MGM Buys 55% Of Roma Downey And Mark Burnett’s Empire; Relaunches United Artists

By Mike Fleming Jr, Anita Busch

In a deal that follows Roma Downey and Mark Burnett coming aboard the MGM/Paramount epic Ben-Hur that Timur Bekmambetov will direct with Jack Huston in the title role, MGM has acquired a 55% interest in Downey, Burnett and Hearst Entertainment’s One Three Media and LightWorkers Media, including all of their interests in such hit shows as Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank, The Bible and The Apprentice. All this will be consolidated into a new media venture called United Artists Media Group. MGM chairman and CEO Gary Barber made the deal with Burnett, Downey and Steven Swartz, Hearst Corp’s president and CEO. Financial terms were not disclosed.

United ArtistsUAMG will primarily focus on developing, producing and financing premium content across all platforms, including scripted and non-scripted television programs, motion pictures and digital content. Burnett will serve as the CEO of UAMG. Downey will serve as president of LightWorkers Media, the faith and family division of UAMG.

Last time MGM sparked UA, it gave the keys to the camper to Tom Cruise and then partner Paula Wagner, which fizzled.  The United Artists banner was famously first launched in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith to give artists more control over the product and their financials.

The move comes at a time when faith-based product is seeing tremendous success at the box office and audiences are hungry for these type of properties. Some of the most profitable films have been faith based — from Burnett/Downey’s Son of God at Fox, to God’s Not Dead and even Sony’s Heaven is For Real from filmmaker Randall Wallace. What a smart move. Burnett/Downey are saavy marketers who took their wildly successful Bible series and basically re-purposesd it as a feature film. Then they cut versions in different languages to tap into the Spanish and Korean markets.

RELATED: Biblical and Faith-Based Movies: In Hollywood To Stay?

“I am extremely pleased to be partnering with Mark, Roma and Steve in this incredible new venture that we believe will be accretive to MGM’s business,” said Barber. “Mark and Roma are without a doubt the most successful and dominant players in unscripted television and faith-based content and we are excited to be distributing UAMG content worldwide. Together with Hearst Entertainment’s vast array of media assets and knowledge, MGM could not have wished for better partners to continue to grow the MGM business of creating premium content for distribution across multiple platforms. Additionally, we are extremely optimistic about the launch of an exciting new Over-The-Top (OTT) faith-based channel. Finally, I am truly honored to welcome Mark, Roma, Steve and their entire team into the MGM family.”

The planned launch of the OTT channel will create a singular destination for audiences of faith worldwide and on every screen. The channel’s programming will consist of a mix of original new content, premium film and TV catalog titles, curated Christian music videos, regional and national congregation portals, sermons from worldwide religious leaders and user-created short-form faith-based videos.

“We’ll work together with Gary and the MGM team in all aspects of our business,” said Brian Edwards, chief operating officer of One Three Media and LightWorkers Media, who will retain that position with UAMG. He added, “Mark and Roma will continue to develop all UAMG projects, while we work closely with MGM’s distribution, marketing and other business groups, to achieve a seamless business structure.”

Burnett shows premiering this week are The Voice, Survivor and Shark Tank; he just made a straight to series deal with ABC for a new game show 500 Questions, and his first show in partnership with El Rey Network, Lucha Underground, and TNT’s On The Menu both premiere in October. Burnett and Downey have also started principal photography on the NBC miniseries A.D. as well as CBS’ The Dovekeepers through their LightWorkers banner.

Besides Ben-Hur, they have the feature film Little Boy which Open Road recently acquired.

United Artists has had a colorful history. It was put up for sale in 1980 and then-billionaire owner Kirk Kerkorian via his Tracinda Corp. took the helm. Five years later, Ted Turner emerged to buy MGM/UA in a licensing deal. Who can forget the brouhaha that erupted over Turners plan over colorization of those films. But the UA brand name itself was kept by Kerkorian.

Then came Giancarlo Parretti in the early 1990s who merged Pathe Communications into MGM and hence, it became known as MGM/Pathe. The days of Parretti were the dark days of the studio until its bank Credit Lyonnais took it over.

In 1993, Credit Lyonnais re-started the label again, breathing in new life to it by the hiring of John Calley. During Calley’s run, they also restarted the very lucrative James Bond franchise.

In 1996, the French bank Credit Lyonnais sold the studio back to Kirk Kerkorian, taking Wall Street by surprise. Kerkorian and Credit Lyonnais had sued and counter-sued each other in very bitter lawsuits over the sale of the studio in 1990 to Paretti in the years previous.  The billionaire acquired the studio over Capella, MGM Mangement (led by then chairman Frank Mancuso), News Corp., New Regency and Lazard CDK. It was a wild bidding process that kept us  reporter on our feet as Polgram and Morgan Creek (yes, that same Gary Barber who now leads the studio) also kicked the tires.

After Calley left to go run Sony Pictures Entertainment, United Artists kind of floundered for a time. It eventually ended up hiring October Films’ late Bingham Ray who pumped out some quality films including Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (Moore had a relationship with the studio in the past under Mancuso) and Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda about Paul Rusesabagina (a real-life hero who should have won a Nobel Peace Prize as he is every bit the same kind of man as Oskar Schindler).

In 2005, Comcast, Sony and a consortium of banks purchased MGM and United Artists for around $4.8B. Sony then closed MGM’s distribution and merged it with its own, releasing product through Sony Pictures Classics. Until … 2006, when Cruise and his partner Wagner (his former agent-turned-producer) entered into a partnership with the studio in a reformatted UA. Cruise then transferred the small amount of ownership he had in the studio back over to MGM Holdings. MGM then reopened as a distribution concern.

In 2010, Spyglass’ Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum took over MGM, taking over as it teetered in bankruptcy court. Two years later, Birnbaum moved onto becoming a producer and Barber (one of the smartest businessmen around who understands the foreign market and deals) took the reins. And now this. Brilliant.


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