business

Can Alan Ladd Jr. Make Leo The Lion Roar?

It's after 5 p.m. on Friday, but executives still cluster outside the office of Alan Ladd Jr., chairman of MGM-Pathe Corp. Emerging between meetings, Ladd is dressed casually in blue jeans and a pink sports shirt. But his mood is somber. He is back from New Orleans, monitoring sneak previews of an upcoming release, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, with Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson. Asked how the film will do, he crinkles his nose. The week ahead holds little prospect for better cheer: Ladd has five days of depositions scheduled in connection with lawsuits sparked by the ouster of MGM's ex-chairman, flamboyant Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti. Add a bad cold, and his normally serene face takes on a haggard look.

"Poor Laddie. He's like Hercules cleaning up the stables," says David Gerber, longtime friend and head of MGM's television unit. "Everywhere he looks, there's more manure." Ladd, the 53-year-old son of the movie star, is being asked to resurrect the fortunes of the once-great MGM studio at a time when its future seems as murky as the Los Angeles skies. MGM was nearly pushed into bankruptcy in April before its chief creditor, Credit Lyonnais Bank Nederland, tossed out Parretti and installed Ladd. Ever since, Credit Lyonnais has doled out only the barest amounts of money needed to make films. Yet Ladd remains under pressure to come up with hits, and to spruce up the studio for resale.

Ladd, famous as the studio executive who helped George Lucas make Luke Skywalker a household name, has hit rough spots before. Tussles with Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. Chairman Dennis C. Stanfill and later with Kirk Kerkorian when the financier owned MGM drove him to leave both studios. But his current challenge includes a legal fight: Parretti's suit against Credit Lyonnais names Ladd as a defendant and alleges a backroom plot to drive the dealmaker from the company, which Parretti bought from Kerkorian for $1.3 billion last November.

Parretti's aides say it's not really Ladd they blame. But Ladd allows that the legal battle, combined with MGM's money woes, has had repercussions. Parretti is seeking to be reinstated as chairman, and producers are wary of a company whose future is uncertain. A spate of unpaid bills earlier also drove away some producers, who worried that MGM wouldn't have the cash to pay them or to release their films. And a shortage of advertising funds forced MGM to delay release of a dozen films, including Thelma & Louise, which Ladd says would have grossed $20 million more if released earlier. So far, Ladd has been able to line up only three films for 1992, far short of his goal of 8 to 12.

The best thing Ladd has going for him is his own record. Big names such as Driving Miss Daisy producer Richard D. Zanuck, Mel Brooks, and Lucas have followed him from studio to studio. The Star Wars trilogy Ladd brought to Fox funneled more than $500 million into a nearly moribund studio. He also won Academy Award nominations for Julia, The Turning Point, and Norma Rae. At MGM from 1986 to 1988, he brought the studio two of its few recent hits, Moonstruck and A Fish Called Wanda.

RETIRING SORT. If Hollywood complains at all about Ladd, it's that he's too soft-spoken. Some joke that he whispers to make people lean forward. Friends say he's just a retiring sort. He prefers quiet dinners at his Beverly Hills home to the Hollywood party circuit. For vacation, he generally escapes with his second wife and daughter to the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. He's also a big sports fan who not infrequently watches three sports programs at once on television.

Ladd's reputation for giving producers great freedom attracts them even in the face of adversity. Lucas says he brought his 1988 film Willow to MGM solely because of Ladd. When Paramount Pictures wouldn't pay the nearly $17 million Zanuck needed to make his newest film, Rush, the producer took it to Ladd, despite MGM's troubles. "Laddie's word is his bond," says Zanuck, who double-dated with Ladd in college.

Ladd is one of Hollywood's few native sons. His father appeared in 47 films, including the 1953 classic Shane. But Laddie's boyhood was uncommonly rough. He lived with his mother after his parents divorced, but her frail health later forced him back to his heavy-drinking father. The father died from an overdose of sedatives and alcohol when his son was 26. Ladd calls their relationship "basically nonexistent"--but all along, he was drawn to films, seeing as many as 18 in a week. "I should probably see a shrink, although I know it was probably to win my father's approval," he says of the obsession.

Even so, Ladd initially avoided show biz, trying his hand at real estate management. But he gravitated toward film, first as an agent, with such clients as the young Robert Redford. After four years in London as a producer, he joined Fox, and by 1977 was studio president. He left in a huff in 1979, when then-Chairman Stanfill refused to pay Fox executives bonuses.

MGM is a homecoming of sorts for Ladd. While running the studio in the mid-1908s, he tried to buy it, but he couldn't get the financing. He later became furious when Kerkorian tried to sell MGM to producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters without informing Ladd. His anger led to a confrontation in an MGM elevator, in which he uncharacteristically hollered at Kerkorian. Ladd quit the following year, 1988, when Kerkorian tried to pare expenses by firing all the producers Ladd had brought to the studio.

ROLLER COASTER. Within six months, Ladd had traded one difficult financier for another. He wound up at Parretti's Pathe, which was soon to buy MGM. Granted freedom to make whatever films he wanted, Ladd signed a four-year contract as producer that promised him at least $2.5 million a year in salary and $125 million a year for production. Friends were skeptical about Parretti, but Ladd wanted a change: "I had played it conservatively for most of my life. I thought it was time to try the roller coaster."

That coaster crashed early this year, three months after Parretti bought MGM. Ladd considered quitting because of unpaid bills, but opted to stay after Credit Lyonnais provided a cash infusion--and gave him a new four-year, $3.2 million-a-year contract. Now, he's negotiating to increase funds for production. So far he has lined up Zanuck to do another film, Rich in Love. And producer Albert "Cubbie" Broccoli may do a James Bond movie for the studio. Ten other films, in the can but sitting on the shelf because of financial problems, are scheduled for release in the next few months.

Ladd concedes it's tough, emotionally, to groom the old MGM lion just to sell it off. But he has no choice. Already, he says, he has talked with two potential Japanese buyers and knows of other interested parties. Ladd no longer harbors ambitions to buy MGM himself, though. After the rough couple of months he's been through, no one can blame him.

ALAN LADD JR.'S TRACK RECORD
      
      BOX-OFFICE HITS...
       Gross receipts (millions)
      THELMA & LOUISE    1991  $38.2*
      MOONSTRUCK         1987   80.6
      NINE TO FIVE       1980  103.0
      STAR WARS          1977  322.0
      YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN 1974   76.0
      
      ...AND MISSES
      NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER 1991  $14.8
      QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER      1990   21.4
      THE RIGHT STUFF         1983   21.2
      BLADE RUNNER            1982   27.6
      
      *Still in theaters
      
      DATA: BW, ENTERTAINMENT DATA INC.
      
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