Ars Gratia Argentum (Art for money's sake)
Lex Corp Amazon announced their acquisition of MGM, furthering the consolidation of the media industry in the age of streaming. Many people are putting out their own takes on way this is a good idea or a bad idea or why they did it. My favourite so far is that the walking mid-life crisis that is Jeff Bezos wanted to own James Bond. All of these aren’t right or wrong, we won’t know until the next acquisition of MGM (god knows there have been many). What I want to posit to you today is an insight I discovered with my mentees and friends: content libraries are like wine.
MGM a history
There have been two distinct eras for MGM, its Golden Age with films such as Gone with the Wind (still the highest grossing movie of all-time adjusting for inflation), and there is the Hot Potato era where businessman Kirk Kerkorian started a period of corporate raiding of the MGM brand and assets. We are in the dawn of a new era, the Amazon era, that barring catastrophe for the behemoth, they are unlikely to sell MGM for an umpteenth time.
MGM hasn’t been as busy as other majors who shifted from the blockbuster to the sequel to the franchise with the times. They have been sort of stuck surviving, creating genuine gems (Legally Blonde is as much of a classic as Doctor Zhivago, @ me) but nothing that can be «cinematic universed». To understand why they entered a constant state of DEFCON 1 we need to understand Kirk Kerkorian. A Vegas icon, Kerkorian became fixated with MGM, buying and selling it a total of three times.
Ever wondered why Tom and Jerry and Gone with the Wind MGM films are in HBO Max, Kerkorian. Ever wondered why there was a James Bond Jr. cartoon in the 90s (which is a whole rabbit hole of its own), Kerkorian. Ever wondered why there are MGM Resorts, Kerkorian. Ever wondered who wonders shit like this, well me, and rights geeks (no thanks to Kerkorian). Basically because of this constant buying and selling MGM lost some assets (mainly all of its pre 1986 IP), created others, had a casino, but more than anything was at the mercy of creditors and new owners which isn’t the most suitable environment for making classics.
Its not about Bond
After all this shuffling around, MGM survived, downgraded from a major to a legacy studio, but survived. So why would someone buy studio locked in survival mode? Again many have tried to reverse engineer the reasoning behind Amazon’s acquisition but I can only say, they are buying vintages not a winery. If anyone with deep pockets would like to buy a taste maker studio for new IPs they would buy A24 or do Larry Ellison a solid and buy Annapurna. Sort of like when Disney bought Miramax (only for other studios to prove you could launch specialty branches for award winning fare for a fraction of that), or do like Netflix and buy boutique comic-book publishers like Millarworld. But not Amazon, AWS’s cash buys only the finest wine, namely MGM's vintages.
We can hypothesise that Bezos wants a cameo in the next Bond Film (he’d be a great Blofeld), or that Prime Video wants a more robust library for its users, but in the end they are buying a vault of films and the right to make derivatives, not creativity. Rocky, Robocop, Bond, Legally Blond, all of those are potential cinematic universe fodder. Even more obscure fare like All Dogs Go To Heaven have enough nostalgia factor to launch a series or two.
This is not a particularly new take, but it’s a more relevant one in the context of the streaming wars. Sequels are great, merch is better, but nostalgia is golden. Prime Video (and any streaming service for that matter) doesn’t need hits, they need eyeballs, they need memes. They traffic in attention, and a library full of memeable nostalgia can give them that.
Now do they need it, no, Prime is at this rate a utility for any urban middle class person but hard times can make its utility status into luxury at the snap of a finger. Thus a nice content library where all those funny memes come from is a nice deterrent.
So like any of the «non two-day shipping» services of Prime, they are motes, things that maybe make it less attractive to unsubscribe and get free mental real state every time a meme is made or an award is tossed at them. So in the end its not about making James Bond Jr for Gen-Z or Legally Blonde: The Musical: The Film, those are a nice to haves, its simply about giving subscribers the perk of a nice vintage with that 2 day consumer endorphin rush that is Prime.
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