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MGM: Hunter or hunted?
Studio bids for larger rival Universal but famous lion may be back on the block if it fails.
July 1, 2003: 11:58 AM EDT
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion is trying to take a bite out of a much bigger competitor -- Universal Studios.

But if the Hollywood studio that produced "Gone with the Wind" and the "Wizard of Oz" fails, will it become someone else's meal instead?

The question is not an idle one since MGM is the only major Hollywood studio that is not owned by a conglomerate.

Bob Newhart and Reese Witherspoon star in 'Legally Blonde 2,' MGM's biggest movie of the summer.  
Bob Newhart and Reese Witherspoon star in 'Legally Blonde 2,' MGM's biggest movie of the summer.

And its offer for the entertainment assets of Vivendi-Universal (V: Research, Estimates) topped $11 billion, according to a person with knowledge of the bid, more than triple MGM's (MGM: down $0.20 to $12.22, Research, Estimates) $3 billion stock market worth.

So MGM is taking a big risk. But the person with knowledge of the bid said MGM's offer was fully financed a week ago, even before the company agreed to sell stakes in three cable networks Monday to raise another $500 million.

MGM, once one of the leading studios in Hollywood, has fallen behind its media-conglomerate-owned competitors.

Its most successful 2003 movie so far is "Agent Cody Banks," a children's version of its popular James Bond franchise that took in $47 million at the box office this year, not enough to make the 20 biggest-grossing movies so far this year. "The Hulk", from Universal Pictures, brought in more than that on its opening weekend and was considered a disappointment.

Wednesday MGM opens its only major summer film, "Legally Blonde 2" a sequel to its surprise 2001 hit starring Reese Witherspoon. But comedy sequels often have trouble competing with action or drama sequels, and the movie is opening opposite what is expected to be one of the summer's major blockbusters - "Terminator 3" from Warner Brothers.

MGM is set to release Denzel Washington's next movie, 'Out of Time' in October.  
MGM is set to release Denzel Washington's next movie, 'Out of Time' in October.

"This is nice counter-programming for T3, but with comedy sequels, you never know what you're going to get," said box office analyst David Mumpower, president of Box Office Prophets. "If 'Legally Blonde' doesn't come up big, they're hurting for this year."

Mumpower expects "Legally Blonde 2" to do about $45 million to $50 million, which should let it make a nice profit given its relatively inexpensive $25 million budget.

"They're really a financially conservative company," said Mumpower. "They are what they are -- they can do relatively small budget films with a nice potential upside."

But the Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio lost about $184 million, or 74 cents a share, excluding special items last year and is forecast to lose 34 cents a share this year and barely post a profit next year.

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In January its stock tumbled after it reported that financier Kirk Kerkorian, who owns about two-thirds of MGM's shares, was again reducing his stake in the company. Kerkorian has increased and sold off his stake in the studio several times over the years.

Company executives concede that they want MGM to be part of a larger company. And industry analysts say that interest in buying MGM is likely to pick up if its Vivendi bid is unsuccessful.

"They have been drawing interest for five years, but people just don't want to pay the price that the majority owner wants," said Bear Stearns analyst Raymond Lee Katz.

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Katz said he believes Kerkorian is looking for about $20 a share for MGM in today's market, about two-thirds above the current price, and a level unseen since February 2002.

Katz said MGM's bid for Vivendi's assets was stronger than he expected, but it's too soon to say who's the front-runner. Other bidders include General Electric Co.'s NBC unit, Liberty Media led by John Malone, as well as groups led by Denver financier Marvin Davis and Edgar Bronfman Jr., ex-co-chairman of the former Seagram outfit, who sold the Universal Studio assets to Vivendi.

Katz and other analysts said long-term it will be difficult for MGM to continue as a small stand-alone studio, and that it'll have to be bought if it can't be a buyer itself.

"Kerkorian has found buyers before we've never heard of," said analyst Dennis McAlpine of McAlpine & Associates, an independent research firm that does not do investment banking. "He's a very shrewd person with that asset. He's bought and sold it three times now and made money each way in and out."  Top of page

Neither stock analyst quoted in this story owns shares of MGM, although Bear Stearns does investment banking for the studio.

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