Packer's Plans for MGM TV

Jim Packer, the new president of MGM's Worldwide Television Distribution Group, is charged with reinvigorating the once venerable studio's TV-distribution operation. The mandate to maximize the value of its library, which consists of 4,000 films (such as the James Bond and Rocky franchises) and 10,000 hours of television series (including The Twilight Zone), came after MGM decided earlier this year to infuse its domestic theatrical distribution pipeline with more than 20 new titles annually.

While other studios have consolidated distribution activities, MGM has been in rapid- expansion mode. It began after Harry E. Sloan sold his European media giant SBS Broadcasting for $2.6 billion and became MGM's chairman/CEO a year ago, putting control of its destiny back in MGM's hands (minority partner Sony had handled the functions previously). Reporting to COO Rick Sands, Packer (a former MGM TV executive VP), has been hiring senior management and selling a number of new programs around the globe. This week, he's at the international TV trade show MIPCOM in Cannes, focusing on global sales of movies and series to the TV marketplace.

Packer tells B&C's Jim Benson why MGM is bucking the industry trend of downsizing, the role a vibrant international market will play in growing MGM, and his ambitious production and distribution strategy.

Why is MGM expanding during a time of massive consolidation?

If you look at the landscape of TV stations, it's not like there's a wealth of Triple-A product coming down the line. We have a tremendous library, and we will have a lot of opportunities to take advantage of it.

Are you looking to produce your own shows, take on production partners, or go to third-party distribution—or a combination of those?

Any one of those three could be forced to the forefront. For instance, [the 1987 Mel Brooks comedy film] Spaceballs is an asset in our library. We recently sold 13 half-hour episodes and a one-hour animated-series pilot [based on the film] to G4, which is one of our co-production partners, for its premiere on basic cable. I will be selling it internationally at MIPCOM, and (if successful) we can take it into syndication as a series now that Mel Brooks is involved creatively. [Brooks will lend his voice to two of the characters.]

This gives us a lot of flexibility. We can look at any of our titles as series properties; it's a no-brainer. It gives us a lot of interesting things to do, like direct to video, cable and syndication.

So you're open to trying different sorts of exhibition windows for your programming?

We are always open to creative windowing strategies. It makes it easier for us because we have all of our [free- and pay- TV] distribution under one roof.

Would you consider getting into the weekday-strip–programming business?

I don't see our company getting into that business, at least right now—spending $20 million on a talk show, sitting around and hoping that it works.

The scripted shows you do are largely dependent on the health of the international market. How long do you think it will remain strong?

I don't see anything on the horizon yet that will make it take a dramatic turn for the worse. We did better with Stargate Atlantis [the series sequel] than with Stargate SG-1[the original]. Technology is helping, and for someone like us with a significant library overseas, we're very well-positioned.