EXCLUSIVE: Veteran producer and executive Michael De Luca was named Chairman of the Film Group at MGM in early 2020, and hired veteran producer and executive Pam Abdy as MGM Motion Picture Group President just a few months later. The iconic studio, which includes Annapurna joint venture United Artists Releasing and a rebooted Orion, on Tuesday scored eight Oscar nominations across such films as No Time To Die, House Of Gucci, Cyrano and Licorice Pizza. The latter nabbed three mentions and also brought the studio its first Best Picture nod for a fully produced, marketed and distributed MGM title since 1988’s Rain Man.
Under De Luca and Abdy’s stewardship, MGM quickly became a hungry buyer on the film front, often competing with deep-pocketed streamers. In May last year, Amazon confirmed it was buying MGM for $8.45B, and while the deal is still pending regulatory approval, in our discussion with the duo below, they touched on what the future of a 21st century studio might look like.
Coming up, De Luca and Abdy are very bullish about providing a home for filmmakers, both established and new, while taking original swings and focusing on theatrical.
DEADLINE: Your first slate at the studio picked up eight Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nom — and coming out of a pandemic. What does that mean to you?
MICHAEL DE LUCA: It’s the inaugural slate for this iteration of MGM, so to be blessed with a Best Picture nomination in our first year, during the pandemic, the challenges that everyone at MGM faced, I thought it was a real validation of the new direction of the studio.
On a personal level, it’s so great for Pam and I because we go back so far with Paul Thomas Anderson. The fact that it’s MGM’s first true Best Picture nomination since Rain Man and it’s with one of our best friends, it’s the icing on the cake.
PAM ABDY: And also we feel really excited, everybody did a tremendous job across all the teams at United Artists Releasing, and everyone worked so hard, so it’s really wonderful to see all that get some recognition. We’re super grateful.
DE LUCA: Again, because it’s the inaugural outing of this iteration of the studio, I think it was important for United Artists Releasing to show the town they could market and distribute competitively and run awards campaigns. And, as Pam said, we just think they did a phenomenal job and crushed it across the board, it’s just a great calling card for everything we want to do in the future.
DEADLINE: Was there any disappointment on the acting side? Not seeing Lady Gaga amongst the Best Actress candidates was a surprise…
DE LUCA: We’re obviously proud of the job everyone did in all our movies across all the crafts and the acting categories. I just think these are superlative films on every level and I think the performances were master classes in acting. But, I will say when you look across the breadth of the nominations, one of the encouraging things and more positive things that I see is that everything was seen — people watched a lot of movies and a wide variety of movies — so just for the health of the industry and the appreciation of film as an art and just as a film fan, I was encouraged by the diversity in terms of the nationality of the movies, the scope of the movies, low-budget, big-budget. Hollywood is represented, streamers are represented, legacy studios are represented, foreign films are represented. People paid attention and I think that’s encouraging.
DEADLINE: How important is the awards recognition for the brand and what you’re building?
ABDY: I think it declares exactly what our vision for the studio has been since we’ve come here which is supporting filmmaker driven material, original swings. It’s why we’re so grateful for the recognition of it and I think it also declares on a go-forward what Mike and I believe is the kind of stories we want to tell. If you look at the breadth of the films on this first slate, not one of them is alike, they have one thing in common in the center of them which is that they all had real authorship from the directors, but they’re all very different and it really illustrates that eclectic slate that we’re trying to build and continue to build for years to come. It’s exciting and definitely we’re super happy that the audiences showed up for these movies and that the Academy and guilds and BAFTA and everyone that has given recognition to these wonderful stories. It’s actually really emotional for everyone because we’ve all been in these crazy times in the pandemic making these films, and it’s just a miracle, right? It’s a miracle that there’s beautiful work out there for people to see.
DEADLINE: In terms of box office, Licorice Pizza has held well, how far do you see it going?
DE LUCA: Any box office analysis in the times we’re living in has this giant asterisk next to it. It’s hard to get a sense of what the films’ potential would have been in ordinary times. With Licorice Pizza, we adopted a very methodical slow rollout that will expand after the Oscar nominations. While the Oscar nominations bump that you used to see in the past may be a muted version of itself, we expect to get a little bit of a bump and ride a wave off the nominations. Licorice Pizza has a long way to go still.
DEADLINE: Looking at movies like Licorice Pizza and House Of Gucci, which have performed strongly, what do you think the future is for films that skew to an older audience?
DE LUCA: It’s so hard to predict, right? Even apart from the pandemic, the practice of making original films for theatrical that are non-tentpoles is not for the squeamish, even in the best of times, and the pandemic puts extra pressure on a film’s ability to draw people out into a theater.
For me, even more than this demarcation between young and adult, I look at it more like the difference between tentpoles and sequels and original films. I do think there’s a dependable audience for original movies and always has been and always will be because everything was original once. The way to keep our industry refreshed and innovative and also keep the audience engaged is to keep up the steady supply of original movies; I think that’s always been true.
What we try to do is try to become a home for compelling filmmakers and storytellers and make films with people who have gotten people out to theaters in the past and a new generation of filmmakers you think can get people out in the future, and hope that you can give the audience something they haven’t seen before. We try to keep an eclectic slate, we believe in the something-for-everyone approach, so all your eggs aren’t in one basket.
DEADLINE: You also have some important franchises, but in today’s marketplace, how do you decide to roll the dice on something fresh with a new filmmaker, or a movie that’s just a standalone?
DE LUCA: Part of it is necessity, but if you’re a studio like ours that has been blessed with the franchises that we do have, but isn’t rolling in a ton of branded IP and franchises for every quarter, if you want to be a thriving studio, you have to take original swings. Otherwise, what are we gonna do, make a Bond movie every five years and a Creed movie every three years and call it a day?
Part of why we have the business plan and the slate mix we have is it’s out of necessity, that’s what we need to get good at because we don’t have Marvel or Pixar or DC. We have to lean into taking original swings which is the way we like it. I think even at the majors where you have a lot of branded IP and more than a few thriving franchises, why not make the movies between the franchises, these kind of movies or movies that are bold original swings. There’s no reason why the movies in between the tentpoles can’t be movies that break new ground or break new filmmakers or land you at the Oscars at the end of the year. We don’t have to be kind of derivative programmers.
ABDY: It can be the biggest reward experience and we love it. We love what we’re doing, we love working with these filmmakers and being able also to give some first-time directors a real shot at making a studio film.
DE LUCA: And we rebooted Orion to almost exclusively traffic in new talent and new filmmakers. We’d rather make four original films that in the aggregate will add up to $800M or $600M worldwide than try to jerry-rig one wannabe tentpole that isn’t really a tentpole. We’d rather get there in the aggregate with four badass original movies than something that may look like a tentpole on paper but when it comes out really isn’t, and then you’ve blown through a quarter of a million dollars.
DEADLINE: How do you eventize these films? How much is it dependent on the talent?
DE LUCA: What the ingredients are to make it a theatrical event or create that fear of missing out quality where people must leave their house and be in the conversation on Monday for a film that opens on Friday, I think that’s always a moving target. There’s no real way to predict it either, you just kind of go with your gut, what’s compelling to you and then what the elements are — filmmaker, cast. It’s the alchemy of all those ingredients you hope will add up to a cultural event, even low-budget movies have to be kind of an event in their bailiwick.
ABDY: I think the audience has a relationship with the filmmakers. What we’ve seen with Licorice Pizza is there is a whole new generation of people discovering Paul Thomas Anderson, and 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds that are going back now and looking through his body of work.
Mike’s and my approach both as producers, and now at the studio, has always been about betting on filmmakers and people like Paul Thomas Anderson or Ridley Scott or Joe Wright or Cary Fukunaga who have a relationship with the audience. People recognize them almost like filmmakers are the IP, and I think that eventizes a film in a really organic and specific way. You know what you’re going in for, you know you’re going to go on a ride, you know you’re going on an adventure with these filmmakers.
DE LUCA: I think everything has to be an event in its own way. The size of the movie not withstanding, everything has to be in its own lane to be an event and get people to theaters. I think on Gucci, 66% of the audience is under 34, so Lady Gaga was a big component of getting that audience.
But if you have something for everyone, you can also invest in new filmmakers that might speak to the younger audience because they’re either of that generation or closer to the issues or subject matter of the day that concerns that demographic.
If you’re a studio that makes it your business to get the next Damien Chazelle or the next Paul Thomas Anderson, that’s one way of making sure you have enough things on the runway that’s going to appeal to younger audiences. While you’re also trying to reach a younger audience with the established filmmakers. I think it’s so imperative to constantly hit the refresh button on younger filmmakers and storytellers that can speak to the younger audience because they are of the younger audience.
DEADLINE: So you both came into MGM at the start of the pandemic, how difficult was it to get momentum going amid so much uncertainty?
DE LUCA: Pam and I are lucky in that because our careers are a little on the longer side now and we’ve worked on both sides of the desk, we have a track record and we have a lot of relationships. So when we got to MGM and started making phone calls to kind of pitch our studio as a home for filmmakers, we had a certain amount of credibility so we got our calls returned at least.
Our hope was that if we got a few movies going — and we’re so grateful to Ridley because he really was one of the first to place his movie with us — if we provided a great home base and a good experience and competitive marketing and distribution performance, that he would feel like he had a great experience and he would tell other filmmakers and we’d get other films from Ridley.
The idea is to kind of create an environment where it’s easy for these filmmakers to do a repeat performance with us because they have no complaints. It was important to make sure these movies got white-glove treatment all the way through, hoping that the ripple effect would be us being able to engage more storytellers and provide more original movies and more of an eclectic slate to the audience.
DEADLINE: What was the feeling among the filmmakers you work with during the crisis?
DE LUCA: As you can imagine, we encountered all stripes, we encountered filmmakers and storytellers who believed in theatrical and thought the pandemic was a temporary situation that would eventually pass and they had no problem setting movies up with us and thinking about the future. And then there were filmmakers and projects that we lost to streamers competitively because some people didn’t have faith in theatrical coming back at the same level as it had been before the pandemic.
Sometimes, certain stars don’t want the burden of an opening weekend in terms of wearing it whether it performs or not. We encountered all variety and the people that made up our slate and make up our development slate are the talent that’s still bullish about theatrical.
DEADLINE: Looking at No Time To Die, and all of the chaos of dating, were there discussions with streamers during that period? How far did they go?
DE LUCA: It didn’t go far, but obviously we have a responsibility to field phone calls which is really as far as it got. Phone calls were fielded, but there was never a thought to turn Bond into a TV movie from anyone involved including the studio and certainly Barbara and Michael.
DEADLINE: Still, what a crazy ride that must have been, one that you inherited when you arrived, and ultimately you ended up on the perfect date…
DE LUCA: It was a high pressure situation when you’re dealing with the studio’s most valuable film and arguably our most important relationships, it was just not something we wanted to get wrong on our watch, in our first year at the studio. It was very important to everyone including the team we were joining in progress to make sure that movie came in for the right kind of landing.
It was never stressful to the point where we didn’t think we could pull it off, it just required threading the needle through a really relentless careful examination of the state of the pandemic, the trends within the pandemic, what island between variants we might be able to watch the film. We all became epidemiologists during Bond.
ABDY: Yes, there were many conversations and research and knowing too much about the virus.
DE LUCA: I have to say, thank God for Universal (which distributes MGM titles in myriad overseas markets). We could not have asked for better partners who were in lockstep with us in trying to analyze market conditions and make sure that we eventually picked the right date. It really could not have gone better in really challenging circumstances and I think it’s because of the expertise and the acumen of everyone on both sides of the equation, including our producers and director and Daniel Craig, but especially Universal and how they were able to work with us to get through all the date changes and eventually find the right one.
DEADLINE: Can you tell us anything about how things will look once the Amazon deal closes? What have your conversations been like with filmmakers since it was announced?
DE LUCA: We just don’t know. Everybody has questions — what’s it gonna look like, how’s it gonna work, what’s the future of theatrical — all the questions you’d expect; we just don’t have answers to a lot of them.
DEADLINE: How much of a comfort will it be to have an option to drop stuff on Amazon as so many distributors are buying for sister streaming services?
DE LUCA: I don’t really look at it that way in terms of streaming being a comfort because it’s a place where you can lay off stuff because you don’t think it can work theatrically. On a streamer, I look at it like bringing the audience what they want wherever they want it. There’s always going to be people hungry for the theatrical experience the same way there’s filmmakers that will never abandon the theatrical experience. If you’re going to try to bring great storytelling to everybody, bring great storytelling to people that want to go to the theaters with filmmakers that want to be in theaters, bring great storytelling to people that prefer the streaming experience and with filmmakers who embrace the streaming experience.
In my fantasy of what a 21st century studio should be, wouldn’t it be great to just meet the audience where they are, wherever they are, with the storytellers that want to meet them there and do it all. I’m excited about it, that could be innovative and just what the doctor ordered as a business plan if it’s enacted.
DEADLINE: You have been hungry buyers, do you expect that to continue? Does it depend on what happens with Amazon or are you just full-steam ahead regardless?
ABDY: I’d say we’re full-steam ahead.
DE LUCA: Yeah, obviously we work within our resources and budget, but within that Pam and I just decided when we started that we would put our resources towards filmmakers, writers directors, producers that had been working on their own material that come in with things that are more like films to decide on rather than kind of traditional executive-led, ground-up development that a lot of the studios practice. So we’re able to be aggressive in trying to secure those kind of packages and projects from those kinds of filmmakers because we’re not putting those kinds of resources into just naked ground-up development. Having been producers and having sold to all the studios, we know what a sinkhole that can be.
DEADLINE: You guys are often the only non-streamers in these package auctions, how does that feel when only you have to justify your spends on a picture-by-picture basis?
DE LUCA: We don’t really have to justify it, we work obviously within the budget that we’re given, but Pam and I put our firepower into trying to win a lot of those auctions because those are really not development projects a lot of the times, they’re movies that are ready to go. Not all the time, but more often than not in heated auctions like that, the film at the center of it is of high quality with a prestigious or commercial pedigree and close to being production ready or is in effect a go-movie and they’re worth the effort I find.
There comes a point in those auctions when it’s us versus a streamer and invariably there comes a point, depending on the streamer, where the number is going to climb to a point where the talent has a choice to make of, “Do we want this guaranteed payout at the expense of having a theatrical release or do we want to roll the dice with MGM on a theatrical release?” and we win the ones where the talent wants theatrical, and sometimes we lose the ones where the talent wants the guaranteed payout.
I think that goes back to everything ends up where it’s supposed to be or wants to be for a reason. We really think there’s enough good material to go around where everybody can pursue the outcome that they want. There’s enough talent and emerging talent that wants theatrical, and there’s certainly enough talent and emerging talent that is excited about the streaming prospects.
DEADLINE: And you remain big supporters of the theatrical business…
ABDY: We’re a theatrical company and Mike and I both believe in the theatrical experience. We think that the community of going to a movie theater and enjoying a story together is really, really important for the future for storytellers. It’s not exclusive from other things, but I believe it’s important.
There’s nothing like it, nothing like sitting in the theater eating your popcorn, laughing, crying and enjoying looking at your neighbor and feeling something together. Even recently, going to see Scream was so fun, people were cheering at the screen. And we forgot because for so long during the pandemic we weren’t able to go and it was so awesome when theaters opened back up.
DEADLINE: How important is it to carry the mantle of being a place for artists?
DE LUCA: We try to honor the legacy of the people who have come before. We’re very inspired by Mike Medavoy and his original run at Orion, Arthur Krim at UA, John Calley when he had UA and his run at Warner Bros. You know, there are certainly executives that have been staunchly behind backing filmmakers during their time at their respective studios, being a place where filmmakers felt safe and secure and comfortable making films there.
We’re trying to follow in that tradition. Obviously there are contemporaries of ours right now that do an amazing job at that and we’re just trying to do our version of that, but we’re really standing on the shoulders of a lot of people that have come before, that have bet on filmmakers. We’ve just never seen a studio really lose when they’ve made it their business plan to consistently bet on the best and most provocative, audacious, fresh filmmakers of their times. We’re trying to follow in those footsteps.
ABDY: And I think it’s important, you know the history of MGM, the brand of MGM, art for arts sake, the lion… and I think for us, just the ability and the fact that we’re in this job, which is so awesome, to try to continue and just honor all the greats that came before us with some new filmmakers today. We will be 98 in April, that’s amazing that a studio has been around for 98 years and all the history that has experienced and created.
DEADLINE: How has the perception of the studio changed during your time? What kind of feedback do you get?
DE LUCA: I think people feel like we’re in business and we’re enthusiastically behind making movies and making a whole bunch of different kinds of movies. We’ve been met with a certain amount of enthusiasm as a place that will be at a consistent level of activity, from people who just love what they do and love movies. We’re mildly psychotically obsessive about movies and we love it and I think that comes through.
ABDY: And also, it was challenging getting all of these movies up and running during the pandemic safely and efficiently. We really approach it with the filmmakers as a partnership on production and the physical making of the movie — we have an amazing team — and also just making them feel safe. Everything’s transparent, everything is honest; we’re partners in this process and we’ve met with a lot of warmth.
DE LUCA: And I think that Pam and I are unique in that we’ve been producers as well as executives so we know what both sides go through… The whole studio has people who’ve been working in the field coming over to the management side, so we can make people feel secure that we know what we’re talking about when we produce a movie and I think that helps a lot.
DEADLINE: What are you excited about coming up?
DE LUCA: I think Michael B Jordan is going to blow people away with his Creed film, I think he’s a natural filmmaker and I think he’s working with one of the best scrips of the series. We’re very excited about our project with Lord and Miller, this adaptation of the science-fiction novel Project Hail Mary that Drew Goddard, who adapted Andy Weir’s previous book The Martian, adapted and Ryan Gosling is set to produce and star.
ABDY: Ron Howard’s movie Thirteen Lives is coming, it’s really exciting. It’s so moving.
DE LUCA: We had a test screening and a woman from the focus group said something that really brought the value of theatrical into sharp relief. She was in tears and she just said out loud, “Thank you for making this movie, this movie made it okay for me to feel again.” In terms of being in a situation, coming out of the pandemic to be able to experience an emotional story communally was very moving to this person; I think more moving than it would be if she was watching by herself at home, she got to share the experience with her fellow human beings.
DEADLINE: Excluding the pandemic of it all, is there anything you would change about the last two years?
DE LUCA: I would have tried to hire Pam quicker, it took me too long!
ABDY: Obviously the pandemic is devastating, we’ve all probably experienced losing people, but I feel so blessed. Honestly, I love working at MGM, it’s just been a great experience with our bosses, just everybody there. I’ve never felt so much support and I don’t know how to describe it in one word. And the fact that I get to do it with Mike who is truly I think one of the greatest executives/producers of all time and also one of my best friends — we’ve known each other for almost 25 years now — I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better two years.
DE LUCA: I feel the same way. You know, you really find out about people in times of adversity and I echo what Pam was saying. It’s obviously a very, very challenging last couple of years and from Kevin Ulrich, our Chairman who exhibited incredible support for what we’re trying to do, and to be in this situation with people like Kevin and Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson who are completely unflappable and incredible just to hang with and talk about film history with, to the people at Universal, their whole team, to our people, and even when we started to get to know the Amazon people and potentially what’s waiting on deck — the level of just character and integrity and intelligence, the qualities that you would want to go through a crisis with, we were definitely in the trenches with the right people.
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