MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. Loew combined them into a new film company with Mayer as its head of production. The newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was intended to provide quality feature films for the Loew's Theatres chain and was wholly owned by Loew's Incorporated.
From the end of the silent film era through World War II, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the most prominent motion picture studio in Hollywood, with the greatest output of all of the studios: at its height, it released an average of one feature film a week, along with many short subjects and serials. A victim of the massive restructuring of the motion picture industry during the 1950s and 60s, it was ultimately unable to cope with the loss of its theater chain – due to the U.S. Supreme Court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948) – and the power shift from studio bosses to independent producers and agents.
On April 8, 2005, the company was acquired by a partnership led by Sony Corporation of America and Comcast in association with Texas Pacific Group (now TPG Capital, L.P.) and Providence Equity Partners. MGM Mirage, a Las Vegas-based hotel and casino company listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol " MGM", is not currently affiliated with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Sony Pictures currently distributes MGM/UA and Columbia TriStar co-productions— including the recent Casino Royale—but outside of the co-productions MGM is now actively involved in acquiring worldwide film rights and distributing theatrical motion pictures in the United States. 20th Century Fox is handling the international theatrical distribution and worldwide home video distribution of MGM titles, excepting those which Sony Pictures acts as majority partner.
Loew addressed the situation by buying Mayer Pictures on April 16, 1924. Because of his decade-long success as a producer, Louis B. Mayer was made a vice-president of Loews and head of studio operations in California, with Harry Rapf and the twenty-five year old "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg as heads of production. For decades MGM was listed on movie title cards as "Controlled by Loews, Inc."
Originally, the new studio's films were presented in the following manner: "Louis B. Mayer presents a Metro-Goldwyn picture", but Mayer soon added his name to the studio. Though Loew's Metro was the dominant partner, the new studio inherited Goldwyn's studios in Culver City, California, the former Goldwyn mascot Leo the Lion (which replaced Metro's parrot symbol), and the corporate motto Ars Gratia Artis ("Art for Art's Sake").
Also inherited from Goldwyn was a runaway production, Ben-Hur, which had been filming in Rome for months without producing much usable film. Mayer took charge of the situation by scrapping most of what had been shot and bringing production back to Culver City. Though Ben-Hur was the most costly film made up to its time, it became MGM's first great public-relations triumph, establishing an image for the company that persisted for years. Also in 1925, with the success of both The Big Parade and Ben-Hur, MGM passed Universal Studios as the largest studio in Hollywood—a lead it kept for most of the next quarter-century.
Marcus Loew died in 1927, and control of Loews passed to his longtime associate, Nicholas Schenck. Rival mogul William Fox of Fox Film Corporation saw an opportunity to expand his empire, and in 1929, with Schenck's assent, bought the Loew family's holdings. However, Mayer and Thalberg were outraged -- despite their high posts in the company, they were not shareholders. Mayer in particular used his political connections to persuade the Justice Department to sue Fox for violating federal antitrust law. During this time, in the summer of 1929, Fox was badly hurt in an automobile accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 had virtually wiped out Fox's financial holdings, ending any chance of the Loews merger going through even if the Justice Department had given its blessing. Schenck and Mayer had never gotten along - in fact, Mayer reportedly called his boss "Mr. Skunk" in private. The abortive Fox merger only increased the animosity between them. Schenck blamed Mayer rather than the stock market crash for costing him an instant fortune. The animosity between the two men led to a heated rivalry between the New York and Hollywood sides of the company that lasted over 20 years, until Mayer's dismissal by Schenck in 1951.
MGM was one of the first studios to experiment with filming in Technicolor. Using the two-color Technicolor process then available, MGM filmed portions of The Uninvited Guest (1923), The Big Parade (1925), and Ben-Hur (1926), among others, in the process. In 1927 MGM released The Viking, the first complete Technicolor feature with sound (including a synchronized score and sound effects but no spoken dialogue). MGM's first all-color, "all-talking" sound feature with dialogue was the 1930 musical The Rogue Song. In 1934 MGM introduced the first live-action film made in Technicolor's superior new three-color process, a musical number in the otherwise black and white The Cat and the Fiddle. The studio then produced a number of three-color short subjects including 1935's musical La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, however MGM waited until 1938 to film a complete feature in the process, Sweethearts with Jeanette MacDonald. From then on, MGM regularly produced several films a year in Technicolor, The Wizard of Oz and the greatly successful film Gone with the Wind being just two of the most notable. (Although Gone With the Wind was not actually filmed by MGM but by Selznick International Pictures, it had to be released by Metro if producer David O. Selznick was to get Clark Gable for the role of Rhett Butler.)
In animation, MGM purchased the rights in 1930 to distribute a series of cartoons that starred a character named Flip the Frog, produced by Ub Iwerks. The first cartoon in this series (entitled Fiddlesticks) was the first sound cartoon to be produced in two-color Technicolor.
Like its rivals, MGM produced fifty pictures a year. Loew's theaters were mostly located in New York and the Northeastern United States, so MGM made films that were sophisticated and polished to cater to an urban audience. As the Great Depression deepened, MGM could make a claim its rivals could not: it never lost money. It was the only Hollywood studio that continued to pay dividends during the 1930s.
MGM stars dominated the box office in the '30s, and the studio was credited for inventing the Hollywood star system as well MGM contracted with The American Musical Academy of Arts Association, now the International Academy of Music Arts and Sciences, to handle all of their press and artist development. The AMAAA's main function was to develop the budding stars and to make them appealing to the masses. Stars like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo all reigned as not only the top three figures at the studio, but in Hollywood itself. Garbo started losing her American audience after Queen Christina (1933), as a contract dispute kept her out of Hollywood for two years , and other MGM sex symbol actress Jean Harlow now had a big break and became one of MGM's most admired stars as well ; despite Jean Harlow's gain, Garbo still was a big star for MGM after she returned from her absence Shearer was still a top money maker despite screen appearances becoming scarce, and Joan Crawford continued her box office power up until 1937. MGM would also receive a boost through the man who would become the "king of Hollywood" Clark Gable ; Gable's career took off to new heights after he won an Oscar for the 1934 Columbia film It Happened One Night. By 1943, all three had left the studio. Joan Crawford moved to Warner Brothers where her career took a dramatic upturn for the better, Shearer and Garbo never made another film after leaving MGM.
Mayer and Irving Thalberg's relationship was lukewarm at best; Thalberg preferred literary works to the crowd-pleasers Mayer wanted. Thalberg, always physically frail, was removed as head of production in 1932. Mayer encouraged other staff producers, among them his son-in-law David O. Selznick, but no one seemed to have the sure touch of Thalberg. As Thalberg fell increasingly ill in 1936, Louis Mayer could now serve as his temporary replacement. Rumors flew that Thalberg was leaving to set up his own independent company; his early death in 1936, at age thirty-seven, cost MGM dearly.
As a result of Thalberg's death, Mayer became head of production as well as studio chief, becoming the first million-dollar executive in American history. The company remained profitable, although a change toward "series" pictures (Andy Hardy, Maisie, the Thin Man pictures, et al.) is seen by some as evidence of Mayer's restored influence. Also playing a huge role was Ida Koverman, Mayer's "right hand woman".
In 1933, Ub Iwerks cancelled the unsuccessful Flip the Frog series and MGM began to distribute its second series of cartoons, starring a character named Willie Whopper, that was also produced by Ub Iwerks. In 1934, after Iwerks' distribution contract expired, MGM hired animation producers/directors Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising to produce a new series of color cartoons. Harman and Ising came to MGM after breaking ties with Leon Schlesinger and Warner Bros., and brought with them their popular Looney Tunes character, Bosko. These were known as Happy Harmonies and in many ways resembled the Looney Tunes' sister series, Merrie Melodies. The Happy Harmonies regularly ran over budget, and MGM dismissed Harman-Ising in 1937 to start its own animation studio. After the resulting struggles with a poorly-received series of Captain and the Kids]] cartoons, the studio re-hired Harman and Ising in 1939, and Ising created the studio's first successful animated character, Barney Bear. However, MGM's biggest cartoon stars would come in the form of the cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry, created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera in 1940. The Tom and Jerry cartoons won seven Academy Awards between 1943 and 1953. In 1941, Tex Avery, another Schlesinger alumnus, joined the animation department. It was Avery who gave the unit its image, with successes like Red Hot Riding Hood, Swing Shift Cinderella, and the Droopy series.
Increasingly, before and during World War II, Mayer came to rely on his "College of Cardinals"—senior producers who controlled the studio's output. This management-by-committee may explain why MGM seemed to lose its momentum, developing few new stars and relying on the safety of sequels and bland material. Production values remained high, and even "B" pictures carried a polish and gloss that made them expensive to mount, and artificial in tone. After 1940, production was cut from fifty pictures a year to a more manageable twenty-five features per year. It was during this time that MGM released very successful musicals with players such as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra, to name just a few.
As audiences drifted away after the war, MGM found it difficult to attract audiences. While other studios backed away from the popular musicals of the war years, MGM increased its output to as many as five or six each year, roughly one-quarter of its annual output. Such pictures were expensive to produce, requiring a full staff of songwriters, arrangers, musicians, dancers, and technical support, and releasing so many each year affected the company’s finances. By the late forties, as MGM's profit margins decreased, word came from Schenck in New York: find "a new Thalberg" who could improve quality while paring costs. Mayer thought he had found this savior in Dore Schary, a writer and producer who had had a couple of successful years running RKO.
Mayer's taste for wholesomeness and "beautiful" movies conflicted with Schary's preference for gritty message pictures. In August 1951, after a period of friendly antagonism with Schary, Mayer was fired. One report says that Mayer called Schenck and New York with an ultimatum—"It's him or me". Mayer tried to stage a boardroom coup to oust his old nemesis, but failed.
Gradually cutting loose expensive contract actors (perhaps most famously, Judy Garland in 1950), Schary managed to keep the studio running much as it had through the early 1950s. Under Schary, MGM produced some well-regarded musicals, among them An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon. However, it was a losing fight, as the mass audience preferred to stay home and watch television. An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, as well as the 1951 Technicolor Show Boat (begun while Mayer was still in power), were box office smashes; The Band Wagon was a modest success. But the 1954 film version of Brigadoon, and 1955's Kismet, both filmed in cinemascope, were flops. On the other hand, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers , also made in Cinemascope, and released in 1954, became not only a huge critical success but a box office hit that is shown on television often to this day.
In 1954, as a settlement of the government's restraint-of-trade action, U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures, et al., Loews, Inc. gave up control of MGM. It would take another five years before the interlocking arrangements were completely undone, by which time both Loews and MGM were sinking.
Television, thought to be a passing fad, increasingly dominated entertainment, and at the urging of Leonard Goldenson, longtime head of Paramount's theater chain who now ran ABC, MGM made a few feeble moves into the new medium. Like those of the other studios, MGM's first attempts at programming were either glorified trailers (The M-G-M Parade), or based on past movie successes like The Thin Man. Several years later though, they would produce highly successful TV series, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the sitcom version of The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
The year 1957 also marked the end of MGM's animation department, as the studio determined it could generate the same amount of revenue by reissuing older cartoons as it could by producing and releasing new ones. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, by then the heads of the MGM cartoon studio, took most of their unit and made their own company, Hanna-Barbera Productions, a successful producer of television animation.
However, there were several major exceptions to this downslide and loss of prestige. In 1956, MGM sold the television rights for The Wizard of Oz to CBS, which scheduled it to be shown in November of that year. In a landmark event, Oz became the first theatrical film to be shown complete in one evening on prime time television over a major American commercial network. (Olivier's version of Hamlet was shown on prime time network TV a month later, but split in half over two weeks). With its second showing on CBS in 1959, The Wizard of Oz became an annual tradition, drawing huge audiences in homes all over the U.S. and earning additional profits for the studio. The studio was all too happy to see Oz become, through television, one of the two or three most famous films MGM has ever made, and one of the few films that nearly everybody in the U.S. has seen at least once.
In 1958, MGM released what is generally considered their last great musical, Arthur Freed's wide-screen color production of Gigi, starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan. It was adapted from the novel by Colette, and written by the team of Lerner and Loewe, who also wrote My Fair Lady and Camelot. Gigi was a box-office and critical smash that won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and from it came several hit songs, including Thank Heaven For Little Girls, I Remember It Well, the Waltz at Maxim's, and the Oscar-winning title song. The film was the last MGM musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, an honor that had previously gone to The Broadway Melody (1929), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and An American in Paris (1951). The very last musical film produced by the "Freed Unit" was an adaptation of the Broadway musical Bells Are Ringing (1960) with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin. However, MGM did release later musical films, including an adaptation of Meredith Willson's The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) with Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell.
In 1959, MGM enjoyed one of its most spectacular successes of later years, with the release of its nearly four-hour Technicolor remake of Ben-Hur. Starring Charlton Heston in the title role, the film would go on to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record that held until Titanic matched it in 1997 (and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King again in 2003). Ben-Hur was an immense success both critically and at the box office.
In 1961, MGM resumed the release of new Tom and Jerry shorts, and production moved to Rembrandt Films in Czechoslovakia, under the supervision of Gene Deitch. Deitch's Tom and Jerry cartoons are noteworthy as being very distant from the original Hanna and Barbera style of animation. In 1963, the production of Tom and Jerry returned to Hollywood under Chuck Jones and his Sib Tower 12 Productions studio (later absorbed by MGM and renamed MGM Animation/Visual Arts). Jones' group also produced its own works, winning an Oscar for The Dot and the Line, as well as producing the classic television version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (with Theodor Geisel). Tom and Jerry folded in 1967, and the animation department continued with television specials and one feature film, The Phantom Tollbooth.
MGM fell into a habit in this period that would eventually sink the studio: an entire year's production schedule relied on the success of one big-budget epic each year. This policy began in 1959, when Ben-Hur was profitable enough to carry the studio through 1960. However, later attempts at big-budget epics failed, among them four films which, in addition to Ben-Hur, were also remakes - Cimarron (1960), King of Kings (1961), Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1961), and most notoriously, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty. One other epic that was a success, however, was the MGM-Cinerama co-production How the West Was Won, with a huge all-star cast. King of Kings, while a commercial and critical flop at the time, has since come to be regarded as a film classic. In 1965 though, MGM produced the immensely popular Doctor Zhivago, only to back the same director's Ryan's Daughter which flopped badly in 1970.
As MGM sank (along with the other mainline studios), a series of studio heads came and went, along with a succession of corporate managers, all hoping to bring back the studio's glory days.
Through the 1970s studio output slowed considerably—Aubrey preferred four or five medium-budget pictures each year, along with a smattering of low-budget fare. With output cut back so severely, Kerkorian closed MGM's sales and distribution offices in 1973, handing that duty to United Artists. Kerkorian now distanced himself from the operations of the studio, focusing on his casino properties. Another chunk of the back lot was sold in 1974. The last shooting done on the backlot was the introductory material for That's Entertainment! a retrospective documentary that became a surprise hit for the studio. The shoddy look of the famous MGM exteriors and back lots shown in That's Entertainment!, including the 'New York' street, was startling. The studio which previously had so much glamor and expertise in making big-budget films looked as if it had been reduced to nothing more than an average low-budget studio. In addition to MGM's fast declining image, the MGM Recording Studios were sold in 1975.
Following a failed attempt to take over CBS in 1985, the ambitious Georgia-based media entrepreneur Ted Turner bought MGM/UA. But his bankers, concerned about the already heavy debt-load his companies carried, refused to back him, and exactly seventy-four days later (October 17, 1986), Turner announced he was re-selling most of MGM/UA to Kirk Kerkorian for approximately $780 million USD ($480 million for United Artists and $300 million for the MGM logo).
Turner retained the one MGM asset he really craved, the MGM film library, as well as the United Artists Television package (excepting most shows produced by UA itself and its predecessor Ziv Television Programs, with Gilligan's Island going to Turner). Kerkorian got United Artists and the rights to the MGM name and trademark. The venerable Culver City lot, home to MGM and its predecessor since 1918, was sold to Lorimar-Telepictures, a television production company.
How much of MGM's back catalog Turner actually obtained was a point of conflict for a time; eventually it was determined that Turner owned all of the MGM library, dating back to pre-merger days, as well as the pre-1948 Warner Bros. catalog, the entire RKO library, and a good share of United Artists's own backlist.
Turner began broadcasting MGM films through his Turner Network Television, and caused a controversy when he began "colorizing" many black and white classics. In 1987, the MGM/UA name continued to be utilized, but it changed its name to MGM/UA Communications Co., now using MGM and UA as separate brands, and the company especially created a new MGM/UA logo for use on co-productions between MGM and UA. Productions made by MGM carried a new version of the original studio logo, which had the byline "An MGM/UA Communications Company" until 1993.
In 1990, the now disgraced Italian financier, Giancarlo Parretti, announced that he had taken control of France's Pathé Frères, and was about to buy MGM/UA. Despite a cloudy past Parretti got backing from Crédit Lyonnais and took control of MGM/UA through a leveraged buyout, and renamed as MGM-Pathe Communications Co. The well-respected executive, Alan Ladd, Jr., a former President of MGM/UA, was brought on board by Parretti to Chair Pathe, then ultimately as CEO of MGM in 1991. However the same year Parretti's ownership dissolved in a flurry of lawsuits and a default by Crédit Lyonnais, and Parretti faced securities fraud charges in the United States and Europe. On the verge of bankruptcy and failure, Credit Lyonnais took full control of MGM-Pathé and converted its name back to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Pathe was purchased by Chargeurs in 1992.
Despite a few commercial successes, such as Thelma and Louise, Crédit Lyonnais was unable to stem the tide of red ink during the mid-1990s; putting the studio up for sale, it found only one willing bidder: Kirk Kerkorian. Now the owner of MGM for the third time, Kerkorian at last conceded that a solid business plan was the studio's only hope. Crédit Lyonnais then ordered Kerkorian and the Board of Directors of MGM to fire Alan Ladd, Jr. as CEO of the company and replace him with former Paramount executive, Frank Mancuso Sr. By committing to more and better pictures, selling a portion of the studio to Australia's Seven Network, and installing a professional management team, Kerkorian was able to convince Wall Street that a revived MGM was worthy of a place on the stock market.
However, despite a few successful pictures and a rebuilt film library, it was clear that MGM could not compete in a business that required hundreds of millions in capital for even the most ordinary picture.
In 1997, MGM bought John Kluge's collection of film properties (Orion Pictures, The Samuel Goldwyn Company - or Goldwyn Entertainment Company - and the Motion Picture Corporation of America), substantially enlarging its catalog. This catalog, along with the James Bond franchise, was considered to be MGM's primary asset. In the same year, the series, Stargate SG-1, was released, being owned by MGM.
Up until 2001, MGM distributed its films internationally through UIP (United International Pictures) a joint venture between MGM, Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures. In January 2001, MGM severed its ties with UIP and began distributing films internationally through 20th Century Fox.
The leading bidder, though, proved to be Sony Corporation of America, backed by Comcast and venture capital bankers Texas Pacific Group (now TPG Capital, L.P.) and Providence Equity Partners. Sony's primary goal was to ensure Blu-Ray Disc support at MGM; cost synergies with Sony Pictures Entertainment were secondary. Time Warner made a counter-bid (which Ted Turner reportedly tried to block), but on September 13, 2004, Sony increased its bid of $11.25/share (roughly $4.7 billion) to $12/share ($5 billion), and Time Warner subsequently withdrew its bid of $11/share ($4.5 billion).
MGM and Sony agreed on a purchase price of nearly $5 billion, of which about $2 billion was to pay off MGM debt Since 2005, the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group has domestically distributed films by MGM and UA
Lucky Number Slevin, released April 7, was the first film released under the new MGM era. Other recent films under the MGM/Weinstein deal include Clerks II and Bobby. Upon the MGM/Weinstein films' release on home video, however, full distribution rights revert to Weinstein (under Genius Products).
On May 31, MGM announced that it would transfer home video output (MGM Home Entertainment) from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment to 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (excepting those MGM or UA and Columbia or TriStar co-productions, such as the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, where Columbia is a majority partner).
MGM also announced plans to restructure its worldwide television distribution operation. In addition MGM signed a deal with New Line Television in which MGM would handle New Line's U.S. film and series television syndication packages. MGM will also serve as New Line's barter sales rep in the television arena for the next two years.
On November 2, producer/actor Tom Cruise and his production partner, Paula Wagner, signed an agreement with MGM to run United Artists. Wagner will serve as United Artists' chief executive. Cruise will produce and star in films for UA and MGM will distribute the movies.
As of the present day, the Turner Entertainment Co. unit of Time Warner owns the rights to the pre-1986 MGM film library with Warner Bros. handling distribution. However, there are a small number of pre-1986 MGM films whose rights were not able to be renewed. These have either entered the public domain or been inherited by small companies like Republic Pictures and RHI Entertainment (for the Hal Roach productions).