Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Bookshelf: Fade Out: The Calamitous Final Days of MGM by Peter Bart

Scanned book cover and Amazon link
As of late I’ve been getting very heavy into movie history. I’ve become totally fascinated with the process of how the sausage is made, down to the soulless number crunching and dealing between studios and parent companies that make modern film possible. At the local library I found a book that's actually become more relevant since I finished reading it. (I scanned the cover since I couldn't find a good image online.)

If you follow movie news, you may have heard that Guillermo del Toro recently dropped out of the director’s slot for the planned live action film(s) of J. R. R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT, due to delays in production. The project looked ready to go for a while, but then MGM, who are financing the production, announced that they were in deep financial trouble again and had to delay any check writing until they could raise more capital. The part that actually surprised me was that they still existed.

The irony of this is that a long time ago, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the dominant player in the old-time studio system. They owned the most theaters, had the most stars on contract, and their style was excess- they could produce epics like GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, both the silent and sound versions of BEN HUR, and so on. Peter Bart’s FADE OUT is an up-close memoir of the studio in decline, focused on an attempt in the eighties to revive production that fell apart for various reasons. There are some issues I have with the way it tells its story, and the limited scope will leave you with a few questions, but it has some fascinating material, and to a certain extent, the problems it was having then are very close to the problems it’s having now. Bart, who worked with Frank Yablans as he tried to right things through an ambitious slate of pictures, argues that MGM/UA suffered from a combination of bad picks, missed opportunities, and perhaps most damningly, a top-level inability to commit to the expense and uncertainty of being a film studio.

Bart chooses an odd alternating pattern to tell the book’s story, focusing on the eighties and his own time at the studio, but sometimes jumping back to the very beginning of Nevada entrepeneur Kirk Kerkorian’s reign as owner of the company. This gets a little disorienting, but suffice it to say, Kerkorian, who made his fortune chartering flights to Vegas for gamblers, bought a studio that was already teetering due to several expensive flops in the sixties. Jim Aubrey, brought in to cut costs and streamline the studio (including the sale and at times outright disposal of old props, sets, etc.), had a hard time finding hits, and started the trend of squeezing MGM’s budgets to a point where their output really slowed down as a result. Kerkorian, meanwhile, focused on leveraging the MGM brand, particularly with the new MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

A few more bosses later, and Peter Yablans entered with a directive to actually try and jump start MGM’s film lineup. And to be fair, he really did try. The studio had just acquired United Artists (deep in hock because of the HEAVEN’S GATE debacle) to become MGM/UA, and UA had the Rocky and James Bond movies to help things out. Here, it mostly seems to be bad luck and wrong guesses that hurt; the studio pushed RED DAWN and 2010 as major blockbusters, but both did only middling business. The book also describes an interesting project called ROAD SHOW, about a modern day cattle rancher who, fed up with corrupt truckers, decides to get his herd to market the old fashioned way, with a horse-led cattle drive across the modernized Midwest. From Bart’s account it was difficult to get much conflict beyond the basic premise, and the premise itself isn’t the most plausible, but you can almost imagine a film like this working. Two directors came and went and the picture got quite close to production, which no doubt cost a lot, as did schedule delays on the unexpectedly elaborate MRS. SOFFEL, wherein Peter Bart personally visited director Gillian Armstrong in an attempt to curb her increasing perfectionism.

Overall, the larger problem seems to be that they still weren’t producing, at least not enough. Though each film is a risk and most movies take a little while to earn back costs (if they do at all), studios rely on producing a full slate each year and having a steady stream of income to offset both production costs and the basic costs of having a business. (This is a simplification based mostly on my playing THE MOVIES a lot, but it’ll have to do.) Kerkorian’s own lack of interest in the movie end of the game- he was always more a Vegas man than a Hollywood one- probably didn’t help. Bart doesn’t go out of his way to cast aspersions on Kerkorian, but by implication he comes off as a little too disinterested.

A key moment in the whole story seems to have been MGM’s deal with Ted Turner in 1986. Turner originally tried to buy the studio outright, but this put him a little too far in the red, so Kerkorian agreed to buy back key elements of MGM (including the brand). However, this still left Turner with the classic movie library that he would leverage so well for better or worse, and MGM’s studio facilities ended up with Lorimar, a television company. (Though this may not have been a big loss since those facilities hadn’t been used for much in a while.)

My one major complaint with the book, apart from the flashbacks and flashforwards, is that it ends kind of abruptly. We get a lot of detail on RAIN MAN, which was a nice unexpected hit, but after a couple of failed deals to sell the studio, the book just ends with Kerkorian back to writing the checks himself. Obviously this has everything to do with when the book was written, but it makes the subtitle “The Calamitous Final Days of MGM” sort of misleading. For the next decade and a half MGM continued to exist as a kind of shadowy almost-studio, occasionally popping up to release a movie or declare financial trouble. Kerkorian did eventually sell to another private group (thusfar, MGM seems to be the only historic studio that wasn’t gobbled up completely by a major multinational, though this is hardly a better fate), but since they don’t even handle their own DVD releases anymore, you can see why I thought they had actually died at some point.

Obviously Bart couldn’t cover events taking place in the future, and I had to piece this together from discussions concerning the recent HOBBIT troubles. So I think the book still works pretty well overall, illustrating some of the unique challenges of the movie business and making it clear just how unpredictable it can be. I hope that something, somewhere, happens to keep the MGM legend alive, but that may just be because I do want THE HOBBIT and the next Bond movie to actually get made. And Hell, we all love that lion.

Grade: B+

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