Jim Packer: Old Favorites Keep the Lion Roaring
WHO: Jim Packer, Co-President, Worldwide Television, MGM Studios
WHERE: Fonz’s, Manhattan Beach, Calif.
WHEN: Wed., Jan. 7, 2009, dinner
THE DISH: Few media studios have as storied a history as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which was formed in 1924 and produced some of the most lauded films of all time (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind). But in more recent years, ownership of the company and/or parts of it have switched hands and strategies several times.
I’ve honestly done more than a few double-takes over the years in keeping up. That’s why I looked forward to hearing how Jim Packer-who shares the title there of Co-President, Worldwide Television, with Gary Marenzi-is shaping the TV portion of this old, new beast.
“It’s like a $5 billion startup,” Packer tells me over dinner.
That’s how Packer has been treating it, and the formula is working. In the less than two years since MGM took TV distribution back in-house, Packer has fired up three entertainment “channels” in the U.S.: MGM HD cable network; VOD service Impact in partnership with Comcast (one of MGM’s owners, along with Sony and four private equity partners); and This TV, a 24-hour broadcast digital channel with Weigel Broadcasting.
Packer has made deals in virtually every digital venue (MGM had no digital deals in 2006) and teed up a new installment of Stargate.
Heading into NATPE, the company was out syndicating myriad products largely leveraging library fare-as there are no first-run products on MGM’s docket.
In fact, don’t expect any first-run syndication out of MGM anytime soon. The company has not traditionally been a powerhouse in first-run the way some other big movie studios have been. Packer says he does see some opportunity in first-run, but now is not the time to jump in.
“I am not encouraged by the model; the model is a little bit broken. I don’t think stations are extremely excited about paying cash license fees, and with the realities of barter ad time in a down economy, the combination is not good.”
There are some cases where first-run can work today, Packer says, offering credit to Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein of Debmar-Mercury. Packer and Marcus worked together at Disney years ago. “I have the utmost respect for what Mort and Ira are doing,” he says. “They’ve done a good job with [slow roll-out talk show] Wendy Williams, and the [syndicated sitcom] Tyler Perry deal is brilliant. They’ve done a lot of innovative stuff. If the economics work, more power to them.”
As for Marcus and Bernstein’s oft-quoted position that new first-run entries should survive a six- to-eight-week trial run before getting a longer-term greenlight, Packer says, “They have a point. But it’s not absolute.”
Packer points to the beginnings of Regis & Kathie Lee (now Live With Regis & Kelly) and says, “Under Mort’s scenario, that show would be gone. We’re not working with an exact science here.”
Packer was still a young gun and Live was “dying” in its first year when Marcus came in at the top of Disney’s syndication operation years ago. “We used every bit of our sales skill we had and we moved it in markets where we [needed] to independents, whatever we could do to keep it on the air, and by the second year it started to pop,” Packer says. “And the rest is history.”
Evidently, while the first-run model may be bent, the competitiveness characteristic of syndie sales vets is still alive and kicking: “Mort and Ira, they’re friends, but I still want to kick their ass,” Packer says. “That’s on the record.”
Packer joined MGM in 2001. After the consortium bought the MGM studio in 2005, TV distribution was shifted to Sony, so Packer had to let his staff go. But then over Memorial Day weekend 2006 the board voted to bring MGM distribution back in-house.
One of his first calls was to John Bryan, who had worked closely with Packer at Disney and had subsequently retired. “I told him we were getting the band back together,” Packer says.
Packer and Bryan, who holds the title of executive VP of broadcast strategy, created the plan for This TV, which debuted on Nov. 1, 2008, smack dab in the middle of our nation’s financial meltdown. He and Bryan joked, “What a great time to start a business,” Packer says. But as in any good Hollywood story, This TV is now cleared in half the country.
Packer is also feeling good about the unexpected new business boost in 2008 from the deal to program a Sunday movie night for The CW, replacing the failed MRC programming block–a deal that, Packer says, came together in two weeks. While precedent played some role (Packer set up a weekend movie with UPN with some of the same network execs), he attributes the speedy pact largely to the way MGM does business these days. The company keeps all distribution rights, limiting confusion over the approximately 4,100 titles in the library, and Packer and Marenzi set their team up with an eye on communication.
“We window everything,” he says. “Our team is responsible for distribution on cable, syndication, channels, digital-and it’s all to get maximum revenue for MGM.”
There’s also an air of make-it-happen under the former head of SBS Broadcasting, Lions Gate and New World Entertainment Harry Sloan, who was named MGM Studios chairman-CEO in October 2005, Packer says. He adds that Sloan’s TV experience means “we’re starting on third base instead of first.”
VIDEO: Packer on working in the Harry Sloan era of MGM.
DINED ON: Fonz’s is Packer’s “Cheers.” Everyone knows his name, he knows theirs-and nobody is anybody from the TV business.
Fonz’s has become a fixture in Packer’s Manhattan Beach neighborhood. It was founded more than a decade ago by local beach volleyball hero Mike Dodd, who became a champ on the sand nearby, and restaurateur Dan Boehle.
Packer is having a glass of wine at the bar when I arrive, and we stay there for dinner. Recommendations for everything flow from the man behind the bar, including a good choice for the very rare glass of wine for me (as readers who have followed this column may recall, I have a well-earned nickname, Half-Can Jan).
We share a scallop starter from among the specials, and Packer opts for one of his favorites on the menu, an Asian-style sirloin. I have a salad.
The staff is pure restaurant people-so there’s no hitting patrons up for a job in Hollywood as at so many other restaurants in Los Angeles. But there are lots of pats on the backs and handshakes, including a family who are the Packers’ vacation buddies; they pop in for dinner just as we’re calling it a night.