LOS ANGELES — In the ultimate symbol of one Hollywood era ending and another beginning, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, home to James Bond, “Thelma & Louise” and Rocky, finally found a buyer willing to pay retail: Amazon.
The e-commerce giant said Wednesday that it would acquire the 97-year-old film and television studio for $8.45 billion — or about 40% more than other prospective buyers, including Apple and Comcast, thought MGM was worth. The studio, which had been shopped around for months, was once home to “more stars than the heavens,” as Louis B. Mayer liked to brag. But its vast production lot and pre-1986 film library were sold off decades ago. (Sony Pictures now occupies the lot, and Warner Bros. owns classic MGM films like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Gone With the Wind.”)
MGM does come with one Hollywood crown jewel: James Bond. The spy franchise, which started in 1963 with “Dr. No,” will help Amazon compete in the white-hot streaming wars. With Disney+ coming on strong and HBO Max, Apple TV+ and Paramount+ determined to make inroads, the original streaming disrupters — Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — are leaning harder on movies with broad appeal to keep growing, particularly overseas.
But even 007 has an asterisk. Amazon will own only 50% of Bond. The balance is held by Barbara Broccoli and her brother, Michael G. Wilson. The siblings also have ironclad creative control, deciding when to make a new Bond film, who should play the title role and whether remakes and television spinoffs get made. (They have blocked such efforts in the past.)
The 25th installment in the Bond series, “No Time to Die,” is scheduled for pandemic-delayed release in theaters on Oct. 8, with Universal Pictures handling overseas distribution. Beyond that, the franchise’s theatrical future is unclear. Amazon has released movies in theaters in the past, but lately has preferred to put them directly on its Prime Video service. The title role is also expected to be recast; Daniel Craig has played Bond for 15 years.
“We are committed to continuing to make James Bond films for the worldwide theatrical audience,” Broccoli and Wilson said in a statement.
So why did Amazon pay such a startling premium?
For starters, it can. The company has $71 billion in cash and a market capitalization of $1.64 trillion.
But Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, is known as a conservative buyer. The purchase of Whole Foods for $13.4 billion in 2017 was the biggest acquisition in Amazon’s history. Its next-largest deals — until MGM — were for Zappos ($1.2 billion, 2009) and the smart doorbell company Ring ($1.2 billion, 2018).
The Whole Foods deal was a major strategic change for the company, pushing it into new markets of groceries and physical stores, which it had largely avoided. MGM is more about augmenting a current strategy: Amazon most likely paid more than others thought MGM was worth because of its all-important Prime membership program.
“If you’re Amazon, the perspective is what’s the potential for Prime membership, what is the potential for advertising,” said Brian Yarbrough, a senior analyst at Edward Jones.
In addition to paying Amazon $119 a year or $13 a month for free shipping and other perks — notably access to the Prime Video streaming service — households with Prime memberships typically spend $3,000 a year on Amazon. That is more than twice what households without the membership spend, according to Morgan Stanley. About 200 million people pay for Prime memberships.
“As Prime Video turns 10, over 175 million Prime members have streamed shows and movies in the past year, and streaming hours are up more than 70% year over year,” Bezos said last month when Amazon reported quarterly earnings.
In buying MGM, Amazon is bolstering Prime Video at a time when the biggest old-line studios are becoming less willing to license their libraries to outside streaming services; Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures must now supply corporate siblings like HBO Max, Disney+ and Paramount+. That shift has made independent film libraries more valuable. In recent weeks, Sony Pictures licensed its old films and TV shows to Netflix and Disney in deals valued at more than $3 billion, a sharp increase from the expiring licensing agreements. Sony does not have a streaming service, unless you count the game-oriented PlayStation Network.
The Amazon deal could emerge as a pivotal moment in the convergence of Big Tech and the entertainment industry. Instead of acquiring old-line studios, internet companies have grown under their own steam in Hollywood — until now. Apple has flirted with such purchases in the past.
Sony has repeatedly insisted that its movie and television studio, valued at roughly $30 billion, is not for sale. Other big film libraries are owned by NBCUniversal, which is part of Comcast, and ViacomCBS.
“The acquisition thesis here is very simple,” Bezos said during Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. He said MGM had a “vast, deep catalog of much beloved” movies and shows. “We can reimagine and redevelop that IP for the 21st century.” He said that work would be fun and “people who love stories will be the big beneficiaries.”
Although its library is diminished, MGM still owns 4,000 older movies, including pre-1986 films that come from two MGM divisions, United Artists and Orion. Those movies include “Rocky,” “RoboCop,” “The Pink Panther,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and the James Bond catalog. Other titles include “Legally Blonde,” “Moonstruck,” “Basic Instinct,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Tomb Raider.” (Fun fact: In true Hollywood fashion, MGM’s roaring lion mascot is lip-syncing; a cranky tiger sounded more ferocious.)
“MGM didn’t have the resources to build and create off the catalog,” said Rich Greenfield, a founder of the Lightshed Partners media research firm. “Amazon does, and the opportunity to exploit the MGM catalog is incredible.”
In addition, MGM has several movies in its pipeline that could be Oscar contenders, including “Respect,” an Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson; Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver; and Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest project, which stars Bradley Cooper in his first film since “A Star Is Born.”
Completion of the deal is subject to regulatory approval. On Wednesday, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., a senior member of the House antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” by the acquisition and noted Amazon’s pandemic-fueled growth spurt.
“It’s critical that mergers and acquisitions involving monopoly companies experiencing tremendous and exponential growth are met with a greater level of scrutiny,” Buck said. Amazon’s revenue for the first quarter of 2021 increased by 44% to $108.5 billion, the company’s fastest rise in almost 10 years.
Amazon’s entertainment strategy has evolved as streaming services have proliferated. Indie films like “Manchester by the Sea” and unconventional series like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Transparent” gave Amazon a foothold in Hollywood; domination will require a steady supply of hits that appeal to wide audiences.
Amazon’s appetite for movies became ravenous during the pandemic. It paid $125 million for the rights to “Coming 2 America,” $80 million for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and $200 million for “The Tomorrow War,” a Chris Pratt adventure that will arrive on Prime on July 2. Amazon also has Oscar ambitions, buying the rights to “Sound of Metal,” which was nominated for best picture and other top awards at this year’s ceremony and won the Oscars for sound and editing.
The problem: Amazon Studios has had limited bandwidth, most of which is tied up with television series — including a coming “Lord of the Rings” adaptation that is believed to be the most expensive show ever made, with a one-season budget of $465 million.
MGM managers could help. Michael De Luca, MGM’s movie chairperson, has a track record that includes, at various companies, the “Rush Hour,” “Austin Powers” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchises. When it comes to making its own hit films, Amazon has long struggled. In one debacle from 2015, Amazon spent lavishly to bring Woody Allen into its fold and later terminated the contract, prompting lawsuits.
MGM also has a 17,000-episode television library and a TV studio that makes “Vikings,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Fargo” and various “Real Housewives” shows. In 2014, MGM acquired Mark Burnett’s production company, One Three Media, which holds rights to competition series like “The Voice.” Burnett, a contentious figure in Hollywood because he helped shape Donald Trump’s image with “The Apprentice” and remained close to him during his divisive presidential term, serves as MGM’s television chairperson.
MGM, which bought Burnett’s company in 2015, owns the entirety of “The Apprentice,” both the aired shows and unaired footage, which some have claimed contains unflattering footage of Trump.
Anchorage Capital, a New York investment firm, has been the majority owner of MGM for more than a decade. Before that, MGM was tossed between owners. Bitten by falling DVD revenue, the studio eventually filed for bankruptcy to eliminate about $4 billion in debt. It was worth about $2 billion in 2010, according to analysts. Kevin Ulrich, Anchorage’s chief executive and MGM’s chairperson, formally put the studio on the block late last year. Anchorage has been under pressure from various stakeholders to exit the investment, with some agitators complaining that Ulrich was overly enamored with Hollywood and should have sold years ago.
The end of MGM as a stand-alone company adds to a vast reshaping of the media business as the big seek to compete by getting even bigger. Last week, AT&T announced a deal to spin off its WarnerMedia group and combine it with Discovery Inc., a move meant to strengthen WarnerMedia’s struggling HBO Max streaming service and a nascent streaming platform owned by Discovery. In a counterattack against the tech companies that have aggressively moved into Hollywood over the last decade, Disney paid $71.3 billion for the bulk of Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment assets in 2019.
Such megadeals have left smaller studios like MGM, Lionsgate and STX Entertainment looking for lifelines. (STX, known for comedies like “Hustlers” and “Bad Moms,” merged with the Bollywood studio Eros International last summer.)
Some of the first conversations between Amazon and MGM began in March 2020, when Mike Hopkins, Amazon’s newly installed head of video, had a series of talks with Ulrich. But Amazon did not formally begin acquisition talks — largely negotiated remotely, as so many deals have been during the pandemic — until about two months ago.
“The opportunity to align MGM’s storied history with Amazon is an inspiring combination,” Ulrich said in a statement. “I’m very proud that MGM’s lion, which has long evoked the Golden Age of Hollywood, will continue its storied history.”