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Ted Turner: Star of Hollywood's Big Cliff-Hanger

February 09, 1986|AL DELUGACH | Times Staff Writer

Ted Turner, who is expected to become the controlling stockholder of MGM Entertainment Co. in the next few weeks, could be a Hollywood movie mogul right from Central Casting. Handsome, charismatic, flamboyant and daring, he is every inch a leading man.

But "Turner in Tinseltown" is one drama that may never make it to the silver screen.

Because of the monumental debt his company is taking on as a result of the $1.25-billion deal, the broadcasting maverick may not even take a screen test. He has said he may only hang onto MGM's film library and sell off the rest.

Despite all that, however, Turner's image and personality have evoked intense curiosity about what kind of mogul Turner may be.

For instance, would he be an improvement over his predecessor, Kirk Kerkorian, the publicity shy financier who has been little involved in MGM's movie-making? How would Turner, whose experience is in broadcasting, run a movie studio? If he sells control of the movie-producing apparatus, will the buyer be able to run a first-class studio without a library of old films to help it through the slow times?

An examination of the Atlanta entrepreneur's business history offers some clues.

Perhaps the most widely held observation cited by those who have dealt with him is that Turner's brash personality is intertwined with his business decisions to degree unseen in most business executives.

Gets Mixed Reviews

Turner admirers spoke of him as a visionary, almost a genius; others described him in recent interviews with The Times as irresponsible, an egotist who has had more failures than successes.

Unquestionably, he is a flamboyant and impulsive media baron. He is credited with revolutionizing satellite and cable-TV broadcasting in the 1970s. That is largely because of his success with the nation's first TV "superstation" and 24-hour cable news network.

Those who have come into his orbit are almost never neutral about him. In the entertainment industry, sharply divergent impressions are voiced.

One who hopes Turner will actually go into film-making himself is a long-time associate, cable television pioneer Bill Daniels of Denver. He recently said of Turner: "You've got another Darryl F. Zanuck, another Louis B. Mayer. . . . Ted would love it, but. . . . "

The rest of Daniels' thought was that "he may have to take some partners (and) do some clever financing, but he can do that."

However, Rich MacDonald, a professional watcher of Turner, founder and 81% stockholder of Turner Broadcasting System, has a different view. MacDonald says Turner "doesn't have any desire to" be a Hollywood mogul.

"He's a mogul in his own right already," adds MacDonald, a media industry analyst with First Boston, an investment firm, who points out that Turner is chiefly interested in MGM's film library.

Valuable Film Library

Turner has made it plain that he expects to hang on to the Culver City-based studio's crown jewels: its prodigious film collection. Turner covets it as a rich treasure house of movies that will feed his satellite broadcasting Atlanta superstation, WTBS, for years and years.

As for the rest of MGM, Turner has declared in public documents that he "plans to pursue the sale of all or part of" it--including production facilities and the 44-acre lot.

Whether Turner produces movies at MGM or someone else does, the film industry is curious to see if the future MGM will be a major Hollywood studio or merely a shadow of its one-time eminence.

Actually, some industry observers believe that MGM was already reduced to a shadow during the 15 years of control by Kerkorian, who owns 51% of its stock. Mighty box-office hits have eluded the studio under a series of top managers during the Kerkorian years, while the studio largely lived off of its patrimony--exploiting the library of old hit films and selling off some of its valuable real estate.

One thing is certain: Turner could hardly be more of a contrast with the quiet, authority-delegating Kerkorian.

The popular image of Turner as a devil-may-care, swashbuckling yachtsman, broadcasting entrepreneur and professional sports impresario (Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball teams) has emerged over the past 15 years.

The media has fostered that image through major articles in national magazines and appearances on national TV, including a feature on CBS' "60 Minutes." Turner has almost always cooperated.

Availability Curbed

But his availability has been limited for much of the past year. That is because of the restrictions that the federal law puts on persons and firms with pending registration of new securities. During much of 1985 and continuing in 1986, Turner has been under wraps (except for an occasional speech on topics unrelated to his business).

First, it was his attempt to take over CBS against its will, the failure of which was almost immediately succeeded by his move to buy MGM/UA with the blessing of Kerkorian.

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