Five years after joining the studio as chairman of worldwide television, the reality uber-producer has not only failed to deliver a hit, he has become an agent of chaos at a leaderless company in search of a buyer.
In 2005, the year after The Apprentice premiered on NBC, legendary reality producer Mark Burnett published an autobiographical business-advice book called Jump In! Even if You Don’t Know How to Swim. Ten years later, he jumped into a new pond as he became a top executive at MGM. The waters were deep.
After years of unmatched success, Burnett, the chairman of MGM’s worldwide television group, now occupies an ambiguous position of power at what may be the only media company in history to go without a chief executive for two years. Critics say Burnett has not only failed to generate new hits for the company — as explored in an Oct. 22 New York Times column — but that he has been, much like the president with whom he is so closely associated, an agent of chaos. “They’re very similar,” says one former MGM executive. “Egocentric and insecure about their accomplishments.”
Sources say Burnett’s tendency to plunge — usually briefly — into situations in which he has no defined role, and to badger and criticize some staffers and executives, has led to high-level exits or threatened departures and at least one HR complaint. One former exec says Burnett has created within the company a version of his first huge hit, Survivor. “If he has enough people yelling at people, it makes him feel like he’s in charge,” says another.
In a statement, an MGM spokesperson points to Burnett’s years of success working “with thousands of crew and cast members, across all networks, as well creative talent and executives of every stripe.” She adds that his relationships with staff are strong. “Mr. Burnett’s goal is to work with the best people to make the best content,” the statement says. “In pursuit of his goals, Mr. Burnett is quick to praise success and equally quick to address what he sees as creative, relationship and fiscal issues.”
The lack of new reality hits is not the only area in which the addition of Burnett’s businesses appear to have fallen short for MGM; the company had also hoped to tap into the faith audience. With his wife, Roma Downey, Burnett had scored record ratings with their 2013 History Channel series The Bible. But their Netflix series Messiah, which debuted in January to poor reviews (46 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), was canceled after one season. Efforts to launch a faith-based streaming service through Downey’s LightWorkers Entertainment division have borne no fruit. Meanwhile, Downey has produced and starred in three episodes of a short-form series that cost millions but has never been aired or streamed, anywhere.
MGM’s spokesperson responds: “The ongoing services of both Mark Burnett and Roma Downey were integral to MGM’s decision to acquire their companies, and we deeply value their work on behalf of the studio. Mark Burnett has continued to win awards while at MGM and since Burnett became chairman of MGM Global Television in 2016, his division has been the most profitable original content division in the company.”
MGM veterans note, however, that Burnett was not the force behind the company’s scripted television department and its prestige hits, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, despite Burnett’s practice of claiming credit for the division’s success.
In an era of consolidation and digital transformation, MGM stands on its own, laden with debt. It has long been seen as an acquisition target. Ultimate control lies with board member Kevin Ulrich, whose Anchorage Capital has the largest stake in the company. Ulrich has a well-established reputation for being enamored of parties and red carpets. (Before investing in MGM, Ulrich put nearly $100 million into Ryan Kavanaugh’s bankruptcy-bound flop machine, Relativity Media.)
Like every business reliant on production and distribution, MGM is coping with the pandemic. Its private stock is now trading around $75 a share, down from the roughly $120 mark in 2018, when former chairman and CEO Gary Barber was widely seen as closing in on a sale. The company has been counting on the latest installment of its crown jewel, the James Bond franchise, to boost revenue that might lure buyers. But MGM has had to push No Time to Die into 2021.
The company has gone without a chief executive since March 2018, when Barber — a tight-fisted, bottom-line oriented businessman who had engineered the acquisition of Burnett’s businesses in a series of deals that began in 2014 — was fired. Barber, who had breathed life into MGM after it emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, was escorted from the company’s Beverly Hills offices with only a few minutes’ notice. Just months earlier, his contract had been renewed through December 2022.
Some accounts hold that Barber had set about seeking a sale without authorization. But MGM veterans think Burnett agitated for his ouster, possibly because he resented having a boss after years of running his own businesses. Others say there was tension over Downey’s role, as Barber ultimately showed limited enthusiasm for her efforts in faith-based online programming. MGM’s spokesperson says it is “untrue” to suggest that Burnett played a role in Barber’s departure, saying the board dismissed Barber and “Mr. Burnett is neither a board member of MGM nor does he control board member decisions.” But a former high-level insider says Burnett as a general rule has tremendous sway with Ulrich, adding, “The board really meant nothing because what Kevin says goes. And Mark is bringing him to parties.”
After Barber was fired, another former top executive says, “The company changed overnight.” Barber may have been bloodless — “We believe this synergistic transaction will be very accretive to MGM,” he had said in a statement announcing the purchase of Burnett’s company — but he was disciplined and in charge. With his departure, Burnett was free to roam. MGM is to some degree guided by an Office of the Chief Executive but the company does not disclose its members. (Sources say the committee is made up in part of Burnett, COO Christopher Brearton, and the heads of divisions.) But one exec says, “Everyone does their own thing. It’s a rudderless ship.”
In an attempt to address the problem, board member Nancy Tellem was named executive director of the Office of the Chief Executive in February 2019. She gave up that role after only six months — in part because of clashes with Burnett, according to sources. Tellem, who remains on the board, did not respond to a request for comment. MGM says her tenure in that role was always meant to be temporary.
Burnett is widely believed to have a major factor in the ouster of film studio head Jon Glickman, who departed in January, despite the fact that Glickman reports to the board, as does his successor, Michael De Luca. “All the disruption has to do with this voracious appetite Mark has for things he’s not even good at,” says a former high-level insider. An MGM spokesperson says Glickman’s departure, like Barber’s, was a board decision.
When Burnett ruffled feathers by involving himself in Steve Stark’s prestige scripted television division, former insiders say Stark threatened to leave the company. While MGM insists that Stark still reports to Burnett, multiple sources say Stark was then assured that he could operate without interference. The company announced that Stark’s contract had been renewed in February, and his division renamed MGM/UA Television. (It was previously MGM/UA Scripted Television.)
Just a month before that was made public, MGM made several hires to build up its team at a new scripted unit called Orion Television. Overseeing that initiative was Barry Poznick, who has worked on Burnett reality shows since 2006 but who lacks scripted experience. Some former MGM insiders speculate that this new and “cost-effective” scripted unit, clearly under Burnett’s control, was intended to placate him as Stark declared independence. MGM’s spokesperson tells THR that the unit is “focused on comedy, drama, animation, horror and sci-fi genre programming.” A former insider says Burnett “is obsessed with scripted TV success.”
A former British paratrooper who once worked as a nanny and hawked tee shirts in Venice Beach, Burnett is a storied salesman who has converted foreign formats into U.S. hits with great success. Survivor debuted on CBS in 2000 and became a phenomenon that’s still going. It was followed by other hits: The Apprentice in 2004, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader in 2007, Shark Tank in 2009, The Voice in 2011. He has more than one home but when in town, often works from his house in Malibu, on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
With staff in uniforms emblazoned with “The Sanctuary,” Burnett hosts dinner parties that include such guests as venture capitalist Vivi Nevo — whose relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio has worked the world’s biggest movie star into the rotation — as well as such celebrities as Gwen Stefani, Adam Levine, Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber, Nicole Avant. Says one dinner guest: “He and Roma serve wonderful meals but what seduces the Ulriches of the world is that at your party is Mumford and Sons. The biggest names in the world. Maybe the Katzenbergs are there.” (Prolific Democrat donor Jeffrey Katzenberg is among Burnett’s longtime friends.)
But a reality producer — no matter how successful — does not become true Hollywood royalty. And Burnett’s position in Hollywood has been damaged by his association with Trump, whose billionaire-businessman image was crafted and sold to the public through The Apprentice. Sources say Burnett made efforts to lure Fargo creator Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield, producer of The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, to his house for dinner and was repeatedly rebuffed. Sharon Osbourne recently told THR that she, too, had refused invitations. “I would never go to his parties and he would be like, ‘Why?’” she says.
Some MGM sources say Burnett has made efforts to downplay his association with Trump but many in the industry are aware that he oversaw the inauguration and that his longtime associates produced the GOP convention in August. Burnett has been attacked on social media and he’s even had a real-life altercation in November 2018 when Tom Arnold — who had been making a show about his quest for allegedly damaging outtakes from The Apprentice — claimed that Burnett had choked him at a November 2018 pre-Emmy party. The Los Angeles City Attorney declined to file charges. (Burnett did not comment but Downey tweeted a photo of her bruised arm, saying Arnold had “tried to ambush” her and her husband.)
Meanwhile, Burnett has been contending with a cold streak. Out of ten attempts, his only reality series to get any traction is middling performer Beat Shazam with Jamie Foxx, a game show that the Fox broadcast network renewed for a fourth season last January. Other ideas — including the obstacle-course competition show TKO: Total Knockout, featuring as big a star as Kevin Hart — didn’t make it past one season. MGM veterans say Burnett’s biggest win for the company was guiding the 2018 acquisition of Big Fish Entertainment, producer of A & E’s Live P.D. and VH1’s reality series, Black Ink Crew, in a deal worth up to $200 million. But Live P.D. — the top show on the A & E Network — was pulled and then canceled in June following reports that the series had filmed a police killing of a Black man in Texas following a traffic stop and then destroyed the footage. (Given its popularity, the show could return.)
Downey’s goal of starting a faith-based streaming service has failed to launch, though she remains deeply committed to the mission. (Some Lightworkers execs were taken aback when, in 2017, Downey asked them to join her in prayer for megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who was facing criticism for failing to allow victims of Hurricane Harvey to use its Lakewood facility.) Burnett’s commitment to the streaming service was less clear. Former insiders say he attended meetings about the service — up to a point. Says one who was present for some of the discussions: “He would tell people, `This faith-based audience is where we’re going to make all our money.’ Then he’d get up and walk out in the middle.” Nonetheless, some former insiders think Barber may have incurred Burnett’s wrath when he dragged his heels on building the service. “He kept indefinitely putting it on pause,” says one.
The idea turned into a website with inspirational content, covering topics from cooking to Bible verse. Downey also executive produced and acted in three seasons of a short-form series called The Baxters, based on novels by bestselling Christian novelist Karen Kingsbury, that have not been broadcast or streamed anywhere. At this point, the LightWorkers website is merely a home page with no links.
An MGM spokesperson notes that it was Barber who initially approved the streaming-channel idea. “Market conditions have slowed LightWorkers’ progress on the SVOD front, but MGM is still actively engaged with potential investors,” she says. The company adds that Downey is “actively creating content,” highlighting Country Ever After, a reality series following country artist Coffey Anderson and his wife, hip-hop dancer Criscilla, which just debuted on Netflix.
Downey’s businesses have not been the only source of friction at MGM associated with the Burnett family. Sources say last year Burnett had hired his then-21-year-old son, a student at USC, as a producer on a proposed Mystic Pizza television show, based on the 1988 Julia Roberts movie. In response to THR’s query, MGM said, all company business involving family members is “reviewed by the Board’s Audit Committee.”
Sources say that several months ago in a meeting about the proposed series, Burnett severely dressed down a television executive for a perceived misstep, the day after she returned to work following the loss of her mother. (THR is withholding the executive’s name.) A long-time associate says Burnett was probably enraged in part because he was being “parental.” This person adds, “Mark is very determined when it comes to his kids.”
In the aftermath, the executive turned to Brian Edwards, Burnett’s right-hand man and president for MGM television operations, for advice. Sources say Edwards responded by referencing Burnett’s background in the military and gave her a dire warning regarding the risks of becoming a Burnett adversary. At that point the exec hired an attorney and reported the incident to HR, according to sources. In response to THR’s query, MGM’s spokesperson says: “A dispute occurred between two executives, it was resolved and no action was taken.”
Former MGM insiders say Burnett routinely homed in on those he didn’t perceive as allies. One executive who says Burnett questioned his loyalty says he went so far as to avoid a convenient restroom for fear he might run into Burnett. Says another former insider: “He gaslights people in meetings — makes you feel like you’re questioning your sanity.” Burnett would tell people who he didn’t perceive as being on his team, “You’re a looooser” while proclaiming himself a winner, this person says. Another former exec, echoing others, says, “He bitches about everybody being unsuccessful while he’s successful.”
Yet with the type of success that Barber had expected when he brought Burnett into MGM proving to be elusive, sources think at this point, Burnett is ready to sell. Ulrich appears to be under pressure to do so. The question is whether MGM should have acted sooner. “There’s no question their best moment to sell was when they shoved Gary [Barber] out,” says a source who had dealings with MGM as a top executive at another studio. “They had momentum from Bond and they had some TV going. There was a story at the time that made more sense than it does now.”
Some in the industry say the irony for Burnett was that, in engineering Barber’s ouster, he pushed out the person widely seen as an exceptionally strong businessman who knew how to handle a negotiation. Says a longtime MGM exec: “Gary was the surest way to make the most amount of money.” The problem, he adds, is that Burnett “has a split desire: wanting power and wanting money. And those were at cross purposes.”