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CRITIC AT LARGE

Hollywood as Latest Board Game Around

July 14, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

That thrumming noise audible in the smoggy Hollywood air this week may well have been the shades of Louis B. Mayer and the other founding moguls of the film industry whirring about in their various sarcophagi.

The sale by Kirk Kerkorian of some part of a part of the MGM/UA Communications Co. to several parties of the second part, notably Peter Guber, Jon Peters and Burt Sugarman, is a deal so complicated that it is probably understood fully only by 11 accountants, 20 lawyers, Kerkorian and the other principals.

MGM itself consists these days of some offices in a Mayan temple with elevators, across the street from the lot that Mayer and Irving Thalberg built. That tangible, walkable piece of real estate called MGM, with the hovering ghosts of Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable and Judy Garland, now bears a new name and ownership (Lorimar Telepictures). Taps were sounded many months ago for the memories of the Metro lot.

The MGM film and television library, that extraordinary segment of the world's cultural history, is in still other hands: Turner Entertainment, where it is a costly souvenir of Ted Turner's expedition into darkest Hollywood.

I think all the above to be true, but you can't be sure. The facts change daily and almost everything in town appears to be for sale. Warners is under the mistletoe to buy Lorimar and Marvin Davis, who used to own Fox, is said to be a suitor for United Artists, which Kerkorian also wants to sell off.

Hollywood seems to have become a board game, a subsidiary of Monopoly, with corporate shells in lieu of hotels or other tangible assets, and with rules of play so Byzantine that even entry-level MBAs can't grasp them.

It is all a bit melancholy because the jugglings about of ownership seem to have less to do with the making of movies than with debt management--high finance at its most papery and mystical, a dance of debentures performed on the moth-eaten remainders of the Hollywood past.

Metro's Leo the Lion logo is presumably as valuable as any asset in the package. Like Mickey Mouse and Disney, it stood for something. The corporate momentum has resumed at Disney under new leadership and with new aims. MGM has been faltering for 20 years, although the lion can still roar now and again, and "Moonstruck" was a palpable hit for the latter-day MGM.

For one of the Marx Brothers movies, Leo was replaced by Harpo, honking the horn he used in lieu of speech. You can somehow imagine the lion peering out of the logo one of these days and growling, "Where's everybody gone?"

Actually, Guber and Peters have track records as active producers. Guber had a hand in "The Deep," "Midnight Express" and "Missing," Peters in "The Eyes of Laura Mars" and "Caddyshack," among the several projects each has done. The deal gives them a brand-name and a distribution arm, and it may be that their own ambitions can pep up an operation that seems never to have been Kerkorian's top priority.

But at best the deal is symptomatic of a Hollywood that has changed profoundly in the postwar, post-television period. The founding moguls--the autocrats whose potent instincts told them what the audiences wanted or could be made to want--are long gone. Their successors are more often corporate managers than creative figures, with a different kind of drive.

It has opened a chasm, wider than before, between those who make the movies and those who run the studios. It is not simply the traditional split between management and labor but a fundamental divergence in feeling about the nature of the movies.

This difference in attitudes about the movies may well help to explain the unusual rigidity of both sides in the Writers Guild strike. They meet as philosophical strangers. It is a different day, as the Kerkorian deal declares.

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