If Lee Rich made his living at a race track instead of at a movie studio, he would almost certainly be dubbed a "chalk player"--a bettor who backs the favorites and avoids the 50-1 shots.
In the coming year, the re-formed MGM/UA Communications Co., headed by Rich since last April, will release a James Bond film, a Mel Brooks comedy, an untitled Goldie Hawn comedy and "Rainman," a $25-million film about the relationship of two brothers, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.
On paper at least, that's a slate with impressive marquee value, especially for a company that has been tampered with so heavily in recent years. MGM/UA might well seem the corporate equivalent of Burton and Taylor. The companies have split up and been reunited so many times that news of a another divorce or marriage does little more than blur the senses. That kind of constant flux has done little to help the company's image on Wall Street or in Hollywood.
A bit of recent history: In March, 1986, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. acquired MGM/UA Entertainment Co. for about $1.25 billion. At the same time financier Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp. bought back United Artists Corp. from MGM/UA for about $480 million.
Then in late 1986, United Artists Corp. purchased MGM's motion picture and television production (as well as the theatrical distribution assets and licensing and home video operations) from Turner for about $300 million, leaving Turner with 3,000 MGM film titles.
With MGM/UA back together again, Kerkorian brought the 66-year-old Rich in to oversee the two production companies--Culver City-based MGM, which is now headed by veteran film executive Alan Ladd Jr. and UA, which is run by Anthony D. Thomopolous.
The signing of Rich, a co-founder and longtime president of Lorimar, sent a signal to the movie-making community that MGM/UA was going to make a serious attempt at restoring some of the glory and profitability once associated with these venerable studios. "The first thing I did was give each of them (UA and MGM) their own production budgets and say, 'Go out and do it,' " said Rich in a recent interview in the new UA Beverly Hills offices. "I've narrowed their focus and now, instead of one company trying to do 20 films, they are each going to try to do about eight per year. That makes a lot more sense."
Rich promised that the new structuring of the two companies and the veteran personnel at each will restore respect and box-office success. An improvement shouldn't be hard: In 1986 MGM/UA, which released only a half-dozen movies, ranked ninth in box-office share among 11 majors and mini-majors and garnered only 4% of the box-office pie. Such low productivity coupled with constant rumors about changes in management made the studios a place of last resort.
"They were the end of the line," said one young agent who requested anonymity. "Why would you go there when you could take a project to Paramount, which turns out 16 or 18 films a year?"
But nothing attracts top talent like good material. In the last year, Rich and the creative teams beneath him have worked hard to develop the kind of scripts that lure big stars. "Rainman" is a perfect example. Because of the strength of the script, MGM/UA was able to sign up Hoffman and Cruise and landed director Martin Brest ("Beverly Hills Cop").
"We had no relationship with Cruise or Hoffman," said Rich, who has a reputation for a fiery temper and a tough negotiating posture. "We had a script they wanted to do that was developed in-house and that's how we got them." Similarly, Goldie Hawn, who has made almost all of her recent films at Warner Bros. and is one of the few actresses whose name alone can deliver box office, came to MGM/UA because of a script (still untitled) she liked.
Rich said he also worked hard to get the message out to the creative community--writers, directors, stars and their agents--that the company was back in business in a serious way. "I sat down with all of the major agents and told them, 'We're in business and we have the money. You come to us and you'll get fast answers.' "
The chairman plays a significant role in making those decisions. "I press the button as far as pictures go," Rich said. "They (Thomopolous and Ladd) have their own development lists, but I green-light the pictures. There is a committee of one--me."
So what kind of material do you bring to the founder of the company that launched such successful television series as "Dallas" and "Knots Landing"?
"He (Rich) has good taste," said Joel Gotler of The Agency. "I'd probably pitch some gritty cop story."