The venerable United Artists name was given new life this February when MGM, Annapurna Pictures, and Orion Pictures rebranded their joint distribution operation as United Artists Releasing. So far this year, UAR has released Laika’s animated Missing Link, acclaimed teen comedy Booksmart, The Hustle, Child’s Play, and Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
The executive team overseeing and advising United Artists Releasing includes Annapurna CEO Megan Ellison, MGM Motion Picture Group president Jonathan Glickman, MGM chief operating officer Chris Brearton, UA COO Pam Kunath, Annapurna distribution chief Erik Lomis, and Orion Pictures distribution head Kevin Wilson. Glickman, the onetime president of Spyglass Entertainment, has been leading MGM’s film division since 2011, helping to bring the James Bond series to new box office heights and reviving the Rocky franchise with Creed. In this exclusive interview, Glickman reflects on the new era for United Artists.
What does the United Artists name mean to you?
As a lifetime fan of films in general, I believe United Artists means quality just across the board. I grew up knowing that great logo in the ‘70s on some of my favorite films, whether it was Rocky or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—so many of those fantastic films that I grew up with. Then, as you start talking about the history, there are the Billy Wilder films, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story. United Artists stands for art that is created by the artist without much interference from the studio in general, and I still think it represents that. That’s why people gravitate toward the name—they know it means that the artists are in charge of the creative process across the board and we still think it has that value.
Can you talk a little bit about the thinking behind the rebranding as United Artists Releasing?
What we wanted to do was bring the name back into the culture as an active concern rather than a legacy title and a legacy brand. It coincides with our joint venture in distribution to say, here is a releasing arm that is going to release all different types of movies, that’s going to give the filmmakers much greater say in how their films are marketed and distributed. It’s not a huge distribution and marketing team with offices all over the world—we don’t feel like you need to do that any longer, because the scale has changed with the world of technology. It offers the filmmakers an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the marketing and distribution teams in terms of dating and promotional materials, and gives the people who are making the films, whether it’s through MGM, Annapurna, or third parties, the opportunity to have their films released in a mainstream way and with the best people working on them, with a bespoke campaign for each film that they deliver. And what better name than United Artists to symbolize that?
Can you give a little background on how the MGM-Annapurna alliance came about?
This administration came into MGM about nine years ago. It came out of bankruptcy, so we had to sort of build it from scratch—we like to call it a 95-year-old start-up on some level. At first we needed to start getting films made; then as we got on our feet, we realized in this environment there are issues such as dating and controlling your marketing campaigns and release patterns, especially in the domestic market, which triggers the worldwide market on many levels. So we needed to have control of domestic distribution. Megan had set up her own distribution service for her own films at Annapurna, but to really be powerful you have to have the scale of double digits of films, into the mid-teens and higher, to be able to supply exhibition. They certainly needed more scale, and [for us] it was great to have an organization that was already set up, especially given that many of the people who were working with Megan at Annapurna had worked with MGM or were people we had relationships with in the past. So it was a natural fit. [The combination] allowed us to have a diverse slate. So you could have a movie like Vice or Sorry to Bother You, as well as movies like Creed or James Bond.
You must be very proud of what has happened during your tenure with the James Bond series—it’s bigger than ever. What’s the secret to its revival?
I think that it all goes back to [longtime producers] Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who are committed to not making the same movie twice and to changing with the times and to pushing the boundaries. They know there’s an audience that loves James Bond and wants them to deliver on what the promise of a James Bond film is, but they’re also willing to push it, whether it’s in terms of the directors—an Academy Award–winning director like Sam Mendes or Cary Fukunaga, the first American-born [Bond] filmmaker—or in terms of cast, whether it’s Javier Bardem or Rami Malek, both Academy Award winners, [the kind of talent] who weren’t traditionally involved in Bond movies of the past. There’s certainly a lot to talk about regarding the realpolitik in the world right now, so there are thematic issues that keep it modern. But also Barbara and Michael are very intent on making sure that the films stay modern in how they look and in terms of how they’re cast—there’s a very diverse cast in this [new] picture, because clearly the audience wants to see themselves represented. They just keep pushing it forward and don’t rest on their laurels.
Do you have a long-range vision for the franchise beyond its star, Daniel Craig?
Well, again, it’s Barbara and Michael’s [franchise]—almost like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where I sort of serve at the pleasure of those two as to when they want to make films. I think they certainly do not see any imminent end to the franchise—they want to keep it going and going and going. And the good news is that they are willing to push and take the chances that allowed the franchise to continue to evolve and not become stale. So any time they want to make a movie, we’re here to make it—they don’t have to worry about finding a partner with us on it. But ultimately they have the creative say about when they’re ready to do it. And that is the United Artists spirit—obviously, this was a United Artists deal that Albert Broccoli made with Arthur Krim back in the early ’60s, but we have had that spirit with quite a lot of the filmmakers who made these movies, whether it’s Irwin Winkler or Barbara and Michael or Walter Mirisch. These are the producers that built United Artists, and they did so by having a strong voice regarding what made a movie great and what made a movie relevant, and it isn’t lost on us. And I’m fortunate enough to continue to work with all three of those teams, as well as many more that built this studio. It’s a privilege, and there’s a lot of responsibility to making sure that the tradition that those guys created is still [maintained] here.
I’m sure another point of pride for you is how the whole Rocky franchise was reimagined in a very dramatic way. Will there be another Creed film?
Yes, there will definitely be another Creed film—we’re working on it now, and in fact there may be another Rocky film on its own as well. That’s another franchise that both Sylvester Stallone and Irwin Winkler are completely open to reimagining in a way that’s relevant for today’s audiences. We’re fortunate that they are still both very committed to continuing those legacies.
When we came in, there were a lot of pitches we were hearing for Rocky films, none of which really made sense. They all felt either formulaic or a real stretch on some level that it didn’t feel necessarily like the Rocky that I grew up with or that people around the world love. And it was Ryan Coogler, on his own, who came up with this notion. On some levels, I know people feel like it was pretty radical to go to Apollo Creed’s son and take the franchise in that direction, but it was so authentic that it seemed to be a no-brainer for all of us—and obviously, it worked. Again, using the United Artists spirit, it took a passionate filmmaker—Ryan Coogler—to convince two other passionate filmmakers—Sylvester Stallone and Irwin Winkler—that this was the right direction for the franchise and there would be an audience for it.
So there may also be another Rocky film focused mainly on Sylvester Stallone?
We’ve kicked around some ideas. We’re not there yet, but we certainly are hoping to do that as well.
What other upcoming projects from United Artists Releasing have big potential?
We’re very excited about The Addams Family, which is the first self-produced animated movie that MGM has made. That’s coming out this Halloween season, October 11. It’s a lot of fun, and we are excited about bringing that back to audiences around the world in a different form with a great filmmaker, Conrad Vernon.
United Artists Releasing has also taken on Orion Pictures, another classic label that we are fortunate enough to be involved with. Those films are lower budgeted [for] genre specialty audiences. We have a film coming out in early February called Gretel and Hansel, an original film directed by Oz Perkins that is a female-empowerment, insane gonzo retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story that we think is special. And, of course, we have James Bond coming out worldwide in April.
So those are the focuses right now. We have many other films that we’re working on. We have Valley Girl, an Orion title that is being updated as a jukebox musical with all of your favorite songs from the ’80s. That comes out Valentine’s Day. We have another Legally Blonde film, and we are making Respect, which is the Aretha Franklin story that stars Jennifer Hudson, who was personally chosen by Ms. Franklin to play her. It’s directed by a spectacular theater director named Liesl Tommy. That starts production this fall and will come out next August.
I also want you to know how seriously we take the United Artists legacy. When we walk into our offices, there’s a shelf of at least 40 Academy Award–winning United Artists films ranging from Marty to Rocky to Tom Jones to Annie Hall. And they are there to remind you of the great heritage and history, and the fact that we have several of the filmmakers who were integral [to that success]: Michael Wilson, Barbara Broccoli, Irwin Winkler, Walter Mirisch, who’s probably responsible for 20 percent of those Academy Awards. It’s something that we don’t take lightly—we take it very, very seriously. When I’m downtown and I see the United Artists marquee on the theater at the Ace Hotel, it gives me goose bumps to know that we’re involved with this legacy still to this day.
People always start to panic when franchise films don’t perform as expected. What’s your view of the future of the theatrical movie business?
It’s not that the business has completely slumped this year—business is actually pretty strong overall. I am optimistic about the future of the business, but I do think things are going to need to evolve in the coming period. I think we have to start looking at how to broaden the base of theatergoers. People are able to stay at home and get a lot of selection for a relatively economical price. So we have to make it economically possible for these people to go to the movies, which I think is part of the reason why it’s become tougher for some of the riskier films, the original films. People don’t know really what they’re going to get till they show up at the theater, because it’s not based on a franchise that they know. I’m confident that we’ll start seeing an evolution. The subscription model is a great start that we see exhibition taking on. I think that we have to make it not just more appealing in terms of the experience of the theater but also more affordable. Just widen the base of the filmgoer, and I think if that happens you’ll start to see a greater array of films that people associate with the theatrical experience, bringing back newer audiences to the theater as well. I think it’s essential that exhibition and content creators start working together, realizing that the patterns have changed and how do we adjust together to make it work.
This might be the toughest question: What are some of your favorite United Artists films from these past hundred years?
Well, it’s very hard for me not to say Rocky, just because it’s probably the movie that made me want to be in the movie business more than any other picture. I saw it with my father around January 1977 and walked out of that theater as energized and excited as by any movie I’d ever seen in my life. It’s such an incredible honor to be involved in that franchise.
I love so many of these films that it’s hard for me to really narrow them down. I love The Apartment, my favorite romantic comedy. I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, Carrie. I love War Games, which is one of the great movies of the ’80s. What’s fantastic is the library is so deep. Not a day goes by when somebody doesn’t call me about, hey, can we do something with Wild in the Streets or some title that we own. Actually, I probably should have led with my favorite movie ever made, Sweet Smell of Success. I have a big black-and-white still behind my desk of Tony Curtis on the streets of New York as they’re filming on location. It’s probably the studio that I have the most affinity for, because of all these unbelievable filmmakers who have stood the test of time and done their best work there because they were allowed to run free.