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Turner Sells The Studio, Holds On To The Dream

June 07, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

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."

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