But MGM never invested enough in Lightworkers to turn it into more than some scattered programming and a little-watched television channel, Light TV, showing family-friendly reruns. MGM’s biggest bet through Lightworkers, the $100 million 2016 film “Ben Hur,” lost money. Repeated promises of a high-powered streaming service never materialized.
Mr. Burnett’s relationship with Mr. Trump has also shadowed his run at MGM. He had long been part of a kind of media industry kitchen cabinet for the developer, along with CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, who had put “The Apprentice” on NBC, and the talent agent Ari Emmanuel. He and Ms. Downey had typically supported Democrats (Ms. Downey wrote a check to Marianne Williamson’s 2014 California congressional campaign), and he said in 2016 that he wasn’t actually supporting his friend’s White House bid.
But although Mr. Burnett promised associates that his friendship with the president would be great for business, he was also intensely sensitive to criticism of his old friend. He objected in particular, two people present at the time said, when an MGM board member, Jason Hirschhorn, began sharply criticizing Mr. Trump in his newsletter, REDEF in 2016. Katie Martin Kelley, MGM’s spokeswoman, said Mr. Hirschhorn’s “public statements at the time caused friction for many people at MGM,” and Mr. Hirschhorn, who left the board in 2017, declined to comment.
Since the 2016 election, Mr. Burnett has gone to great lengths to keep a public distance from Mr. Trump, batting away suggestions that he helped with the Republican National Convention. “They are not in communication and he had no involvement with any of the president’s public activities around his hospitalization for Covid-19,” Ms. Kelley said in an email.
Mr. Trump is just one thread in the internal tension at MGM involving Mr. Burnett. He’s always been a difficult boss, and even before the pandemic, he was a man-about-town deal maker — not an office-bound manager. He’s had so little input in the successes of the company’s scripted division, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Fargo,” that the division’s leader, Steve Stark, was recently forced to clarify to The Hollywood Reporter that he still reports to Mr. Burnett. He played a role in the messy 2018 ouster of Mr. Barber, which has left the company operating without a chief executive. Now, MGM is subject to perennial acquisition rumors and dependent on factors it can’t control: It is hoping theaters will be packed for the release of a new James Bond film next year and that the culture will be ready for the return of “Live PD,” a Burnett acquisition that was canceled this summer amid the wave of revolt at police violence.
After Mr. Barber’s ouster, Mr. Burnett announced that he and Ms. Downey would raise $100 million to start a Lightworkers subscription service. But those plans, Ms. Kelley said, have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, though “conversations have and are expected to continue.” For now, Lightworkers is just producing content for MGM, and recently completed production on a feature film called “Resurrection.” It also scaled back its digital presence in July, taking much of its content off the internet, including articles by Charlotte Pence Bond, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence. (One had the headline, “Are You Narcissistic? Let’s Find Out.”)
Mr. Burnett didn’t respond to interview requests directly or through an MGM spokeswoman. After years in the headlines, he is keeping his profile low, and his name didn’t even appear in a recent, gloomy Wall Street Journal assessment of MGM’s finances. Some of his old partners, like Les Moonves at CBS and Paul Telegdy at NBC, have been forced out of their positions, and a new generation of network executives doesn’t jump quite so quickly at his calls. But if he’s not quite the producing star he once was, he’s still closing deals. In 2018, Amazon Prime resurrected a show called “Eco-Challenge,” which Mr. Burnett started producing in the 1990s, though Amazon has dropped plans for a second season, MGM confirmed. When I asked MGM’s chief communications officer, Ms. Kelley, about the perception that Mr. Burnett had lost his creative touch, she responded with a litany of his long-running shows.