Veteran Sands shifting from his MGM gig

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Rick Sands, who played a key role in MGM's ongoing efforts to reinvent itself, resigned Wednesday as the company's COO.

Last month, MGM chairman and CEO Harry Sloan named former Universal executive Mary Parent chairman of MGM's worldwide motion picture group, charging her with developing MGM's film slate. That move, which gave responsibilities for worldwide theatrical production, distribution, marketing and business affairs to Parent, undercut Sands' role in those areas, raising the question about his future at the company.

Joining MGM in January 2006 as Sloan set about reviving the privately held company, Sands focused on re-establishing MGM as theatrical distributor. He also had a hand in MGM moving its home entertainment business from Sony to Fox, and he developed the company's worldwide TV sales and digital-media divisions.

To quickly enter the theatrical arena, MGM offered itself out as a rent-a-studio for independent producers looking for an outlet for their product in theaters and on pay cable, where MGM has had an output deal with Showtime.

Since then, MGM has released nearly 40 films. It struck pay dirt with some titles: "Rocky Balboa," in which it held a stake, became its top 2006 release, hitting $70.3 million domestically; and the horror movie "1408," from the Weinstein Co., grossed nearly $72 million in 2007. But many of its other releases fell by the wayside.

Still, company insiders insist the low-cost, low-risk strategy paid off. Because most of the producers whose films the Lion handled paid for their own P&A, the studio effectively built up its distribution apparatus using about $500 million worth of other people's money.

As the business shifted and other new distributors entered the field competing for product, MGM has begun to pursue its own production plans more aggressively. By relying on distributing other producers' films, it often didn't control all the rights to the movies it released theatrically. By investing in its own titles, it now hopes to own the content needed for long-term growth.

The company insists that its latest shift is part of a natural evolution rather than a repudiation of its initial strategy.

Sands has been instrumental in setting up such upcoming projects as a "Death Wish" remake, which Sylvester Stallone is starring in and will direct, and "The Thomas Crown Affair 2," which Paul Verhoeven is set to direct.

Moving forward, MGM expects to focus on releasing about 18-20 films per year: Four to six of them will come from Parent's production team; another four could be turned out by MGM subsidiary United Artists; and the remainder would come from third parties.

Telling friends that he felt he had accomplished his mission by setting the company on its feet, Sands characterized his decision to leave as something he had been contemplating for some time. Nevertheless, Parent's arrival appears to have sped up the process.

Sands' attorneys spent the past few days negotiating his exit. Despite reports that MGM and Sands at one point were discussing giving him a new role at the company, that possibility was never on the table. Sands did not announce his plans.

Said Sloan: "We appreciate Rick's contributions in helping to revitalize MGM over these past two years. He has helped us to meet the formidable challenge of rebuilding MGM's operations and securely positioned the studio with a strong foundation for continued growth and renewal. We wish Rick continued success in all of his future endeavors."

In addition to the role he played on the theatrical side, Sands' duties had involved overseeing various operating units, including MGM Worldwide Television Distribution, MGM Consumer Products and MGM Home Entertainment Distribution. In addition, he administered the company's finance, operations, administration, human resources and business affairs units. No immediate successor as COO is in place, and MGM did not respond to queries about how Sands' responsibilities might be divvied up.

Before joining MGM, Sands was president and COO of DreamWorks. He also has held top exec posts at Miramax, Hallmark Entertainment and Columbia, where he began his career in 1978.
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