EXCLUSIVE: The knockout $55 million Thanksgiving holiday weekend opening of the Michael B. Jordan-Sylvester Stallone starrer Creed II has MGM feeling validated about its decision last summer to not put a “for sale” sign on the lawn and instead double down on a future as a theatrical release company that demonstrated the benefit of better control of its marketing and distribution because of its joint venture with Annapurna. To mix sports metaphors, the fight film was the first swing for the fences under the joint venture, and it exceeded expectations.

Creed II is the most significant positive development since that shocking day last May when chairman and CEO Gary Barber was ousted by a board that rejected his appeals to sell the company. Led by Kevin Ulrich, whose investment firm Anchorage Capital Group controls 34% of MGM, the board instead targeted expansion that will build on its TV business, the OTT service Epix, and bulking up a theatrical slate to between 10-12 films with movies generated by MGM co-presidents of production Cassidy Lange and Adam Rosenberg and Orion president Jon Hegeman and even more with strategic partnerships that are being made with monied producers.

Steven Caple Jr Jonathan Glickman Ryan Coogler
Steve Caple Jr, left, Jonathan Glickman and Ryan Coogler
Courtesy MGM

To MGM Motion Picture Group president Jonathan Glickman, the most pressing issues of the moment involve things like securing a China release for Creed II. The first film didn’t reach the territory last time, but that was before Michael B. Jordan’s superb turn in Black Panther. Warner Bros handles most foreign territories, but MGM is the one mobilizing what it hopes will be a China release later this year or early next.

Glickman is also hopeful that Creed II’s outsized opening proved the viability of its Annapurna relationship and it will allow the studio to position itself to financiers and filmmakers as a viable alternative in the theatrical release space at a time when those are hard to come by as studios contract and streaming releases continue to become a larger part of the conversation.

“We see the theatrical release as a growth opportunity, and I still think that filmmakers on the highest level are desperate to get their films seen and released theatrically, despite all the money that is out there in the streaming services and that certain films should be done for that platform,” Glickman told Deadline. “With more and more consolidation coming, we see ourselves as a real opportunity for people to get their films dated and opened in a huge way in the domestic marketplace, before out international release partner, Universal, releases overseas.

“We have an enormous film library, a spectacular television business, but not the monstrous [distribution and marketing] overhead that requires that every single film has to be The Lion King or a Marvel film. The fact we have shown we can compete on that level sometimes is going to be attractive to filmmakers out there. Disney is only going to have so many theatrical slots they can offer up, and now with the acquisition of Fox, there are filmmakers there used to having their films theatrically released who are going to want that to continue. Unlike streaming, where there is unlimited volume of how many movies you can have out there in the world, there’s a finite amount of release spots theatrically, and that scarcity is going to work to our advantage because people are going to want those slots and we are in that business for the right films.”

Over the past decade, MGM has had a schizophrenic relationship with distribution. The pre-bankruptcy incarnation had a distribution arm that bolstered MGM offerings by releasing films for others. When Barber, Roger Birnbaum and Glickman brought MGM out of bankruptcy, distribution was disbanded in favor of paying distribution fees to other studios.

The Annapurna joint venture gives MGM the most control it has had over release dates and the domestic marketing that Glickman believes sets the template for a film’s global launch. The joint venture will be put to the test on such upcoming films as the Dwayne Johnson-produced wrestling film Fighting with My Family on February 15, the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels update The Hustle with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson on May 10, and an animated adaptation of The Addams Family on October 18. This leads to the domestic release of the 25th James Bond film that Cary Fukunaga is directing with Daniel Craig reprising for February 14, 2020 and the Reese Witherspoon starrer Legally Blonde 3 coming May 8, 2020.

“People know the Rocky franchise is a crown jewel of MGM and this was our first major film through our distribution system,” Glickman said. “It represents a lot of what we will be doing going forward. Now that we have control of our distribution, we will be looking to broaden our footprint with films generated by MGM and Orion, and with strategic distribution alliances and deals with major producers that we’ll be making in the coming months.”

The first Creed was co-financed and released by Warner Bros. It is very likely that Creed II would not have been released by that studio during Thanksgiving, because of its commitment to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which in its second weekend finished behind newcomer Creed II in domestic box office.

Getting Creed II ready for that date came with plenty of challenges: Glickman said it was only a year ago that he first met Steven Caple Jr, after Stallone, Ryan Coogler and Jordan endorsed him as director. But conflicts like the Fantastic Beasts 2 issue were not issues.

“The reality is, Megan Ellison put together a top-notch marketing and distribution team,” Glickman said. “We’ve had a very long relationship with Erik Lomis and much of the marketing staff. With the help of Erik Lomis and David Kaminow [the distribution and marketing heads of Annapurna], we choose the dating and the marketing plan. We have the expertise of [Annapurna head of creative advertising] Mike Pavlich and [Annapurna publicity president] Adriene Bowles.

Annapurna

“Annapurna reports to Megan Ellison on their films, but on these films, they report to MGM. These are the people we would have tried to hire if we started sui generis to build a distribution and marketing staff. The set up works a lot like UIP did in the old days when it was one distribution operation that handled Paramount, Universal and for a time Disney. Here, once we knew we wanted to go for it and make Thanksgiving, Erik gave us dates they believed made sense, and Adriene, Mike, and David oversaw a spectacular campaign for the United States, which we believe is the advertisement to the rest of the life of the franchise. It was critical for us to have control, especially where it regarded dating. When your film is one of a studio’s release dates, lots of things come into flux over when your movie can come out. It doesn’t allow you to plan for the life of a theatrical release, much less the whole life of a film when you are dependent on the kindness of others as to when is this movie going to come out. Especially when the movies we have with other partners were co-financed, so they weren’t 100% financed investments by the studios. This allows us to have control over the marketing campaign and the distribution campaign without having to start from scratch an operation where you’re hiring everybody and trying to build up.”

Glickman said in the past, partners would ask for releases around variables like tie-in video game launches, but MGM wasn’t in position to make guarantees. In the joint venture, distribution fees are collected by MGM, and Annapurna is reimbursed on its overhead and has upside participation in success. Annapurna has gone through its own recent turbulence this year — president Marc Weinstock and film president Chelsea Barnard exited, and the Roger Ailes film and the Jennifer Lopez film Hustlers for Scores were pushed out. While it has viable Oscar films in the Adam McKay-directed Vice, the Barry Jenkins-directed If Beale Street Could Talk and the Nicole Kidman starrer Destroyer, Annapurna’s distribution and marketing has the bandwidth to fit its own and MGM’s expansion plans. MGM separately handles international TV rights on Annapurna’s films.

“We’re going to have more theatrically released films than we’ve had in the past; moving forward, it’s a business we believe in,” Glickman said. “In order to do that you need to create and date a balanced slate. We’ve had years where, because we were dependent on different distributor’s schedules, three movies came out in one quarter, and nothing else for the rest of the year. Having the freedom to balance our slate has a positive effect on the international release, the video releases, the streaming services and all ancillary markets. That is a big, big factor, not having to rely on having a studio partner where they’re going to choose what the date is, around their schedule. We’ve had great partners in Sony, Warner Bros and Paramount, but this was, ‘Let’s see if we can blow out a 3000-plus screen wide release, and have a unique marketing campaign which didn’t feel like it was the last movie’s marketing campaign.’ Creed II became a cultural event for the youth audience, which is very important. This was a way to say, this company can go out and not just release a film, but go beyond what the highest estimates were for it. That happened, as three weeks ago, they were looking for a $48 million opening for the film.”

Irwin Winkler
Winkler
Andy Kropa/Invision/Shutterstock

Glickman said that the power of the film has put front burner plans to work with Jordan, Stallone and producer Irwin Winkler on the next Creed installment, but that the studio is pushing hard to get all three into other projects they are developing, as they are with Witherspoon after she returned for Legally Blonde 3. For Jordan, that is the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, which is about to get a director he wouldn’t name; and for Stallone it is his passion project on heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Studio is doing the same efforts with Caple Jr, who was signed off the micro-budget skateboard film The Land, and with Stallone’s Creed II co-writer Juel Taylor. MGM was a bidder in last week’s auction for ByAll, a short story that Taylor and Tony Rettenmaier will adapt for Caple Jr to direct. Legendary won that deal in a seven-figure commitment.

“It helps when you have a movie with an A CinemaScore, but it was an incredibly all-inclusive innovative campaign that made it an event,” Glickman said. “Exit polls it was strong in every age group, across gender, ethnicity, but the greatest thing was its two strongest audience groups. Those were under 25 year olds, and over 40 year olds. You had the generation that grew up with the Rocky films and saw them in theater when they were growing up, but there is an entire generation that did not grow up with the films, and this is a totally unique franchise for them. They grew up with Creed I. It’s an incredible thing to see we were able to take this 40-year-old franchise and turn it into this forward-thinking enterprise, and shift the balance. The quality of the movie is critical as was Ryan Coogler’s first film. This franchise has showed that it has incredible playability to all the audience’s demographic groups, crossing age and gender. There were Sly-intensive TV spots that played to the audience that was very familiar with the franchise, but with others, we wanted the youth of America to feel like, ‘this isn’t your parents’ franchise.’

“Sly is brilliant and he wrote this film and produced it and had a lot to say about making sure there were two generations of heroes here,” Glickman said. “Not just Michael but also Viktor Drago’s character. Ultimately you wanted to make sure there was something new and younger, so it didn’t exclusively feel like a legacy franchise. We don’t have the ability unlike other franchises to have a helicopter falling over Paris, some stunt that you haven’t seen before. But what we do have is undoubtedly the No. 1 rising actor in Hollywood in Michael B. Jordan, in a vehicle that culturally matters to the youth of America, and next the world.

Sylvester Stallone Michael B. Jordan
Dave Allocca/Starpix/Shutterstock

“We want to continue making Creed films with Michael and Sly; along with 007, that’s the jewel of the MGM library. As for The Thomas Crown Affair, we’d like to get that done before the next Creed movie, and Michael does too. It shows a different side than Michael has been able to so far. He’s a spectacular actor, but he’s got that sexy matinee idol thing, he’s a one of the very few movie stars in his age range. The audience is dying to see him in that role.”

Glickman said Jordan’s standout turn in Black Panther, which cracked barriers globally en route to a $2 billion global gross, is a big help, as is a relentlessness for promotion that Jordan has shown that is reminiscent of Tom Cruise and Will Smith when they were building into brands.

“It is so important to Michael that this movie have a profile everywhere that he blew off Thanksgiving and flew to South Africa to make sure this movie got attention in Africa,” Glickman said. “Few people do that on promotional tours, but he is tireless in support of this movie.”

Glickman said that the first Drago storyline, Rocky IV, did the franchise’s biggest overseas business, so all signs are pointing to a strong offshore transfer. Stallone remains an iconic draw overseas, and for Jordan, this is where Black Panther helps.

“There is huge interest in booking him for promotional appearances, far more than on the first Creed,” Glickman said. “Michael had been in a couple movies that had an international footprint then, but he was not an internationally known commodity outside the United States. Now, not only has Creed become an international success with people seeing it in theaters and the ancillary markets, but Black Panther exploded. Also helping is the return of Dolph Lundgren, and the success of Florian Munteanu’s portrayal of Viktor Drago. We have real optimism for the international market on this film.”

Next up for MGM will be the producer deals and strategic partnerships with filmmakers with funding that will help build the slate under the Annapurna partnership. Glickman expects some of those deals will solidify before year end.