the James Bond film rights? Especially if media companies are throwing around tens of billions of dollars for acquisitions?

Some Bond fans feel the Broccoli-Wilson family would never sell out. Star Wars fans used to say to the same thing about George Lucas before he sold the franchise to Walt Disney Co.

Interesting days may lay ahead.

MGM’s credit rating downgraded by Moody’s

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s credit rating was downgraded, in part because of increased film and TV spending, including Bond 25.

“We believe that the front-end spending on the company’s film (including the next Bond film) and television slate are strategically beneficial,” Moody’s Investors Service said in a statement. At the same time, the New York-based ratings company said “financing the build up with all debt adds financial risk to business risks that are higher than average.”

MGM debt already was below investment grade, known popularly as “junk bonds.” Moody’s lowered its rating on MGM to Ba3 from Ba2. The minimum investment rating at Moody’s is Baa3. MGM, which exited bankruptcy in 2010, now is three levels into junk at Moody’s. The company said it doesn’t expect MGM’s rating to improve through 2019.

Essentially, Moody’s is saying MGM’s increased debt has increased the company’s risk.

MGM has been increasing its debt as it seeks to upgrade its Epix cable channel. Moody’s said the studio’s increased debt ” is a departure from the company’s very conservative financial policies espoused by its departing CEO Gary Barber.”

Barber led MGM out of bankruptcy in 2010. He was ousted earlier this year. A successor has yet to be named.

MGM is home studio to the 007 film franchise, which it controls with Danjaq, parent company of Eon Productions.

MGM may sell, Bond 25 distribution still up in air, THR says

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer may be getting ready for a sale while the distribution of Bond 25 — both in the U.S. and internationally — is still unresolved, The Hollywood Reporter said.

The two issues are related, according to the entertainment news outlet.

MGM is holding off on making a Bond 25 distribution deal “because it is using the Bond rights as a carrot for whoever wants to buy the studio,” THR reported, citing “a knowledgable source.”

MGM controls half of the Bond franchise, going back to when it acquired United Artists in 1981. The other half is controlled by Eon Productions and its parent company, Danjaq.

One possible MGM buyer is Sony Corp., THR said. The company’s Sony Pictures (and its Columbia Pictures brand) have distributed the last four Bond films, going back to 2006’s Casino Royale. Under its most recent two-film deal, Sony contributed half of the production costs but only took home 25 percent of the profit.

“Sony is said to be interested in buying the studio and has the cash on hand to pounce,” THR said. The entertainment news outlet says MGM’s price tag may exceed $6 billion, including the 007 rights.

MGM exited bankruptcy in 2010 and had no distribution operation. The studio last year formed a joint venture with Annapurna Pictures to distribute each other’s films in the U.S. However, Bond 25 was not part of the deal. The first MGM film distributed by the joint venture was the recent Death Wish remake.

In November, Deadline: Hollywood reported the MGM-Annapurna joint venture was “thisclose” to securing the U.S. distribution for Bond 25. Since then, various stories have been published assuming it was a done deal. But, as this blog has pointed out, there never was an actual announcement.

The THR story, meanwhile, has an almost throwaway line in the final paragraph that director Danny Boyle’s deal for Bond 25 has been completed.

“One thing is for certain, with the Bond 25 release date looming and director Danny Boyle’s deal done, according to a source, MGM will have to make some kind of move soon,” THR said.

Boyle said last month he will direct the movie if a script being written by his collaborator John Hodge is accepted. MGM declined to comment to THR.

Bond 25 questions (MGM-Gary Barber edition)

 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, James Bond’s home studio, is now leaderless after CEO Gary Barber was apparently forced out. Naturally, the blog is intrigued and has some questions.

Why did Barber get the heave-ho? Outlets including  The Hollywood Reporter (“Barber was blindsided”), Variety (“Barber was blindsided”) and Deadline: Hollywood (“Gary Barber was asked to leave”) made it sound that Barber’s departure was swift and sudden. Considering that MGM in May extended Barber’s contract through 2022, that’s quite understandable.

The reports also cited disagreements between Barber and the board of directors.

What might that mean? Remember, MGM spent much of 2016 negotiating to sell itself to a Chinese buyer, a deal that never materialized, The Wall Street Journal reported in February 2017.

Barber, who took command of MGM in 2010 when it was in bankruptcy, has been gradually trying to expand the company. It has become a good-sized buyer of television shows.

And it took a step toward again becoming a “big boy studio” by striking a deal with Annapurna Pictures to create a joint venture to release each other’s movies. That would be a step toward MGM taking more control of its films. Until now, MGM has cut deals with other studios to distribute MGM films, including the Bond series.

Speculation: It may be the MGM board lost patience and wants to sell the studio.

UPDATE (7 p.m. eastern time): Actually, Deadline: Hollywood, in an update, says it was the other way around from the blog’s speculation — directors didn’t want to sell but Barber wanted to entertain a sale.

How might this affect Bond 25? The next 007 film was specifically exempted from the MGM-Annapurna joint venture. Deadline reported in November that joint venture was “thisclose” to securing U.S. domestic distribution. That was never announced. But if that’s an unannounced reality, there’s still the question of international distribution.

If you’re a studio interested in Bond 25 distribution (in whole or part), who do you talk to? MGM said Monday night there will be an “office of the CEO” that reports to the board until a successor is named.

More broadly, at least for now, Barber’s ouster creates uncertainty for Eon Productions and its parent company, Danjaq. MGM controls half the franchise. That means Agent 007 is tethered to a studio where nothing seems to stay stable for long.

UPDATE II (9:45 p.m., eastern time): The Tracking Board and Variety came out with similar “behind the scenes” stories Tuesday night.

The Tracking Board said a key MGM director saw the company “as a growing empire more than a company on the block as an acquisition target. ” Variety said MGM’s board “has big ambition for growing the once-troubled studio into a major force in film and TV” while deciding Barber “was not the person to lead MGM into the future.”

 

MGM CEO Barber leaving the studio

Gary Barber, former MGM chief

Gary Barber, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, home studio for the James Bond film franchise, is departing the studio after eight years at the helm, according to numerous news accounts.

Deadline: Hollywood, in an update of its initial story, said late Monday that Barber “was asked to leave” by the company’s board of directors.

The executive was requested to depart “over disagreements on strategy about the future direction of the company,” according to the entertainment news website. “In no uncertain terms, Barber was asked to leave the company, a move that sent has employees reeling.” Barber declined to comment to Deadline about why he was leaving.

The move came after MGM in October extended Barber’s contract through 2022. Barber’s exit apparently was swift. He was still listed as CEO on the company’s website early Tuesday morning.

Barber’s exit potentially could affect Bond 25. MGM hasn’t announced how the movie will be distributed.

MGM formed a joint venture last year with Annapurna Pictures to distribute each other’s movies. Deadline in November reported the joint venture was close to getting the U.S. distributorship for the film. If the deal was completed it was never publicly disclosed. It’s possible another studio may distribute Bond 25 in international markets.

Bond 25 also hasn’t nailed down a director. Danny Boyle said last week he plans to direct the film if a script being written by John Hodge is approved.

Barber took command of MGM when the studio was in bankruptcy in 2010. He steered a slimmed down version of MGM, which has improved its finances since then.

His departure is the latest twist in an often dysfunctional relationship between MGM and Eon Productions and its parent firm, Danjaq. MGM acquired United Artists in 1981, which included half control of the Bond franchise. Relations have at time been tense between the two sides.

Barber’s tenure appeared to be an exception. In his public remarks, Barber frequently referred to Danjaq as partners.

UPDATE (1:05 p.m. eastern time): MGM has removed Barber from the part of its website featuring executives.

007 questions: Media consolidation edition

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Walt Disney Co. is buying the 20th Century Fox studio and most assets of 21st Century Fox. It’s a new media world.

So, here are a few questions from a 007 perspective.

What happens to MGM? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 007’s home studio is a runt among Hollywood studios. Disney agreeing to buy most of 21st Century Fox is the most prominent example yet of companies seeking to get even bigger in the digital age.

So what does MGM do? According to The Wall Street Journal in a February story, it spent much of 2016 trying to sell to a Chinese buyer. No sale.

MGM and Annapurna Pictures, a Hollywood newcomer, said Oct. 31 they were forming a new joint venture to release each other’s movies. Supposedly, the joint venture had the inside track to release Bond 25 in the United States. But that hasn’t been confirmed.

What happens to 007 home video distribution? Fox has an agreement to distribute James Bond films on home video through June 2020. But accords can change when the ownership of the one of the partners changes. Who knows at this point?

Does somebody make a play to control the entire 007 film franchise? When Disney acquired Marvel and Lucasfilm Ltd. (Star Wars), the bill was in the billions of dollars for each.

But Disney’s deal to acquire most of 21st Century Fox is valued at $52.4 billion. That dwarfs the other deals Disney has negotiated under CEO Robert Iger, 66. Iger has agreed to stick around through 2021 to integrate the Fox assets into Disney.

When companies are throwing around that kind of money, anything is possible.

At the same time, Bond is a complicated animal. Control is divided between Danjaq (parent company of Eon Productions) and MGM. It’s not just opening the checkbook. Taking control of Bond means, probably, separate sets of negotiations.

Still, Bond is one of the last remaining properties not totally under control of a major studio. Will this week’s events prompt somebody to try seizing control of “the gentleman agent with a license to kill”?