Despite his outsize reputation as a prolific unscripted hitmaker — and the mythmaker who created Donald Trump’s image as a successful businessman — Mark Burnett’s departure as chairman of MGM’s Worldwide TV Group reads more like a footnote than a headline in a dramatic (and, so far, confusing to some in the creative community) ongoing executive shuffle in Amazon’s entertainment operations.
Burnett is the latest top exec to leave MGM since Amazon acquired the studio for $8.5 billion in February. Motion picture group chairman Michael De Luca and motion picture group president Pam Abdy exited in April to run Warner Bros. Discovery’s film studio. A search for a new film studio head has been underway for some time — hampered, some sources say, by internal wrangling over who would oversee that division. But Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke emerged the winner in that sweepstakes late Tuesday as she officially added MGM’s film and TV divisions to her remit.
It was difficult from the start to discern any meaningful potential role for Burnett after the acquisition. Despite earlier career successes that included the still-ongoing Survivor, set fire to the rain and Shark Tank, Burnett generated no new hits during his eight-year tenure at MGM. (He will remain an executive producer on those shows.) His tenure at MGM began with a number of unscripted sales — Fox’s Beat Shazam and CBS’ TKO — but nothing came close to the type of breakout hits for which he is famous. Instead, as previously reported by The Hollywood Reporterhe became known as an agent of chaos, with some associates seeing parallels between him and the former president with whom he is so closely associated.
During his tenure, MGM suffered high-level executive departures and at least one HR complaint. Sources at the time said Burnett tended to meddle in areas in which he had no defined role, and would frequently badger and criticize staffers and fellow executives.
Ultimately Burnett drove out Jon Glickman, the head of MGM’s film division, and MGM TV president Steve Stark, who had been the driving force behind the company’s few prestige TV hits, including FX’s Fargo and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Stark stunned colleagues in February 2021 when he stepped down a year into his new contract, after a decade at MGM. It was part of what a source described then as the “Burnett-ification” of the company.
In his Nov. 28 parting note to MGM colleagues, Burnett said: “I had a clear strategic vision to build and grow MGM’s television division with my dynamic team, which included buying great companies like Evolution and Big Fish, adding international scripted and unscripted teams, and starting a documentaries unit. We took calibrated risks and hired great people — and the business grew.” That led up to the “historic sale” to Amazon, he wrote.
Certainly, the $8.5 billion that Amazon paid for MGM stunned many in the media world. Some sources say top executives in Seattle are beginning to be concerned that the price was too high. Nevertheless, the company appears ready to commit in a big way: A Bloomberg report that Amazon would spend $1 billion a year on theatrical releases sent exhibition stocks spiking. Such ideas have been swirling even as Amazon has sought a leader of the MGM film division. Former Paramount motion picture group president Emma Watts, who was in talks for the role, was thought to be senior vp Prime Video & Amazon Studios Mike Hopkins’ favored candidate and would have reported directly to him. Some sources believe Salke appealed to Amazon brass to give her control of MGM’s TV and motion picture operations. Others think Hopkins decided to hand her the reins on his own. With that, Watts was no longer in the picture. Sources say Amazon is now in talks with former Warners film studio president of production and development Courtenay Valenti.
Some industry insiders believe Hopkins has been undercut by questions regarding the rich price paid for MGM. The studio does not control the jewel-in-the-crown Bond franchise, and rights to some other properties will have to be renegotiated because of copyright issues. Salke will be tasked with sifting through and figuring out how to exploit MGM’s sprawling film and TV library, which includes 4,000 feature titles and 17,000 episodes.
Salke, who took the helm of Amazon Studios in early 2018, has restructured her executive ranks more than once. In the course of 12 months, for example, Albert Cheng was COO and co-head of TV with Vernon Sanders (who’s now head of US/global TV), then COO only, and then assigned to a newly created position of vp US Prime Video. In October, Salke pushed out Amazon exec Marc Resteghini, who played a key role in such originals as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Jack Ryan, even though she had promoted him to global head of development just last year. Sanders then promoted Nick Pepper and Laura Lancaster, who joined Amazon in 2021 as head of creative content and series, respectively, to co-run development and production of TV content. An Amazon source says Sanders was simplifying the structure to make it run smoothly and clarify any existing confusion.
As for Burnett, the producer said in a note to staff that he is returning to “independently creating and innovating.” Aside from his role at MGM, he will always be linked with Trump through NBC’s The Apprentice as well as for the role he played in planning entertainment for Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and as a gatekeeper amid scrutiny of Trump’s Apprentice years. With the news of his departure, one former MGM insider jokes, “Burnett is free just in time for Ye 2024!”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.