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A mogul returns to finish what he started

Harry E. Sloan left Hollywood and got rich in Europe. Now he's back, trying to revive MGM's faded fortunes.

March 04, 2007|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

His office looks more like it belongs to a New Age guru than a type-A chief executive crusading to save one of Hollywood's most storied movie studios.

Dozens of crystals, an amethyst cluster as big as a boulder, an amber lion, running-water sculptures and other talismans populate his corner suite at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.'s headquarters in Century City.

Shortly after becoming chairman and chief executive 18 months ago, Harry E. Sloan even changed his office phone number, replacing the 4s with 8s because they're lucky, according to Chinese tradition.

"The whole idea of feng shui is to create good luck," said Sloan, whose spiritual advisor is his Malaysian Chinese wife, Florence. "We all need good luck."

At the moment, the 56-year-old entrepreneur needs an extra-large dose.

He's undertaken a colossal challenge: to rescue from near obscurity the historic studio behind such movie classics as "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."

After the 80-year-old studio was sold in 2005 by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian to a consortium of investors including Sony Corp., production and distribution of new movies was halted. MGM was reduced to a small film label under Sony Pictures.

Sloan has never run a major studio, an especially difficult feat today, when new technologies are upending the business and rising costs are forcing retrenchment.

Moreover, he's been absent from the Hollywood scene for the last 15 years, several time zones away, building a broadcasting business in Europe that he sold in 2005 for $2.6 billion.

He personally pocketed about $200 million from the sale, yet that fortune did not bring Sloan any fame back home. His name is absent from the power lists occupied by his Hollywood friends, a tightknit circle that includes CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

Now, this little-known media mogul, originally from Torrance, is looking for his own recognition.

"So, why am I doing this? Why here in Hollywood?" mused Sloan, who lives in an English Tudor mansion overlooking the 18th hole of the Bel-Air Country Club. "I want to pick up where I left off in my hometown."

In the 1980s, Sloan tried to build the now-defunct New World Entertainment into a full-fledged studio, but it never rose above second-tier status. "It was an unfinished foray into the movie and TV business," he said.

So 20 years later, Sloan is at it again. He has put MGM back in the movie business, enlisting an approach to movie economics that he hopes fixes what's wrong with Hollywood's "broken studio system." Sloan's strategy at MGM is based on the belief that studios excel at marketing and distributing movies but fail at developing and producing them cost-effectively.

So at MGM, Sloan is leaving the moviemaking to outside producers whose budgets are not burdened by unnecessary costs. MGM also operates without the enormous overhead and infrastructure big studios carry, with only a single building, no back lot or sound stages and only 400 employees. Sloan, who began his career as an entertainment attorney representing television stars, believes his best bet is to align MGM with talent -- even actors who may have fallen out of favor.

He recently struck a deal with Tom Cruise to revive MGM's dormant sister label United Artists after the actor was fired by Paramount Pictures and snubbed by other studios.

MGM also agreed to promote and release "Rocky Balboa" last December, the latest in the franchise, despite the view that its star, Sylvester Stallone, was box office poison.

"Selling me at that time was no easy task," Stallone said. "You would have had better luck selling anthrax in a Pez dispenser."

Though Stallone gives Sloan credit, there are plenty of doubters. Many question whether the man known as a shrewd salesman can actually pull off this ambitious plan to salvage MGM. In the eyes of some, he's little more than bluster. But in typical Hollywood fashion, detractors were willing to talk behind his back but wouldn't attach their name to derogatory remarks.

For Sloan, such skepticism only drives him harder.

"It's exciting, the jeopardy that it can go either way," said Sloan, who loves taking risks and finds gambling a thrill. "I'd always end up doing better in Vegas when I began the first day by losing. I like having to come from behind."

Meager beginnings

Sloan grew up in a working-class Jewish family. His father worked in the parts department of Douglas Aircraft, and his mother was a substitute teacher.

"Harry grew up pretty close to poor, and he worked hard to get out of that," said Larry Kuppin, Sloan's former business partner. "It definitely affected him. He has a strong drive to succeed."

But Hollywood was far from his sights in his youth. Politics were his passion. He plastered his bicycle with "John F. Kennedy for President" stickers.

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