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MGM Remakes Orion Pictures to Tell More Inclusive Stories

LOS ANGELES — Checks have been written to racial justice organizations. Training programs for Asian, Black and Latino filmmakers have been created. “We must do better” has been tweeted and re-tweeted by studio executives, most recently after the killing of George Floyd in police custody prompted a national conversation about racism and inequity.

But power in Hollywood still belongs almost exclusively to white men. “There are almost no people of color in the film industry who have the power to say, ‘this movie is getting made and by this person,’” said Ana-Christina Ramón, an author of studies about Hollywood hiring that are published annually by the University of California, Los Angeles.

On Thursday, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the 96-year-old home of James Bond, Rocky and RoboCop, took a modest yet meaningful step toward correcting the imbalance, hiring a young producer, Alana Mayo, to remake its Orion Pictures division to focus exclusively on underrepresented filmmakers and stories. Ms. Mayo will lead a greenlight committee made up entirely of women — meaning the chairman of MGM’s film group, Michael De Luca, will not have a vote in selecting the films that Orion makes or acquires for distribution.

“As a person who is a woman and Black and queer, I want to create something that will hopefully make other people like me feel like they are finally a part of the Hollywood system,” Ms. Mayo said in a phone interview. “One of the most exciting things about this opportunity is being able to greenlight movies. Who gets to say ‘yes’ is massively important. A lot of studio executives still have a fairly myopic view of what and who is film worthy. The human experience is 360 degrees. We have been looking at 20.”

The overhauled Orion will initially release two or three films a year with budgets of up to $15 million, about the same output and budget level as before. (MGM’s signature division works with higher budgets — a coming biopic about Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson cost MGM about $55 million to make — and aims to release eight to 10 films annually.)

Ms. Mayo, 36, has worked in the film business for more than a decade, climbing rungs at Paramount Pictures and, most recently, producing films and television series with Michael B. Jordan. They were instrumental in pushing WarnerMedia in 2018 to adopt an inclusive hiring policy for productions, and their recent civil rights drama “Just Mercy,” with Mr. Jordan in the lead role, was the first movie to adhere to it.

Credit…Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Macro

“We will absolutely have an inclusion policy on all Orion productions,” Ms. Mayo said. “I now know how it is done in a practical sense. How it’s achievable.” Such policies, still rare in Hollywood, evolved out of the concept of an “inclusion rider,” a term Frances McDormand brought public attention to in her 2018 Oscar acceptance speech — a contractual obligation that actors and filmmakers could potentially wield to increase diversity in productions.

Orion has lately put out horror and comedy films with predominantly white casts and directed by white men. “Child’s Play,” a remake of the 1988 movie about a murderous doll, was a moneymaker last year, costing about $10 million to make and selling $45 million in tickets worldwide. But other recent releases — “Gretel & Hansel,” the spiritual romance “Every Day” — have disappointed. The next movie on Orion’s release schedule is the goofball comedy “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” which will arrive in theaters and on VOD on Aug. 28.

John Hegeman, who has been Orion’s president since 2017, is leaving the company, along with his entire team.

Mr. De Luca and Pam Abdy, president of MGM’s film group, said in a statement that remaking Orion to focus on people of color, women, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and people with disabilities was “a moral and business imperative.” Kevin Ulrich, chairman of the MGM board, cited Ms. Mayo’s “fearlessness” as one reason she was hired.

“It was essential that we find an exceptional executive who will be a leader at the forefront of change in our industry,” Mr. Ulrich said in a statement. Mr. Ulrich is the chief executive of Anchorage Capital Group, a New York investment firm that is MGM’s largest owner. The plan to bring in Ms. Mayo was hatched with Creative Artists Agency, which serves as an adviser to Mr. Ulrich, not long after Mr. Floyd’s killing in late May.

MGM’s primary movie operation underwent its own shake-up in January. Out: Jonathan Glickman, who stepped down after nine years as the studio’s film chief. In: Mr. De Luca, a former Sony Pictures and New Line Cinema executive (and a producer of the infamous 2017 Oscars telecast that found Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty naming the wrong film best picture). MGM has since shown a new aggression in deal-making, lining up an adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” to be directed by Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) and a 1970s-era film from Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”).

There is speculation in Hollywood that Mr. Ulrich is sprucing up MGM ahead of a potential sale to a company like Apple, which lacks a library for its streaming service. An MGM spokeswoman declined to comment.

Orion, founded in 1978 as an independent company, sizzled in the 1980s and early 90s, in part because it took risks on challenging stories. Oscar-winning hits included “Amadeus” (1984), “Platoon” (1986), “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Orion also gave the world “Caddyshack” (1980).

But the studio also had misfires, among them Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” (1984) and “She-Devil” (1989), which paired Meryl Streep with Roseanne Barr. Orion eventually found itself unable to compete with larger studios and declared bankruptcy. MGM bought Orion in 1997, and it remained largely dormant as a film business — it also has a TV division, which will not be part of Ms. Mayo’s purview — until Mr. Hegeman was hired in 2017.

Ms. Mayo, who grew up in Chicago (her mother was a paralegal and her father was a radio executive), graduated from Columbia University with degrees in English and film studies. She got her start in show business as an intern for Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “Empire”). She said Spike Lee was as an important influence, in particular his “Bamboozled,” a 2000 satire about a modern televised minstrel show.

Ms. Mayo was briefly married to Lena Waithe, the Emmy-winning writer behind the Showtime series “The Chi.”

There are other Black women in senior roles at film studios. Nicole Brown is the executive vice president of Tri-Star, a Sony division that recently won a bidding war for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a Whitney Houston biopic. Vanessa Morrison oversees the development and production of original films for Disney+.

But they are extremely few and far between and most do not have the kind of movie-picking power that Ms. Mayo has been promised. According to the most recent U.C.L.A. study on diversity in Hollywood, senior management teams at studios are 93 percent white and 80 percent male. Five years ago, they were 92 percent white and 83 percent male.

As Ms. Ramón and her fellow researchers authors noted in the report, “Decisions about what types of films to make, how large a budget to assign to them, how they will be marketed, and who will be at the directorial helm are all made by the men and women who occupy Hollywood’s executive suites.”

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