DreamWorks recently reserved May 18, 2007, yes, 2007, as the date it will release "Shrek 3." Sony already has claimed May 4, 2007, for "Spider-Man 3." It's a testament to how much movie studios love staking out a film's release date many months and even years in advance. So it was more than a little unusual late last year when MGM quietly added four relatively obscure films to its early 2005 release schedule, including one that is 4 years old.
One might have assumed that MGM was dumping the films before its pending sale to a group of investors led by Sony Pictures. In truth, the last-minute additions had nothing to do with the Sony-MGM union. Instead, these movies -- none of which MGM actually made -- are prime examples of an arcane show business maneuver called "put pictures," in which a studio is contractually bound to distribute a film someone else essentially puts on its schedule.
One of these four movies, "Bigger Than the Sky," opened last weekend in six cities across the country. With neither heavy advertising nor a swath of favorable reviews, the film took in only about $18,000, light-years behind first-place finisher "Hitch" and new national releases "Constantine," "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "Son of the Mask."
Another of the MGM releases, "Fascination," which opened the last weekend in January, came and went in a heartbeat, grossing a meager $16,000, while the other two films, "Madison" and "Jiminy Glick in La La Wood," are set to open later this year.
The four MGM releases all have ties to a nearly decade-old deal. Back in 1996, Metromedia International Group bought the Motion Picture Corp. of America, a purveyor of not only modestly budgeted fare such as "Beverly Hills Ninja" but also the comedy smash "Dumb and Dumber" and the art house hit "Threesome."
Metromedia also owned Orion Pictures, and Metromedia subsequently folded Brad Krevoy and Steve Stabler's Motion Picture Corp. into Orion, which the two briefly ran. As part of Krevoy and Stabler's Orion employment deals, Orion was obligated to distribute six of each of the producer's movies. MGM then bought Orion in 1997, thus inheriting the contractual obligations to Stabler and Krevoy.
Stabler and Krevoy used their old Orion pact to have MGM release several films, including the Vanessa Redgrave drama "Rumor of Angels" and the comedy "3 Strikes." But the producers hadn't used up all of their rights as the deal was set to expire Nov. 30, 2004. That's when Stabler began calling in his remaining four slots, and the films starting popping up on MGM's slate. (Krevoy's "National Lampoon's Barely Legal" may yet turn up on MGM's summer schedule.)
Most studios shy away from making similar pacts, because it gives them little control over what goes out under their name and can diminish their brand. MGM does not attach its trademark roaring lion to these four films, lest moviegoers believe they are the studio's own productions.
MGM also was not enthusiastic over releasing one of Krevoy's movies, 2002's "Boat Trip," in part because of a scene in which Roger Moore, who starred in MGM's James Bond films, had semen thrown on his face. The R-rated Cuba Gooding Jr. comedy ultimately was distributed by Artisan Entertainment and was a solid performer on video.
From a purely business standpoint, though, put pictures can benefit both distributor and filmmaker alike. It's akin to renting a car: Rather than buy a new car (or build your own movie distribution network), you get to borrow somebody else's vehicle for a while. In return, the car's owner collects a tidy fee.
"Domestic distribution is really a big deal," says Al Corley, the first-time director of "Bigger Than the Sky," whose film was made without a distribution deal in place. "There aren't many distributors left for midlevel and small films."
Even a limited theatrical release can trigger a variety of ancillary sales, from home video to pay television. So even though some of these MGM releases may not sell many tickets at the box office, their backers nevertheless could end up in the black.
If a put picture is a home run, its backers get to keep most of the revenues. "It's exactly what we did on 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' " says Paul Brooks, whose Gold Circle Films financed "Jiminy Glick," which MGM is releasing May 6. "We rented out IFC Films' distribution system, and we put up the [prints and advertising money]. And the rest is happy history." The 2002 romantic comedy grossed more than $241 million in domestic theaters.
From the studio's perspective, put pictures present little economic risk. In these four instances, MGM has no financial exposure, because it does not pay for the films' prints, advertising and publicity. Those costs, which are about $1 million for some of these movies but may total more for a wider release such as "Jiminy Glick," are paid by the film's makers.
If the movie generates any revenue, the studio's distribution fee could yield income (MGM made a nice profit on "3 Strikes," for example, and it showed the studio how profitable urban comedies can be). Executives within MGM, which declined to comment for this story, privately say that both "Madison," which opens April 22, and "Jiminy Glick" could generate small income for the studio.
The worry for filmmakers is that a studio with no financial and personal investment in a particular movie might give it fleeting support, rather than the 24-7 attention lavished on some homegrown productions, even ones of marginal quality.
Howard Baldwin produced "Swimming Upstream," and although the Geoffrey Rush-Judy Davis sports drama was not part of the Krevoy-Stabler deal, it was distributed by MGM in a similar fashion, whereby Baldwin's company rented MGM's distribution apparatus. The movie debuted in Australia nearly two years ago but landed in U.S. theaters Feb. 4. "I wouldn't say it languished. It just got put on hold," says Baldwin, an Oscar-nominated producer of "Ray."
Unlike "Fascination" and "Bigger Than the Sky," Baldwin's drama collected several strong reviews. But Baldwin believes the movie would have benefited from more MGM support, particularly in New York. "I'm saddened by that," Baldwin says. "The movie deserves a better chance."
MGM says it tried but struggled to generate publicity for the film's young star, Jesse Spencer, and that Davis was not available to promote the film. The film also was hurt because it was 2 years old, the studio says, and quickly lost its Manhattan show times to other movies outperforming "Swimming Upstream" by a wide margin. "Swimming Upstream" has grossed just $47,000.
Almost everyone else praised MGM's handling of its stepchildren movies, saying the studio promoted the films as if they were its own. Corley says MGM sent "Bigger Than the Sky" co-star John Corbett to several cities to promote the film. "For a little movie like this, that's a lot," Corley says.
Adds Stabler: "They could have treated these films as an obligation. But MGM has worked hard." Krevoy declined to comment.
Oddly enough, Stabler had no direct involvement in the production of the four films, although he was included in planning their marketing and distribution (he also benefits financially from giving his MGM release slots to the other filmmakers). In every case, the films landed on MGM's schedule because of Stabler's previous dealings with their filmmakers, proving that in Hollywood, you never know when even a vague relationship can yield results.
Stabler met "Fascination" director Klaus Menzel at a Hollywood gathering last year in Milan, knows "Jiminy Glick" backer Brooks because Gold Circle's chief financial officer used to work at Motion Picture Corp., collaborated with "Bigger Than the Sky" director Corley on 2000's "Drowning Mona," and worked on "Madison" filmmaker Bill Bindley's "Johnny & Clyde."
"Madison's" path to the screen is perhaps the most ill-fated. Bindley took a rough cut of his boat racing movie to the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, where it drew the attention of the newly formed Premiere Marketing and Distribution Group.
"Madison" bounced around Premiere's schedule for more than a year, but then the company went belly-up. Artisan then expressed an interest in "Madison," but it was soon bought by Lions Gate.
The delay may have one unexpected benefit: The film's star, Jim Caviezel, was unknown when "Madison" was made but later played Jesus in the blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ."
(Begin text of infobox)
Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio projections.
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total
*--* Hitch $31.8 $90.1
Constantine 30.5 30.5
Because of Winn-Dixie 10.9 10.9
Son of the Mask 7.7 7.7
Million Dollar Baby 7.2 54.7
Are We There Yet? 6.5 69.5
Boogeyman 5.5 41.1
Pooh's Heffalump Movie 4.4 11.7
The Aviator 4.2 88.1
Sideways 3.9 58.1
Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.
Los Angeles Times