Writers Guild authorizes strike; will it affect Bond 25?

Writers Guild of America West logo

More than 96 percent of Writers Guild of America members participating voted to authorize union leaders to call a strike during current contract negotiations, according to The Hollywood Reporter and other entertainment news outlets.

The idea of a possible WGA strike makes James Bond fans uneasy. Quantum of Solace was affected by a WGA strike and 007 fans fret it could have an impact on Bond 25 as well.

First, a strike-authorization vote doesn’t guarantee a strike. A union has to conduct such a vote before a strike can happen. Some times, there is an authorization vote but a settlement occurs without a walkout.

On the other hand, if a WGA goes on strike, it could occur as early as May 2.

Quantum’s WGA strike history: The 22nd James Bond film originally had a release date of May 2, 2008. (CLICK HERE to see the text of the July 20, 2006 press release announcing the date. It came out before Casino Royale was released.)

Later, the release date was pushed back to fall 2008. However, the WGA went on strike from Nov. 5, 2007 to Feb. 12, 2008. Screenwriter Paul Haggis dropped off a draft just before the strike began. The strike is blamed for story shortcomings in Quantum, even if it doesn’t explain everything.

Bond 25’s writing history (such as it is): Nothing is official, but the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye reported last month that veteran 007 scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were hired to write Bond 25.

Naturally, Bond fans wonder if a new WGA strike might disrupt things.

Still there’s one key difference.

The 2007-08 strike began shortly before the beginning of Quantum filming. Bond 25 doesn’t have a director. It doesn’t have a studio to distribute it. It hasn’t cast any actors. It has no production start date.

A strike may delay Bond 25 scripting but that process isn’t anywhere near as advanced as Quantum was just before that WGA strike.

Just to be clear, this post is from the narrow perspective of Bond 25. The WGA negotiations cover serious, broader issues.

What’s at stake for Bond 25

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

After the “lost year” of 2016, Bond 25 appears to be actually getting into gear.

The New York Times reported that five studios (four established, one a newcomer) are bidding for a one-picture deal to distribute the next 007 film from Eon Productions.

However that bidding turns out, the stakes are still high for the 25th James Bond film.

SPECTRE was OK financially but didn’t grow the franchise

2012’s Skyfall was (pardon the pun) a quantum improvement over Quantum of Solace in terms of popular and critical reaction. Skyfall almost seemed like a return to the mid-1960s when Goldfinger made 007 a “thing.”

The 007 series followed up Goldfinger with Thunderball, which was even bigger.

The series followed up Skyfall with SPECTRE, which….wasn’t as big. In the U.S. market, SPECTRE sold the fewest theater tickets (23 million) of 007 movies released since 1995 (and the advent of the home video era).

SPECTRE brought back Blofeld but made him Bond’s “foster brother.” Shades of Austin Powers.

Because of information from the Sony hacks, we know other things that could have made it into the movie. M was a traitor. Tanner was a traitor. Bond watches Tanner commit suicide. Felix Leiter calls Moneypenny a “fox lady.”

Veteran 007 scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were summoned to perform triage. SPECTRE was no disaster at the box office, but it didn’t match Skyfall.

Where is this franchise going? At the end of SPECTRE, Bond (Daniel Craig) is driving off in the Aston Martin DB5 with Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux). The car was seemingly destroyed in Skyfall, but the Eon crew can’t let go.

If Craig comes back, do we go off on another revenge story (as in Quantum of Solace)? If Seydoux is killed by Blofeld (a fan favorite scenario), does Bond fall apart yet again (as in Skyfall)?

Or does Bond 25 mostly ignore SPECTRE, similar to how Diamonds Are Forever for the most part didn’t reference On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? (There are references but very slight.)

In Bond 25, after things don’t work out with Madeline Swann, 007 asks to be reinstated to MI6.

Does Bond 25 cap its production budget? Or does it double down?

 SPECTRE had examples of ridiculous spending. A $36 million car chase (really, a car drive). The “largest explosion in motion picture history” that had no drama because Bond and Swann were well away and safe when it happened.

Does Eon Productions scale back? Or does it try to keep up with the Joneses, i.e. modern movie blockbusters?

We’re a long way off from a movie being filmed. Not a whole lot can happen until there’s a studio to actually release Bond 25. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which exited bankruptcy in 2010, doesn’t have the resources to finance a big-budget Bond on its own.

Here’s the thing. As of now, the Bond series doesn’t have direction. In the 21st century, successful franchises (think Disney’s Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm Ltd.) plan things out years ahead of time.

With Bond, it’s kind of, “Let’s see how it goes.”

For 55 years, since the release of Dr. No, that has worked out. Maybe it will again. Bond 25 will tell us a lot whether that’s still the case.

Still more Bond 25 questions after NYT story

Eon boss Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig: Working together on another Bond movie soon?

Nothing like a story by The New York Times to generate more questions about the future of the film 007.

What’s Barbara Broccoli thinking? Sony Pictures has released the last four Bond movies. Barbara Broccoli, the Eon Productions boss, had by all accounts a good relationship with Sony executive Amy Pascal. The Broccoli-Pascal relationship was noteworthy in a still male-dominated movie business.

Pascal is gone, losing her job as a result of the Sony hacks in 2014 (though having a producer deal at Sony).

One of the bidders to release Bond 25, according to The Times is Annapurna. It’s an “upstart” (The Times’ words) movie concern that is about to release its first film Detroit, a drama about the 1967 riots in that city.

Annapurna head Megan Ellison, 31, is a tech heiress who has been active in producing dramatic films. Could she forge a bond with Barbara Broccoli, who turns 57 in June, similar to the one Amy Pascal had?

Why is MGM and Eon Productions only seeking a one-film deal? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 a smaller company. It has been rebuilding gradually.

MGM spent much of 2016 negotiating with a Chinese buyer (still unidentified) but those talks didn’t pan out. MGM also has talked about selling stock to the public at some point.

MGM may yet see major changes. Keeping a distribution deal to Bond 25 only provides MGM executives flexibility for the future.

Why isn’t Walt Disney Co. interested in 007, according to the NYT story? Disney tends to think big. It spent billions to acquire both Marvel and Lucasfilm Ltd. (Star Wars) and is reaping the rewards as both crank out big hits.

Being the Bond film distributor means a lot of cost without a lot of profit. Sony, in its most recent deal, co-financed Skyfall and SPECTRE but only got 25 percent of the profits. MGM and Eon got more money than Sony did.

Bond fans may object, but for Disney releasing Bond movies would probably be more trouble than its worth. Disney would only get involved with 007 if it could buy everybody out and control it all, the way it did with Marvel and Star Wars.

 

Bond 25 questions/observations after NYT story

Daniel Craig

The New York Times turned up how five studios are bidding to release Bond 25. That new piece of the jigsaw puzzle adds information and raises new questions.

So much for that fan theory: Until now, there has been a popular fan theory that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer really had a Bond 25 distribution deal in its hip pocket but was just waiting for the right time to announce it.

If The Times is correct, no way. The April 20 story says MGM and Eon Productions only now “have started attending dog and pony shows put on by studios that want the (distribution) rights.”

A sliver of uncertainty in an uncertain world: Relatively speaking, Sony didn’t make as much money as you might think from distributing Skyfall and SPECTRE, the two most recent entries in the 007 series. Sony co-financed the movie but only got 25 percent of the profits. MGM and Eon got a bigger share of the haul that Sony did.

However, as Brooks Barnes of The Times wrote, the competition reflects “the realities of the modern movie business. As competition for leisure time increases, studios have focused more intently on global blockbusters, and those are in short supply….Having a Bond movie on the schedule guarantees at least one hit in a business where there is almost no sure thing.”

Now the questions.

So when does Bond 25 come out? Not soon. Until a distribution deal is reached, things such as budgets can’t even be discussed. Some fans still hope that Bond 25 can still go into production in early 2018 for a late 2018 release.

Is Daniel Craig coming back as Bond? Still unknown.

What is Annapurna? It’s one of the five bidders, along with Sony, Warner Bros. Universal and 20th Century Fox.

Annapurna is a movie company founded by tech heiress Megan Ellison. Here’s a description from a 2011 New York Times story:

Annapurna Pictures has Megan Ellison, a 25-year-old scion of Silicon Valley, who over the last year or so has been feeding what may soon be hundreds of millions of dollars to the hungriest part of the movie business: the writers, producers, directors and stars who make sophisticated dramas and adventure films that are too risky for studios and their corporate owners.

Annapurna, for example, has a Kathryn Bigelow-directed drama due out in August, simply titled Detroit, set during the 1967 riots in that U.S. city. Ellison, now 31, has producing credits including Zero Dark Thirty. Finally, Annapurna has done business with MGM in the past.

5 studios seeking to release Bond 25, NYT reports

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Five studios are seeking to release Bond 25, The New York Times reported, citing five people familiar with the process it didn’t identify.

What’s more, according to the newspaper, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Eon Productions are only offering a one-film deal. Sony Pictures has released the last four Bond films and its most recent two-picture agreement expired with 2015’s SPECTRE.

The studios identified by The Times are Sony, Warner Bros., Universal, 20th Century Fox and Annapurna, “an ambitious upstart financed and led by the Oracle heiress Megan Ellison.” Neither Walt Disney Co. nor Paramount are involved, The Times said. None of the companies involved returned calls from The Times seeking comment.

Reporter Brooks Barnes described an elaborate presentation by Sony that involved Kazuo Hirai, the CEO of parent company Sony Corp.

“Casting for the franchise has not been discussed in the meetings, according to the people briefed on them, although producers hope Daniel Craig will play the lead for at least one more chapter,” Barnes wrote. “He has a gap on his docket, according to movie industry databases, that would allow for filming.”

Under the most recent distribution deal, Sony co-financed Skyfall and SPECTRE but only got 25 percent of the profits. MGM emerged from a 2010 bankruptcy as a smaller company, without its own distribution operation. MGM mostly produces television shows. It relies on distribution deals with other studios for its small film slate.

Clifton James, known as 007 sheriff, dies at 96

Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper in The Man With The Golden Gun

Clifton James, a character actor whose career extended more than 60 years but perhaps best known as a redneck sheriff in two 007 films, has died at 96, according to an obituary by The Associated Press.

James embodied a 1970s shift in James Bond films to a lighter, more comedic tone. He played Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a Louisiana lawman who was comic relief in 1973’s Live And Let Die and 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun.

“What are you, some kind of doomsday machine, boy?” James’ Pepper says, emerging from a wrecked police car and confronting Roger Moore’s James Bond following that film’s massive boat chase sequence.

J.W. Pepper was created by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. In the documentary Inside Live And Let Die, the scribe said he didn’t want the audience laughing at the African American villains in the film.

Clifton James as J.W. Pepper fit the bill. James said in the documentary he wore padding to make himself look heavier.

The character was brought back for Golden Gun. In one January 1974 draft, by 007 veteran Richard Maibaum (who took over for Mankiewicz), Pepper only had a small appearance.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. In the final film, Pepper accompanies Bond on a car chase. The sheriff at one point is leaning out a car window, yelling at other drivers. (The Maibaum draft had a Thai character simply called “Prospective Buyer” ride with Bond.)

James, however, was far more than J.W. Pepper. He easily made a convincing villain in various television series. He also played cheapskate Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey in Eight Men Out , a drama about the scandal when the baseball team threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

James’s IMDB.COM ENTRY lists 100 acting credits from 1954 to 2017.

UPDATE (6:05 p.m., New York time): Roger Moore took to Twitter to note the death of Clifton James.

 
UPDATE II (April 16): The official James Bond Twitter feed published a post about the actor’s passing.

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Should 007 aspire to be a $1B a film franchise?

Skyfall teaser poster

The motion picture industry has always been about money. Sometimes art mixed with money. Sometimes a message mixed with money. But money is always part of the equation.

When you’re dealing with money, round numbers are always nice. The current fixation is with $1 billion worldwide box office.

The James Bond film franchise met that standard (on an unadjusted basis) once with 2012’s Skyfall. It was a big deal at the time. The movie came out on Agent 007’s 50th anniversary and demonstrated the series can play with the “big boys.”

Since then the roster of movies with $1 billion global box office has expanded to 29. Skyfall is ranked 15th of those 29 films. The Fate of the Furious, which opened this weekend, the eighth film in the Fast and the Furious series, may end up making it an even 30. It’s certainly not going to stop there.

It’s gotten to the point that, for some franchise films, not making it to $1 billion comes across as a disappointment.

That was certainly the case with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That 2016 movie that was the first cinematic joint appearance of the three biggest DC Comics characters (Wonder Woman was in it, even if she didn’t figure in the title).

Though no one will admit it publicly, that was probably the case for SPECTRE, the most recent 007 film. You can’t help but wonder if Eon Productions and studios Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Sony Pictures thought something like, “If Skyfall made $1 billion, this movie will surely make $1.5 billion.” Certainly, some fans were talking like that before the movie came out in fall 2015.

Here’s a question to mull over: Should the Bond franchise actively be attempting to crank out $1 billion blockbusters?

Some fans will reply: “Of course!” If you adjusted for inflation, Thunderball would have a $1 billion-plus box office.

Still, today, to play in the $1 billion club, often requires a lot of money.

Skyfall’s estimated budget was $200 million, which was less than the $230 million or so Quantum of Solace.

An MGM memo that became public because of the 2014 Sony hacking, said SPECTRE’s spending was tracking to go well above $300 million. The final, unofficial estimate was $245 million, after various product placement and tax credits got factored in.

The production cost went up in part because Eon said the movie had the biggest explosion in motion picture history and a car chase sequence estimated to cost about 24 million British pounds, or $36 million at the time. “It’s one of those scenes that’s going to be very iconic,” SPECTRE co-star Dave Bautista said in a promotional video for the film.

Whether either sequence made that much of a difference is up for debate. But the increased cost isn’t. Only the accountants know the final figures.

The ante is going up to play in the $1 billion box office club. There’s speculation that Marvel’s third and fourth Avengers movies that are being filmed at the same time may cost a combined $1 billion (or $500 million each).

This stemmed from remarks by the top executive of Pinewood Studios Atlanta that the studio was home to the “largest film production ever.”  He didn’t specify, but the two Avengers movies are being filmed there.

Bringing this back to the world of James Bond: Should 007 try to keep up with this? Or is it time to re-evaluate, scale back and proceed in a different direction?

Unfortunately, no answers here. For the moment, there’s no studio to actually release Bond 25. Sony’s most recent two-picture deal expired with SPECTRE. But it’s something to keep in mind.