TURNER SELLS THE STUDIO, HOLDS ON TO THE DREAM
Ted Turner, the would-be movie mogul, is down but not out of the film-making community.
Turner on Thursday sold all but the film-library assets of his recently purchased and sorely undercapitalized MGM Entertainment Co., acknowledging “a great deal of sadness” about relinquishing the movie studio.
But the Atlanta-based media entrepreneur said he is arranging a deal with a major film studio to release up to three films a year produced by his Turner Broadcasting Systems.
“The theatrical motion picture business is not really a sound financial business,” he told a gathering of television critics shortly before making the MGM sale. “It’s like baseball or basketball. They’re hobby businesses. We can’t play that game anymore.”
But Turner added, somewhat wistfully, “How can you not like the movie business?
“We would have attempted some hopefully outstanding, pro-social films along the lines of ‘Gandhi,’ ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘E.T.,’ ” had he retained MGM, he said.
Instead, Turner’s limited film involvement will probably lean toward his personal taste for world issues. He’s currently looking for a screenwriter to write an anti-nuclear film he has in mind.
Though the MGM sale essentially tears up Turner’s membership card in the big-league Hollywood studio club, the range of his deals, combined with his maverick entrepreneurial style, ensure his role as a creative force in the communications business.
On Thursday, he waxed eloquent about everything from news coverage of the Statue of Liberty rededication ceremonies to the potential for a global TV network to the possibility of cable exclusivity for National Football League games.
As owner of cable superstation WTBS in Atlanta and the Cable News Network, Turner was the first guest executive appearing before TV critics from newspapers across the country, who are gathered in Los Angeles for 19 days of presentations by the three major networks, PBS and 14 cable channels.
Within hours of meeting with the critics, Turner signed tentative agreements to sell MGM, which officially became his less than three months ago. He will sell the movie production and distribution end of the business to United Artists and the Culver City studio facility to Lorimar-Telepictures.
But he’ll retain the coveted library of MGM films, which will be used to further his grand goals.
“We’ve got enough programming right now to do a 24-hour global network,” he said, adding that he has no immediate plans for such a network.
He also said that he is putting together a consortium of cable operators to try to outbid the three major networks for NFL broadcast rights. “If the NFL were exclusively on cable, that would definitely help cable penetration more than any other single thing,” he said.
Elsewhere in the sports world, the Goodwill Games, which his Turner Broadcasting Systems is mounting July 5-20 in Moscow, is a step toward global telecasting: The Olympics-style athletic competition will be broadcast throughout the world via deals arranged by TBS, which holds the rights to the events.
“It’s going to look like the Olympics, sound like the Olympics--the only difference is it’s not called the Olympics,” said Turner.
Though the event, as a commercial programming venture, may incur “a moderate loss” in its first outing, Turner said that he’s positive it will recoup those losses in 1990, when it will be held in the United States.
Only Home Box Office, which occupied the critics’ entire schedule Friday, produces more original programming than TBS, Turner said.
The chairman of HBO, Michael Fuchs, has his own visions about the cable business, and like Turner’s, they revolve around new, original programming.
“Movies don’t carry the topspin in cable that they used to,” he said in an interview before a question-and-answer session with the TV critics at the Beverly Hilton. Fuchs is adamant that cable subscribers gain little from costly exclusivity deals with movie studios, such as the one he signed with Warner Bros. earlier this week.
“There’s no doubt that the Warners deal to us is defensive, " he said. The defense is against competitor Showtime/The Movie Channel, which might have gotten the exclusive on Warners films--considered “the plum” of all recent movie lists, Fuchs said--had HBO not made a preemptive move.
Showtime today is expected to announce yet another exclusivity deal with a movie distributor, following up similar deals this year that will make it the only pay-cable service showing new films from Cannon, Touchstone and Atlantic.
Fuchs believes the total that HBO and Showtime have spent on these deals--an estimated $600 million to $800 million--would have been better spent on original movies and series.
The image he wants HBO to have is as the purveyor of “departure programming"--shows that won’t be seen on the three networks. If sitcoms are in vogue now, he said, “that’s reason to go the other way.”
Examples of coming HBO original fare includes “Half a Lifetime,” about four friends (played by Keith Carradine, Nick Mancuso, Gary Busey and Saul Rubinek) examining their lives in the course of a poker game; “The Pursuit of Happiness,” a documentary directed by Louis Malle about America’s new wave of immigrants, and limited series such as “Training Camp,” a follow-up to last season’s reality-cum-comedy football show, “First and Ten.”
Showtime, meanwhile, is steering ever-more-strongly into the comedy series domain.
Scheduled to be announced today are a new summer comedy series, “The Frantics,” a sort of MTV-meets-"Laugh-In.” Already announced for the fall are the new series “Hard Knox,” “The Garry Shandling Show” and new episodes of the long-running “Brothers.”
Also in the comedy area: a special production of the National Lampoon’s off-Broadway revue, “Class of ’86"; a Penn & Teller special to be taped in the fall and a Mr. Bill “Comedy Spotlight” special.
Showtime is also announcing “Hoover,” a film starring Treat Williams as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, which begins production on Friday, and “Motown on Showtime,” an hourlong series featuring performances and interviews with Motown stars, including the Temptations, the Four Tops and Michael Jackson. Three episodes will air in 1987 and three in 1988.
Elsewhere on cable TV:
Arts & Entertainment--This basic channel is getting more of an “American voice,” a spokeswoman said, in response to criticism that so many of its entertainment and cultural shows are of British origin. New U.S.-produced programs include “Living Dangerously,” profiles of adventurers, premiering in November; a one-hour documentary on the Amish, and a series of opera presentations with comedian Robert Klein as host.
(These and other selections, A&E; executives sadly noted, were the selections of programming vice president and culture connoisseur Curtis Davis, who died May 31 after a brief illness.)
The Disney Channel--Disney is looking at sitcoms too. Writers Gil Grant and Arnie Kogan are developing two new, as-yet-unnamed series.
The channel will also telecast Paul McCartney’s “Rupert the Bear” feature, on which the former Beatle served as screenwriter, music scorer, executive producer and voice of the leading animated character. Original movies for the fall include Mike the Dog from “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” fame in “Spot Marks the X,” and Bruce Boxleitner in the Louis L’Amour Western, “Down the Long Hills.”