It’s easy to name the crown jewel in the thousands of movies Sony Corp. will inherit when it takes control of legendary film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
That name is Bond … James Bond.
For four decades, studio chiefs and movie directors have craved the opportunity to put their imprint on the $1-billion franchise that is Hollywood’s most successful film series ever. Already, months before they officially acquire MGM, Sony’s top movie executives are mulling over ways to refresh the vodka-martini-sipping secret agent.
The prospective new owners, according to sources familiar with Sony’s thinking, hope to broaden Bond’s appeal beyond older males enamored with the fiery explosions, careening Aston Martins and buxom models. They’re aiming for the kind of global audiences that flocked to Sony’s Spider-Man blockbusters, believing there should be more to Bond’s character than machismo.
But Sony will soon learn that many a studio executive has been shaken and stirred when pitted against Agent 007’s off-camera bodyguards. Shielding Bond from the minefields of Hollywood pitches are producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, her half brother.
They are the intensely private and fiercely protective heirs guarding the legacy of their late father, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, a Long Island vegetable farmer-turned-Hollywood showman who almost single-handedly built author Ian Fleming’s secret agent into a global star and pop culture icon.
“The Sony executives may have stars in their eyes right now as they dream of what James Bond can be now that he’s theirs,” said Lindsay Doran, who headed MGM’s United Artists unit during the making of two Bond films. “But they might get their hearts broken, like so many executives before them, if they look at the deal and realize he’s not theirs, he’s the Broccolis’.”
The Broccolis possess a unique license to kill ideas they don’t like. Among the casualties: giving Bond a son, exploring his darker side as a paid assassin and even one top actor’s take that the misogynous womanizer is latently homosexual. So protective are Broccoli’s heirs that they once commissioned a confidential 60-page Bond “character bible” that continues to serve as something of an owners’ manual. What kind of woman does 007 seduce? What does he wear? How nasty are the villains he battles?
“Every decision they make starts with the question: ‘Is this in the tradition of Bond? Is this the right thing for the franchise?’ ” MGM Vice Chairman Chris McGurk said. “They know Bond better than anyone else.”
No creative decision is made without the blessing of Broccoli’s daughter, Barbara, 44, and stepson Wilson, 62. Their late mother was Broccoli’s third wife, Dana. The two split time between their London production base where Bond is filmed and Los Angeles.
Working as a team, the producers pore over every script. They decide where in the movie Bond’s signature guitar-twanging theme song plays. They sign off on the director, star, even some of the actors playing minor characters. They are on the set every day of filming, and sit in on editing sessions. Movie trailers, posters and TV spots need their OK.
“Barbara and Michael have infinitely more to do with it than any studio,” said Roger Spottiswoode, who directed 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. “MGM would come up with some new idea and Barbara would say, ‘That’s not right for Bond.’ “
The producers’ far-reaching creative rights were first granted to Cubby Broccoli when he and a partner forged the Bond production deal in 1961 with United Artists, acquired 20 years later by MGM. Broccoli’s heirs inherited those rights when Cubby died of heart failure in 1996.
The Broccolis and MGM technically have equal say on creative matters. But, MGM’s McGurk acknowledged, “while everything is equal, they take the lead in all creative choices.”
Broccoli and Wilson declined to be interviewed, as did Sony executives. But speaking about her father for a documentary included in the Diamonds Are Forever DVD, Barbara Broccoli said: “I remember one time he said to me, ‘You know, the most important thing is don’t let ’em screw it up.’ “
Lately, Broccoli and Wilson have flexed their muscle on who will next slip into Bond’s tuxedo. The producers nixed actor Pierce Brosnan even though the four films in which he starred were the highest-grossing of the 20-film series. Broccoli and Wilson have let Hollywood agents know they want to replace the 51-year-old Brosnan with a Bond who is 28 to 32 years old.
“We’ve shared weddings and funerals and the births of children,” Brosnan said. “We’ve had a lot of success together. But as to the fate of the franchise, you have to remember that at the end of the day, it’s the Broccolis’ family business.”
The producers also postponed the next Bond film, which sources identified as based on Fleming’s novel Casino Royale [NOTE: This was first reported on CBn] until they can find a director and star. That pushes its release from next year into 2006.
With that film, Sony will begin reaping the riches from Hollywood’s longest-running franchise, which has amassed $3.7 billion in global ticket sales, most from overseas. The last film, 2002’s Die Another Day grossed $430 million worldwide, the most for any Bond installment.
Since Dr. No‘s debut in 1962, profits have gushed in from virtually all of the Bond films produced by the Broccoli family, regardless of whether Agent 007 was played by such stalwarts as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Brosnan or the less memorable Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby.
Each time a new film hits theaters, old Bond movies generate millions of dollars in DVD sales and TV airings. The Broccoli family takes home 20% to 35% of the profit on each film. (Because of murky underlying rights, the only two Bond films not produced by the Broccoli family were Columbia Pictures’ 1967 spoof of Casino Royale and Warner Bros.’ 1983 release Never Say Never Again.)
The gold Cubby Broccoli struck came amid a chorus of naysayers, including author Fleming, who believed that Bond had limited cinema appeal. But Broccoli was an accomplished salesman of big action movies, having honed his skills early in life hawking caskets and jewelry.
The son of Italian immigrant farmers, Broccoli moved to Hollywood in the 1930s. Before long, he was making large-scale adventure films for Columbia Pictures and became one of Hollywood’s most colorful impresarios, trucking snow to his Beverly Hills mansion for a Christmas party.
A fan of Fleming’s books, Broccoli always wanted to make Bond films but didn’t own the rights. A mutual friend introduced him to the man who did, Harry Saltzman, who was broke with 28 days left before his option expired. The two paid a visit to United Artists Chairman Arthur Krim’s Manhattan office.
Krim was no stranger to the Bond character. The UA chief had been introduced to the spy novels by his friend, President John F. Kennedy, whose enthusiasm for the books helped popularize them.
Krim adhered to the philosophy of UA dating back to its founding in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mark Pickford and director D. W. Griffith. They believed that filmmakers made better creative decisions than executives.
UA’s then-production chief David Picker was in the room when Broccoli and Saltzman asked for money to bring Bond to the screen. “They came in and said ‘We control James Bond,’ ” said Picker, a Fleming fan who earlier had tried to land the movie rights. “We wouldn’t let them out of the room before we had a deal.”
Today, that deal has survived as one of the most unique, hands-off studio arrangements ever.
During the ensuing decades, the Broccoli family has gone through almost as many studio executives as Bond has bikini-clad girlfriends.
MGM and United Artists have been bought and sold at least a half-dozen times, with new executives bringing new ideas. Director Michael Apted said his 1999 Bond film The World Is Not Enough endured two studio regimes.
“You’ve got people who constantly want to reinvent the franchise,” Apted said. “That has historically been the source of serious tensions between the ever-changing managements of MGM and the Broccolis.”
Sometimes those differences reach a boiling point.
“I remember Barbara shouting at MGM, ‘Don’t tell me how Bond should be. I intend to still be making these Bond films in 10 years, and you may not even be in business,’ ” director Spottiswoode said.
There is, however, give and take. On Die Another Day, the Broccoli family relented to MGM’s choice of female lead Halle Berry as girlfriend while the studio acquiesced to hiring director Lee Tamahori.
But the producers compromise only so much. They shot down MGM’s idea for a TV show featuring a young James Bond. For years, they have resisted studio research screenings.
“When anyone at the studio tries to force anything on them, that’s when they get their backs up,” former MGM distribution chief Larry Gleason said. “In reality, it comes down to MGM financing the movies and the Broccolis having creative control.”
Still, those who have worked with the producers say they realize Bond needs to appeal to today’s moviegoers, some of whom complain that the films have become too formulaic and predictable. The trick in reworking Bond is not to alienate core fans, who know that Oddjob drove a 1964 Ranchero in Goldfinger.
One radical departure that might have been sacrilegious to an earlier generation of Bond fans came in 1995’s GoldenEye. Oscar-winning British actress Judi Dench was hired to begin playing his boss, “M.” Earlier films showed the character as a crusty, authoritative man mostly played by the late actor Bernard Lee.
“Barbara and Michael acknowledge that Bond needs to change as the times change,” said former UA production executive Jeff Kleeman. “But if you’re going to change the classic Bond, you don’t do it accidentally or out of ignorance.”
As eager as Sony executives are to get their hands on Bond, legal reasons prevent them from contacting the producers until MGM shareholders bless the pending $4.9-billion acquisition by Sony’s investment group later this year.
But a pilgrimage to the producers’ London headquarters is a top priority for Sony Pictures boss Michael Lynton and movie chief Amy Pascal.
When they finally capture the secret agent, Spottiswoode has some advice: Back off.
“Sony is incredibly lucky and would be very well-advised to leave the franchise alone,” Spottiswoode said. “The Broccolis make it work.”
By Claudia Eller, Times Staff Writer
© Los Angeles Times