Now that Amazon has made its purchase of MGM studio official, the question now shifts to what will happen to the top executives at the venerated studio — particularly film head Michael De Luca and TV head Mark Burnett — particularly in relation to current Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke.
Even before Jeff Bezos announced the $8.45 billion acquisition on Wednesday, MGM has undergone upheaval within its executive ranks over the last 18 months. In January 2020, former New Line and DreamWorks executive De Luca took over as chairman of MGM’s Motion Picture Group, following Jonathan Glickman’s departure after a nine-year tenure. On the TV side, Steve Stark left as the head of MGM’s scripted TV department in March 2021 after his own lengthy tenure, with Epix president Michael Wright taking over his responsibilities in addition to running the premium cable network.
Then there’s Burnett, who has served as chairman of MGM Worldwide Television Group since 2018, and has been with the studio in some capacity since it acquired Burnett’s production companies One Three Media and Lightworkers Media in 2014.
Burnett’s contract runs through 2022 and his tenure has been marked by prestige scripted hits like “Fargo” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which were developed by Stark and his team, but not a whole lot of unscripted TV breakouts from the man behind “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Survivor” and “Shark Tank.” All of those series were developed before he joined MGM.
After the massive success of 2013’s “The Bible” miniseries for History, Burnett’s attempts in the faith genre have also not gone as well. MGM’s “Messiah” for Netflix was critically panned and canceled after just one season last year, and his attempts to launch a faith-based streaming service with his wife, Roma Downey, have failed to materialize.
Additionally, there have been reports Burnett has butted heads with many other MGM executives and has been at least partially responsible for the departures of Stark and Nancy Tellem, who joined what MGM called the Office of the CEO, but left after only six months. “Burnett has a mixed track record and is somewhat hard to deal with,” one streaming executive who asked not to be named told TheWrap.
Representatives for MGM and Amazon did not respond to TheWrap’s requests for comment.
Jason Hirschhorn, CEO of MediaREDEF and a former MGM board member, said a few days before the sale that Burnett could be on the way out. “My guess on Burnett would be they keep him away from Amazon operations with an arms length deal for himself and a NewCo. Again, total speculation. But that’s half worse than having him there,” he said on Twitter.
As the deal was being finalized between Amazon and MGM, Burnett posted a video on his Instagram of a helicopter dropping him on the side of a mountain somewhere in remote Iceland for production on a reality show. The caption read: “Nothing like being dropped off and as the rotor blades fade away, you hear only the wind.”
It is not clear how Amazon plans to integrate MGM into its operations. Will MGM be integrated into Amazon Studios or remain as an independent brand, much like Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios have their own leadership teams even after Disney acquired them. When Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2018, the ecommerce giant kept CEO John Mackey in place, but added some of its own executives alongside him.
Both CEO Jeff Bezos and Mike Hopkins, SVP of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, have touted the MGM’s deep library of content as a reason for the deal. ““The real financial value behind this deal is the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team,” Hopkins said.
Bezos added to Amazon shareholders: “With the talented people at MGM and the talented people at Amazon Studios, we can reimagine and develop that IP for the 21st century.” That leaves the question of who will take the lead in reimagining that IP very much up in the air.
De Luca could have a brighter future than Burnett under Amazon since Salke comes from a TV background and has been far more robust developing episodic content for the streamer. Under Film co-heads Matt Newman and Julie Rapaport, Amazon has had some success with indie hits like “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Big Sick” and “Late Night,” and more recently with “One Night in Miami” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”
But those were all produced independently, with Amazon Studios acquiring the distribution rights rather than developing the projects in-house. Some of Amazon’s biggest hits, like the Paramount pickup “Coming 2 America,” were bought amid the COVID-19 pandemic when most studios were wary of theatrical releases.
But De Luca could play a big role in developing film projects on his own, particularly with franchises like “Rocky/Creed,” “Tomb Raider” and “Legally Blonde” already in the MGM stable. Not to mention a certain super-spy named James Bond (though the studio only has a 50% stake in that property, with most creative control retained by U.K.-based EON Productions).
Diane Haithman contributed to this report.