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June 17, 2005

Fade Out

Peter Bart - 1990

Until I became a film student at NYU in 1969, I had no concept of how what happens at the studio offices affected what I saw, and even if I saw the film at all. I started getting a few clues from a glosssy magazine that was primarily industry oriented. Several of the articles were about MGM. One article was about how the plug was pulled on a film version of Man's Fate to be directed by Fred Zinneman virtually days before shooting was to begin. Another article mentioned that Michelangelo Antonioni's newest film, Zabriskie Point, was scheduled to be released as the film maker intended, after approximately a year on the shelf. What I began to learn was how studios were no longer independent entities, but were companies subject to the whims of the owners, and whomever was in charge of production at the time.

Reading the news about MGM's recent sale to Sony inspired me to look a bit closer at the history of the studio. Peter Bart's book alternates as both a history of MGM from 1969 to 1989 when it was owned by Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian, and an autobiography of Bart's brief time as a studio executive. In terms of some of the facts presented, I have to conclude that some of the studios not only have their own karma as it were, but have had both family and spiritual ties. After reading the history of MGM, the sale to Sony seemed almost pre-ordained.

MGM and United Artists almost merged in the 1920s. United Artists was founded by three top silent stars, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and one director, D.W. Griffith. Imagine if Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts formed their own studio and you get the idea of how significant this was. The studio founders eventually decided that they needed professional management. Joseph and Nick Schenk came on board. In order to get more United Artists films made, they suggested buying out the then fledgling MGM. Chaplin vetoed the suggestion. Nick Schenk eventually left United Artists to become chairmain of MGM. The two companies merged their distribution departments in 1981 when Kirkorian bought United Artists following the box office failure of Heaven's Gate.

Prior to his purchase of United Artists, Kirkorian had made an attempt at getting a controlling interest of Columbia Pictures. Due to SEC and anti-trust issues, Kirkorian backed down. As it turned out, as a result of changes in the anti-trust laws and their enforcement, Columbia's parent company, Sony, bought MGM this year. In an ironic sense, Kirkorian dream came true.

Bart's history of MGM from 1969 is also the history of several production chiefs who attempted to make hit movies within the parameters set by Kirkorian. Basically this is a history where the concept of making a film that is both a financial and critical success totally eludes everyone. The person who is most derided is James Aubrey. A former top television executive, Aubrey is infamous for taking films from his top directors and severely editing them. While Blake Edwards hasn't made a director's cut of The Wild Rovers, the restored version of Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has been met with the acclaim it never got in 1973. That Aubrey could not leave Peckinpah alone is especially sad when Bart relates that Aubrey was a big fan of Straw Dogs.

Another ironical footnote is to be added here: After Aubrey left MGM, he produced a sequel to one of his few hits, Westworld. The sequel, Futureworld, was made for American International Pictures. As it eventually turned out, the AIP library was eventually bought by MGM when they bought the Orion Pictures library. Orion was founded by several executives who left United Artists after its purchase by TransAmerica. But the reason why classic MGM films, along with classic United Artist films are released by Warner Brothers in their video formats is because Ted Turner bought the MGM and UA library from Kirk Kirkorian. UA bought the Warner Brothers library of films up to the early fifties primarily for television broadcast rights. Now the classic Warner Brothers movies are back with Warner Brothers. Got it?

Bart claims that MGM could have had more hit films than it had if only someone hadn't let the opportunity pass by. He lists several films including Jaws, Terms of Endearment, Last Tango in Paris, and Crocodile Dundee as films that almost were MGM productions or releases. Yes, these films represent varying degrees of box office success. But I have to wonder if these particular films would have done as well had they been part of MGM. What Bart does not question is whether some of the films that failed or underperformed could have done better with a different studio. I did suspect that had he had the financial support and autonomy needed, that Daniel Melnick might have turned MGM around. MGMs last films to be critical and box office successes, as well as Academy Award winners, were produced under Melnick's tenure. This would include The Sunshine Boys, Network and The Goodbye Girl. While Bart shows himself to be supportive of Gillian Armstrong while she makes Mrs. Soffell and Peter Markle directing Youngblood, he does not second guess whether he could have changed the fates of those films or any of the other productions he supervised.

Hollywood is concerned about the general decline at the box office, and audiences are complaining about the general lousiness of Hollywood films. Fade Out is a good reminder that these problems always existed. If there are any lessons to be learned, they are either ignored or forgotten. To paraphrase that famous saying, he who fails to study history is destined to repeat the course.

Posted by peter at June 17, 2005 04:08 PM