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There’s a complicated story brewing with MGM, which for the last thirty years has frequently been in dire financial straits. The severely abridged form is that MGM and its library have been bought and sold multiple times since the ’80s, and that the company is currently operating with a debt load and interest payment schedule that have analysts and lenders highly concerned about the company’s solvency. Yesterday the studio held a long conference call (or series of calls) with bondholders, and the lingering question is this: is it better for the company’s lenders to let MGM file for bankruptcy or not? If so, they might get some of their money (a nearly $4b debt that may only be worth less than half that at auction) versus none.

What does this mean to you? If MGM files for bankruptcy, assets could be sold to cover that $4b debt. One of the company’s prime assets is the James Bond franchise. And if MGM has no money, Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro‘s Hobbit films (which MGM is co-financing and distributing outside the US) might be on hold until a rights sale could be negotiated, likely with New Line / Warner Bros.

Nikki Finke has the story, and reports that “the bondhholders said to MGM, in essence, that they were going to let the studio go bankrupt and collect their money since they’d be first in line to get paid.” But, Finke reports, MGM says that’s pretty much the worst possible course of action, as that would force an asset sale, which would basically kill the studio. The Hobbit would likely be sold, and the potential delay there could be damaging to the film(s), if not destructive.

This raises a lot of questions, and if you’ve been wondering why MGM is so keen on remaking movies like Robocop and Red Dawn, also provides some answers. Those franchises are ready-made assets that the studio could theoretically get moving fast. Red Dawn wasn’t mobilized quickly to take advantage of any political zeitgeist; it was fast-tracked because United Artists films Lions For Lambs and Valkyrie weren’t earners. Fame opens this weekend, and it is likely going to under-perform, too.

So what’s next? This is not yet a death knell for The Hobbit or a changing of the guard for Bond. MGM wants bondholders to waive interest payments until February 2010. Money that doesn’t go to interest payments can fund films. MGM’s lenders have to be convinced that bankruptcy is a worse fate than letting the payments slide for several months. It would be a worse fate because the time-consuming and expensive process may not return money to the lenders quickly, if at all. Selling off MGM may currently return less than fifty cents on the dollar; the lenders are out $2b.

Bottom line: MGM has to formally ask is creditors to put off interest payments until Feburary of next year, and those lenders have to agree. If they don’t, things could get very unstable for Bond and The Hobbit.

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