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UA's $500-million pool tempts MGM

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September 19, 2008|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

As if Mary Parent didn't have enough to do trying to transform MGM from an also-ran into a studio that Hollywood can take seriously. Now, the former Universal Pictures executive who was hired in March to turn things around also has to help get movies made at MGM's troubled smaller sister United Artists -- something recently departed Chief Executive Paula Wagner apparently had trouble doing during her truncated tenure.

Since Wagner left, Parent has gotten a lot cozier with Tom Cruise, who along with Wagner still owns a 30% stake in UA and remains creatively involved. Parent has been taking a lot of meetings with Cruise and has attended test screenings of the actor's upcoming holiday release "Valkyrie," about an assassination plot to kill Hitler.

Parent isn't trying to hide her deeper involvement in UA -- "I'm more active than I was before, helping out wherever and whenever needed," she says, while insisting "I am not running UA."

In a sense, Parent has to say that, even though she sure looks like the de facto head. MGM has to tread carefully when it comes to UA. Even though MGM owns 65% of UA and markets and distributes its films, the smaller studio has a $500-million movie fund that was originally set up for Wagner and Cruise that is specifically earmarked for UA films.

That may explain why MGM spokesman Jeff Pryor says, "There are no plans to replace Paula Wagner." He described the relationship between Parent and UA as a "collaborative effort," where she works closely with Cruise and UA production president Don Granger and his team to get movies queued up.

Indeed, they're under intense pressure to move quickly to keep the UA fund active. The agreement with Merrill Lynch & Co., which anticipates four films a year for five years, stipulates that specific release dates have to be met in order for UA to retain full access to the funds. But since Wagner and Cruise were recruited to revive UA, the studio has released only one film: the money loser and critically drubbed "Lions for Lambs." And "Valkyrie," due out Dec. 26, is the only other picture on UA's release schedule.

But, hey, what's to stop Parent from guiding some MGM projects UA's way so they can take advantage of the UA fund and fill its near-bare cupboard? Parent declined to comment on that. The charge-ahead executive has put together more than a dozen projects in her brief six months at MGM -- and doesn't yet have the funds to make all the big-budget movies she wants.

MGM has been struggling to raise its own multi-hundred million-dollar fund to help pay for the studio's ambitious slate, which includes two "Hobbit" films, a spy thriller adapted from Robert Ludlum's suspense novel "The Matarese Circle" and starring Denzel Washington, and new installments of "Poltergeist" and "Robocop."

So far, Parent has greenlighted just one film: "Cabin in the Woods," a $30-million budget comic horror thriller written by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" writers-producers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, which will also be directed by Goddard. Parent hopes to begin production in February to make an already planned Oct. 23 release date.

For weeks, MGM has been insisting that its bank deal is almost closed, but close doesn't count in this market. Just ask Steven Spielberg, who's been waiting to get a bank deal syndicated so he can finally launch his new DreamWorks.

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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