Amazon has grown even more influential on the movie scene with its purchase of historic film studio MGM, and that’s not good news for cinephiles.
Just as famous as Universal’s spinning globe or 20th Century Fox’s triumphal fanfare is the splendid roar of Leo the lion that introduces movies from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. While the king of the jungle wordlessly announced their features for almost a century though, in financial terms the studio had been going mangy for years and needed to find a good home. This week it was announced that Amazon would buy the historic company in a deal worth $8.45 billion.
There are several reasons to be concerned that another bastion of cinema has fallen into the hands of a streaming service.
Firstly, when looking at the slate of excellent films that Amazon has picked up through the purchase (including Raging Bull, Thelma & Louise, 12 Angry Men, and Silence of the Lambs) certainly makes one wistful for a time when original and unformulaic movies could be a recipe for success at the box office as well as in critics’ columns. It’s not at all clear that Amazon will finance these kinds of films once the ink is dry on the deal; as Martin Scorsese has pointed out far more articulately and passionately than I ever could, there’s an incentive for streamers to rely on algorithms rather than artistry – and it would be optimistic indeed to think that a company as data-driven and profit-motivated as Amazon would buck that trend.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, the sale marks another step towards studios and distributors becoming one and the same, which is another serious worry for anyone who prizes the institution of cinema. Back when MGM was king of the pride, it was as cynical as any of the other boys on the backlot when it came to the production line model of movie-making. But crucially they did not control distribution channels as well; the cinemas were in separate hands, allowing for at least some competition from smaller studios, without which we’re unlikely to have seen the flourishing of the New Hollywood movement. for instance.
Amazon, by contrast, will both fund the films and show them on Amazon Prime Video; the future of cinemas has never been less certain after a year stricken by the pandemic, and it’s certainly in the megacorporation’s interests to promote streaming at the expense of salles obscures.
One of the few survivors (and his identity should come as no surprise, since he always manages to cheat death somehow) may be the poster boy of the agreement; creative control over James Bond, MGM’s most valuable single property, still lies with the Broccoli family who seem highly determined to steward the cinematic legacy of the series, rejecting the prospect of straight-to-streaming releases and money-spinning spin-offs. Perhaps like his regrettable sexual politics, Bond will remain relatively unchanged; as for the other big names that now belong in Amazon’s hands, from Robocop to Rocky, who knows?
A fable tells of a frail lion who, succumbing to old age, is taunted by his former prey; wildebeest kick him and vultures peck at him while he lies in the dust, too weak to fight back. As a gazelle mocks him for his weakened and pathetic state, the maned beast can at least reply, with a final burst of pride: “Yes, but I was a lion once”.
MGM was also a lion once, as magnificent as they come; you can’t help but feel a twinge of pity for its fate now that it is in the claws of such scavengers.