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THE BIZ / ALAN CITRON AND JAMES BATES

The Rumors Just Get Stranger at MGM / UA

July 16, 1993|ALAN CITRON and JAMES BATES

It's no secret that gossip is endemic to the entertainment business. Without it, many conversations would consist of "Nice to meet you" and "Goodby."

But even hardened rumormongers have been awed by the amount of babble that has burbled up around Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists this week.

Close to a dozen possible buyers and managers have been linked to the studios, which are said to be on the brink of being sold or restructured. There is even speculation over the source of the speculation, with some executives insisting that a disinformation campaign is being waged.

On Thursday, the gossip became profoundly stranger as it shifted to Cargill Inc., the Minneapolis-based grain and commodities giant. Hollywood sources insisted that Cargill or one of its subsidiaries made a bid to buy MGM/UA at the fire sale price of $400 million to $500 million. Odder still, the buyers were said to be dealing directly with the French finance ministry, having bypassed MGM/UA's owner, Paris-based bank Credit Lyonnais.

The Hollywood executive who was supposed to be linked to the talks, talent manager Jeff Wald, could not be reached for comment. But others dismissed the rumor with unusual forcefulness.

Cargill spokesman Garland West seemed to leave himself little room for backpedaling when he said: "It's a joke around here. This is the best comic opportunity we've had in this company for a long time."

A check by West showed that Cargill owns a few MGM bonds along with about 60 other corporate bonds as part of its investment operation. But the trail ended there, according to West, who even looked into the chance that a Cargill family member was independently involved in a deal.

Credit Lyonnais also went out of its way to knock down the report, calling it "so much silliness." Separately, one senior bank executive is said to have remarked upon hearing the Cargill rumor, "No, we're selling it to the Pope."

The government-owned bank has come under increasing criticism for its troubled Hollywood portfolio and has hired Creative Artists Agency Chairman Michael Ovitz to help it restructure.

Is it possible that Credit Lyonnais and CAA would be totally out of the loop on such a deal? Not likely, according to knowledgeable sources, who said that any serious bid would have to pass under the noses of bank officers and lawyers.

Skeptics also point out that there is no evidence of due diligence of MGM, which any buyer would undertake before making an offer.

One of the only points widely agreed upon is that an announcement of some kind will probably come next week. Bank officers held a routine meeting Thursday but failed to resolve the issue. Sources close to the talks say that as many as three separate scenarios for MGM and UA are still on the table.

The longest-running rumor has former Paramount Pictures Chairman Frank G. Mancuso taking over a revitalized UA and co-managing marketing and distribution at MGM. Those discussions, while continuing, are said to have been slowed by differences over Mancuso's compensation, how power might be shared with MGM Chairman Alan Ladd Jr. and the amount of money needed to jump-start UA, which has been idle for years.

One source insists that the bank would prefer to find an outright buyer for the studios, which it inherited when Giancarlo Parretti defaulted on more than $1 billion in loan payments.

"Mancuso is not a buyer for the company, he's a body for the company," the source said.

Another scenario has a second executive stepping in, possibly Warner Bros. President Terry Semel in a deal involving financier Ronald Perelman. Neither could be reached for comment late Thursday.

A third rumor holds that there's a mad scramble under way to find an 11th-hour savior for the studios, which are hemorrhaging red ink.

MGM executives have largely been consigned to sideline status as they await the announcement that will decide their fate. Many, however, find it hard to believe that the bank will sell MGM and UA before getting both up and running again.

Asked one: "How can we sell this place without a hit movie?"

*

Losing the Light: Merging Hollywood and Washington interests is a tricky business, as the Clinton Administration has painfully learned. But when it came to bridging those worlds, no one did it better than Patrick Lippert, who died of AIDS complications this week at age 35.

Lippert's specialty was politically energizing young people, both inside and outside Hollywood. He began as an aide to Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda in the early 1980s and went on to help launch the Hollywood Policy Center, after serving as celebrity coordinator for the 1988 Dukakis campaign.

As the director of Rock the Vote, a job he took in 1991, Lippert helped increase young voter participation by 18% in last year's presidential election. And he did so with a graciousness and gentleness that startled those hardened to the process.

On Wednesday, Lippert's friends from the entertainment and political worlds gathered for a memorial service at Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades.

The speakers ranged from Jane Fonda and Sarah Jessica Parker to state Sen. Tom Hayden and White House assistant Tom Epstein, who read a statement from President Clinton.

Parker noted that Lippert even transcended partisanship. Tributes were entered into the Congressional Record by both a Democrat and a Republican.

The MGM Link

Those linked to MGM/UA in recent years:

* European businessman Giovanni Di Stefano

* Jet-setting financier Bernie Cornfeld

* Australian tycoon Kerry Packer

* An unidentified Saudi prince

* Giancarlo Parretti (yet again)

* Cable mogul Ted Turner

* Financier Marvin Davis

* Kirk Kerkorian (yet again)

* Frank Mancuso

* Grain giant Cargill Inc.

* Chicago's Pritzker family.

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