Packer Roars at MGM

Harried television executives typically unwind on the golf course or the squash court. But Jim Packer prefers something a bit more intense. Packer, president of MGM Worldwide Television Distribution, has been known to hit the links, but also works out with a mixed–martial-arts instructor who trains contenders for the bloody Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“I’m doing it because it is a great way to stay in shape,” says Packer, 44. “But it also involves a lot more strategy and mental exercise than you’d think. It keeps your mind sharp.”

Indeed, Packer’s sharp mind and creative thinking have helped the venerable MGM studio leverage its vast library and boost its value.

Packer—whose father, Jim Packer II, ran Mission Argyle Productions and encouraged his son to get into the business—honed his talent for innovation at Disney’s Buena Vista Television (BVT), where he began as an account executive in 1986.

Looking back on his decision to jump to MGM, home of Leo the Lion, after a decade and a half at the Mouse House, Packer says that he “felt like someone in college basketball who leaves Georgetown.”

Like the Hoyas, Packer’s corporate alma mater has graduated many of today’s media all-stars, including fellow syndication chiefs Janice Marinelli (BVT), Ken Werner (Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution), Mort Marcus (formerly BVT, now Debmar-Mercury), Ken Solomon (formerly DreamWorks, now The Tennis Channel) and the late Rick Jacobson (Twentieth TV and Viacom Enterprises).

Selling home improvement

Packer attributes the high-achieving group’s success to the fertile BVT training ground, where executives were encouraged to be innovative—an essential ingredient for anyone running a syndication company today. Packer points to the highly successful off-network sales campaign for Home Improvement in the early 1990s as a primary example.

To make station executives forget about the disappointing performance of The Cosby Show, the last big-ticket sitcom they had acquired, BVT’s sales force donned blue jeans and tool belts—à la Home Improvement star Tim Allen—and hit the streets.

The gimmick helped BVT persuade stations to give up huge dollars for the Home Improvement reruns, which has since gone on to generate more than $1 billion in syndication revenue. (In fact, the costumes were so convincing that carpenters working at a New York station mistook some BVT sales executives for scabs and filed a grievance with their union.)

Like his colleagues, Packer would go to great lengths to make a sale. Early in his Disney career, he tried to persuade Marcus, then his sales manager, to let him sell a two-hour block of cartoons known as The Disney Afternoon to the only available station in a small Iowa market.

Since no one at BVT had ever heard of the low-power station, Marcus turned him down. But Packer persisted and called Marcus back a short time later, reporting that he had knocked on the doors of strangers who were able to get the station’s signal on their home TVs.

“I was very impressed with that kind of effort,” Marcus says. “Of course, I wouldn’t let Jim take the deal, but still.”

Packer continued to rely on his Disney training after being tapped to oversee domestic distribution at MGM, which was seeking to maximize the value of a library consisting of more than 4,000 theatrical titles and 10,000 TV series.

He soon struck a groundbreaking deal with UPN that made MGM the exclusive provider of its two-hour Saturday movie. The unusual arrangement provided the now-defunct mini-network, which couldn’t afford to pay much, a steady stream of films for four years. Meanwhile, MGM got to sell all of the ad time, splitting the revenue with UPN.

Packer also inked a deal with NBC Enterprises, the network’s former distribution wing, creating a joint venture that sold barter time for both companies’ shows. In April 2005, the studio gave him responsibility for worldwide distribution.

The following October, MGM Chairman/CEO Harry Sloan led an investor consortium that took over the company from Kirk Kerkorian. After Sloan and COO Rick Sands reclaimed TV distribution from Sony last fall, Packer was given his presidential stripes and a mandate to boost the value of MGM’s library.

Spaceballs and beyond

Looking to expand beyond TV properties like Sci Fi’s Stargate SG-1 and Showtime’s The L Word, Packer formed a two-year “strategic relationship” with New Line Television. The deal gave MGM the right to domestically distribute and sell ad time for New Line’s movies and shows, including Court TV’s Masterminds.

Next, Packer adapted the 1987 Mel Brooks’ MGM comedy Spaceballs into a TV series, selling 13 half-hour episodes and a one-hour animated series pilot to cable network G4 and international buyers. If it is successful, MGM can also sell the series into domestic syndication.

“We can look at any of our titles as series properties,” Packer says. “It’s a no-brainer. It gives us a lot of interesting things to do, like direct-to-video, cable, syndication.”

Packer is also staking out digital opportunities for MGM, which has begun to offer Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis on iTunes, along with TV classics like The Addams Family and the original version of The Outer Limits.

Surveying the “landscape of TV stations,” Packer is confident that MGM’s deep well of classic content can be a reliable source of syndication revenue.

“It’s not like there’s a wealth of triple-A product coming down the line, and that presents us with opportunity,” he says. “We have a tremendous library, a lot of properties that we can take advantage of.”