Bond 25 questions: MGM’s silence edition

MGM’s revamped logo

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer held an investor call the other day. But the home studio to James Bond had almost nothing to say about its prized property.

Naturally, the blog has questions.

What was the context of what MGM did have to say about No Time to Die?

Essentially listing it among various films either awaiting release or in production. Others included Respect, a “biopic” with Jennifer Hudson portraying Aretha Franklin and a sequel to a recent animated Addams Family movie.

MGM executives said its film slate, coupled with its TV business would mean good financial results in the second half of 2021 and going into 2022.

Is that all?

Pretty much.

What is up with that?

Strictly a guess: MGM is trying to project an image of a strong operation where everything is under control. In the past year there have been reports that MGM is seeking a buyer and that the studio explored licensing No Time to Die to streaming services before deciding not to proceed.

Some of the reports indicate that leaders of Danjaq/Eon weren’t initially informed of such discussions and weren’t happy.

From the perspective of a Bond fan, how useful are these investor calls?

Mixed at best. Occasionally, investors ask MGM executives about Bond film projects and if there are any ways MGM can get more out of the franchise. At times, that generates additional comments. But much of the time, MGM executives stick to talking points.

If there was any surprise about this week’s investor call, it’s MGM didn’t even do that. Just a quick mention that No Time to Die is in pipeline — something all Bond fans knew already.

Is there additional context to keep in mind?

No Time to Die’s costs are approaching $300 million. (The studio reportedly is incurring $1 million a month in interest costs for each month No Time to Die doesn’t come out.) MGM had been counting on a big theatrical release before the COVID-19 pandemic.

About those Bond film series gaps

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Last week saw another delay announced for No Time to Die. That has prompted some entertainment news websites to look back at how the gap between SPECTRE and No Time to Die ranks among Bond films.

With that in mind, here’s the blog’s own list.

You Only Live Twice (1967) to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): This isn’t getting the attention as the others.

But You Only Live Twice came out in June of 1967 while On Her Majesty’s Secret Service debuted in December 1969. That was about two-and-a-half years. Today? No big deal. But at the time, the Bond series delivered entries in one- or two-year intervals.

This period included the first re-casting of the Bond role, with George Lazenby taking over from Sean Connery. Also, Majesty’s was an epic shoot.

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) to The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): This period often is written up as the first big delay in the series made by Eon Productions.

It’s easy to understand why. The partnership between Eon founders Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman broke up. There were delays in beginning a new Bond film. Guy Hamilton originally was signed to direct but exited, with Lewis Gilbert eventually taking over. Many scripts were written. And Eon and United Arists were coming off with a financial disappointment with Golden Gun.

Still, Golden Gun premiered in December 1974 while Spy came along in July 1977. That’s not much longer than the Twice-Majesty’s gap. For all the turmoil that occurred in the pre-production of Spy, it’s amazing the gap wasn’t longer.

Licence to Kill (1989) to GoldenEye (1995): This is the big one. Licence came out in June 1989 (it didn’t make it to the U.S. until July) while GoldenEye didn’t make it to theater screens until November 1995.

In the interim, there was a legal battle between Danjaq (Eon’s parent company) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Bond’s home studio, which had acquired UA in 1981. MGM had been sold, went into financial trouble, and was taken over by a French bank. The legal issues were sorted out in 1993 and efforts to start a new Bond film could begin in earnest.

This period also saw the Bond role recast, with Pierce Brosnan coming in while Timothy Dalton exited. In all, almost six-and-a-half years passed between Bond film adventures.

Die Another Day (2002) to Casino Royale (2006): After the release of Die Another Day, a large, bombastic Bond adventure, Eon did a major reappraisal of the series.

Eventually, Eon’s Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson decided on major changes. Eon now had the rights to Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. So the duo opted to start the series over with a new actor, Daniel Craig and a more down-to-earth approach.

Quantum of Solace (2008) to Skyfall (2012): MGM had another financial setback with a 2010 bankruptcy. That delayed development of a new Bond film. Sam Mendes initially was a “consultant” because MGM’s approval was needed before he officially was named director.

Still, the gap was only four years (which today seems like nothing) from Quantum’s debt in late October 2008 to Skyfall’s debut in October 2012.

SPECTRE (2015) to No Time to Die (?): Recent delays are due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But pre-production got off to a slow start below that.

MGM spent much of 2016 trying to sell itself to Chinese investors but a deal fell through. Daniel Craig wanted a break from Bond. So did Eon’s Barbara Broccoli, pursuing small independent-style movies such as Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and Nancy, as well as a medium-sized spy movie The Rhythm Section.

Reportedly, a script for a Bond movie didn’t start until around March 2017 with the hiring (yet again) of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. The hiring was confirmed in summer 2017. Craig later in summer of 2017 said he was coming back.

Of course, one director (Danny Boyle) was hired only to depart later. Cary Fukunaga was hired to replace him. More writers (Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Scott Z. Burns) arrived. The movie finally was shot in 2019.

Then, when 2020 arrived, the pandemic hit. No Time to Die currently has an October 2021 release date. We’ll see how that goes.

Bond 26 and beyond

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Bond fans are waiting for another delay for the release of No Time to Die/Bond 25. If/when (probably when) that happens, the bigger question is for Bond 26 and beyond.

No Time to Die was a pre-COVID-19 movie with pre-COVID-19 finances. The 25th James Bond film ran up costs approaching $290 million as of mid-2020, according to a U.K, regulatory filing.

But, hey, it was a contender for a theatrical box office of $1 billion or more (split with theaters). Certainly Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Bond’s home studio) and Danjaq LLC (parent company of Eon Productions) were working on that assumption.

Then, of course, COVID-19 changed everything. Theaters were shut down in many regions. And the virus — despite the emergence of vaccines — has not been brought to heel. At least not yet and maybe not soon.

Perhaps you can just kick the can. Delay the release date one, two, who knows how many times? Eventually, everything will be back to normal.

Won’t it?

No Time to Die is on the shelf. It will get shown. Sometime.

The big question is what happens with Bond 26, whenever that gets made, and in whatever form.

Studios such as Walt Disney Co. and AT&T’s Warner Bros. have embraced the streaming model model. MGM reportedly shopped No Time to Die around for a streaming deal but couldn’t get the price it wanted.

What’s more, MGM reportedly has put itself up for sale. The studio’s association with Bond will reach its 40th anniversary this year. The Bond-MGM association has been a rocky one, dysfunctional even.

Danjaq/Eon controls the rights to Bond. But Danjaq/Eon needs MGM (whether by itself or in alliance with other studios) to get 007 movies made.

Put another way, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed before you can even talk about future Bond adventures.

Example: Is the traditional model of a big theatrical release followed by home video revenues even practical now? Or do studios need to reduce the costs of big “tentpole” films?

Of major tentpoles, Bond seemingly is in a good position to ramp down and do more cost-effective productions. The early 007 films such as Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, were pretty lean films.

Still, that was almost 60 years ago. Things change.

No Time to Die may be a rousing James Bond film. But Bond’s future still is being determined — and things are more uncertain than James Bond emerging triumphant at the end of a movie.

Bond 25 questions: MGM sale (?) edition

No Time to Die logo

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, home studio of James Bond, may be up for sale. This comes as No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond film, still (figuratively) sits on the shelf, unwatched.

Naturally, the blog has questions.

How solid is this news?

It originated with The Wall Street Journal, which cited people familiar with the situation it didn’t identify. The business newspaper initially published a relatively short story early the evening of Dec. 21. Within a couple of hours, the Journal expanded the article. The audio version of the story went from 2 minutes to 6 minutes.

The Journal has published a number of MGM-related stories in recent years, including how MGM spent much of 2016 unsuccessfully negotiating a sale to Chinese investors and an October article about how MGM was under increasing pressure by investors to sell.

How far along are things? If a sale happens, how long will it take?

The Journal reported MGM has retained investment banks Morgan Stanley and LionTree LLC and that a sales process is underway. That suggests things are at an early stage but there’s no way to know for sure. Meanwhile, the sale of an entire company or substantial subsidiary can easily take months.

Why would MGM want to sell?

The studio is owned by hedge funds, led by Anchorage Capital Group. Hedge funds typically own an asset for a few years and then sell at a profit. The hedge fund owners of MGM have held on to the studio for a decade, longer than the norm.

Then, there’s the No Time to Die money pit.

Money pit?

The cost of the 25th James Bond film was approaching $300 million as of June 30, according to a U.K. regulatory filing. Meanwhile the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed No Time to Die’s release twice (April 2020 to November 2020 to April 2021). MGM’s interest costs on its investment are running at a reported $1 million a month.

MGM normally would start to get its money back when the movie went into release. But, besides the delays, theater attendance is way down because of the pandemic.

Who are possible buyers?

The Journal said the studio is looking to non-traditional buyers. Certainly some familiar Hollywood names have their hands tied.

Walt Disney Co. still is digesting its acquisition of 20th Century Fox. The company’s theme park business also was hurt by the pandemic. Warner Bros. is part of AT&T, which is revamping its entertainment assets to build up its new HBO Max streaming service.

Tech company Apple Inc. is a possibility and it needs programming for its own streaming service. But Apple has lots of other ambitions, including getting into car production by 2024, according to Reuters. A deal with Apple isn’t a sure thing.

What does all this mean for the Bond franchise?

MGM and Danjaq LLC control the franchise. An MGM sales means, at the very least, that Danjaq will have to deal with yet another executive regime. Danjaq has had plenty of practice at that since 1981, when United Artists was bought by MGM.

There could be a bigger effect if an MGM buyer had a streaming operation, the way Apple does. Danjaq and its Eon Productions like to make a big movie every so often. Would Danjaq/Eon even be interested in doing streaming series, the way Disney Plus is doing with Marvel and Star Wars?

Hard to say. Barbara Broccoli of Danjaq/Eon said last year she was resisting the idea of spinoffs. Then again, things can change. We might get The Adventures of Bill Tanner or Loelia! as streaming shows.

MGM update: Still a hot mess

The Hollywood Reporter is out with a story today that won’t make James Bond fans feel good about the super spy’s home studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The article, by veteran journalist Kim Masters, focuses primarily on Mark Burnett, the reality TV guru who was brought into MGM to run its television operation. Burnett reportedly was instrumental in having CEO Gary Barber fired in 2018.

Burnett, at MGM, hasn’t duplicated the success he had earlier in his career (Survivor, The Apprentice, et. al.). But what’s of interest to Bond fans are passages about how MGM is being managed overall.

A few excerpts follow. The first describes Barber’s firing.

The company has gone without a chief executive since March 2018, when Barber — a tight-fisted, bottom-line oriented businessman who had engineered the acquisition of Burnett’s businesses in a series of deals that began in 2014 — was fired. Barber, who had breathed life into MGM after it emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, was escorted from the company’s Beverly Hills offices with only a few minutes’ notice. Just months earlier, his contract had been renewed through December 2022.

The second concerns how MGM has been managed since Barber’s departure.

With his departure, Burnett was free to roam. MGM is to some degree guided by an Office of the Chief Executive, but the company does not disclose its members. (Sources say the committee is made up in part of Burnett, COO Christopher Brearton, and the heads of divisions.) But one exec says, “Everyone does their own thing. It’s a rudderless ship.”

To be fair, the article contains comments about how everything is just fine.

MGM controls the Bond film franchise along with Danjaq LLC, parent company of Eon Productions.

GoldenEye’s 25th: Bond’s revival

GoldenEye's poster

GoldenEye’s poster

Expanded and revised from a 2015 post.

GoldenEye, the 17th James Bond film, had a lot riding on it, not the least of which was the future of the 007 franchise.

It had been six years since the previous Bond film, Licence to Kill. A legal fight between Eon Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had kept 007 out of movie theaters. In 1990, Danjaq, the holding company for Eon, was put up for sale, although it never changed hands.

After the dispute was settled came the business of resuming production of the James Bond film series.

Timothy Dalton ended up exiting the Bond role so a search for a replacement began. Eon boss Albert R. Broccoli selected Pierce Brosnan — originally chosen for The Living Daylights but who lost the part when NBC ordered additional episodes of the Remington Steele series the network had canceled.

Brosnan’s selection would be one of Broccoli’s last major moves. The producer, well into his 80s, underwent heart surgery in the summer of 1994 and turned over the producing duties to his daughter and stepson, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Broccoli himself would only take a presenting credit in the final film.

Various writers were considered. The production team opted to begin pre-production on a story devised by Michael France.

His 1994 first draft was considerably different than the final film. France’s villain was Augustus Trevelyan, former head of MI6 who had defected to the Soviet Union years earlier. Bond also had a personal grudge against Trevelyan.

Other writers — Jeffrey Caine, Kevin Wade, and Bruce Feirstein — were called in to rework the story.  The villain became Alec Trevelyan, formerly 006, and now head of the Janus crime syndicate in the post-Cold War Russia. In addition, the final script included a new M (Judi Dench), giving Bond a woman superior. Caine and Feirstein would get the screenplay credit while France only received a “story by” credit.

In the 21st century, many Bond fans assume 007 will always be a financial success. In the mid-1990s, those working behind the scenes didn’t take success for granted.

“Wilson and (Barbara) Broccoli already knew that GoldenEye was a one-shot chance to reintroduce Bond,” John Cork and Bruce Scivally wrote in the 2002 book James Bond: The Legacy. “After Cubby’s operation, they also knew the fate of the film — and James Bond — rested on their shoulders.”

GoldenEye’s crew had new faces to the 007 series. Martin Campbell assumed duties as the movie’s director. Daniel Kleinman became the new title designer. His predecessor, Maurice Binder, had died in 1991. Eric Serra was brought on as composer, delivering a score unlike the John Barry style.

One familiar face, special effects and miniatures expert Derek Meddings, returned. He hadn’t worked on a Bond since 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. GoldenEye would be his last 007 contribution. He died in September 1995, before the film’s release.

In the end, GoldenEye came through, delivering worldwide box office of $352.2 million. Bruce Feirstein, who had done the final rewrites of the script, was hired to write the next installment. Bond was back.

GoldenEye would inspire a video game still well remembered today. A few days before the U.S. premiere was the second, and final, official James Bond fan convention, held in New York City.

For some Bond fans, GoldenEye is one of the best of the 007 films. For others, not so much.

Regardless, GoldenEye was a major event in the history of the Bond film series. Bond had survived a major behind-the-scenes drama. The gentleman agent was ready to take on a new century.

State of the Bond film franchise fall 2020

James Bond, trying to keep his head above water.

In the fall of 2020, James Bond is trying to keep his head above water.

His newest film adventure, No Time to Die, figuratively sits on the shelf. Its release date has been delayed a number of times. The last two delays stemmed from COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether the current date, April 2021, will be a reality.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, according to various news reports, shopped the 25th James Bond film to streaming services to get some cash now.

An Oct. 27 account in The Hollywood Reporter indicated that Apple Inc. considered offering $350 million to $400 million for a one-year license so the tech company could televise No Time to Die on its streaming service.

That wasn’t enough for MGM, according to THR. But MGM managed to alienate Danjaq LLC, parent firm of Eon Productions. MGM and Danjaq jointly control the Bond film rights.

So we’re back to a familiar spot.

MGM is under financial strain. It’s paying interest monthly on the money it borrowed to finance No Time to Die. MGM, meanwhile, is getting nothing while No Time to Die goes unseen.

Danjaq and Eon can’t make movies without MGM. MGM flops around while trying to diversify its business so it’s not as Bond dependent.

One example: The Epix premium channel was supposed to boost MGM’s prospects. It has yet to be the cash cow MGM envisioned.

MGM bought the company of reality television guru Mark Burnett, who gave the world Survivor and The Apprentice. It also made Burnett a studio executive.

But, as The New York Times noted earlier this month, Burnett is losing his touch. His recent reality TV efforts haven’t caught on the way his old shows did.

So once again, James Bond is MGM’s main asset.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Only this time around, Bond — at least his newest film adventure — isn’t an asset that’s bringing in money right now.

Once again, there’s tension between MGM and Danjaq/Eon. That’s been true much of the time since 1981, when MGM bought United Artists, Bond’s original studio home.

On the MGM side, the names change. From Kirk Kerkorian (more than once) to (among others) Gary Barber (the MGM CEO ousted in 2018) to Kevin Ulrich Ulrich. He heads up the hedge fund that’s MGM’s biggest owner and is chairman of MGM’s board.

The fundamental dynamic, though, hasn’t changed. MGM and Danjaq/Eon are in a troubled marriage.

James Bond is a film franchise that’s nearly six decades old. That’s remarkable by any standard. It’s especially remarkable because Bond’s biggest foe isn’t Blofeld or Goldfinger or Dr. No or Le Chiffre or Silva.

His biggest opponent may be Leo the Lion, the mascot of MGM.

Maybe that would change if MGM’s hedge fund owners finally sell the studio. But maybe not.

THR: Apple didn’t offer MGM enough for NTTD

Apple Inc. didn’t offer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer enough to license No Time to Die to show on streaming, The Hollywood Reporter said.

Apple considered an offer of $350 million to $400 million one a one-year license, the entertainment news outlet reported. MGM was looking for $650 million to $700 million or more, THR said.

MGM’s demands were a “nonstarter” for other streaming such as Netflix, according to THR. Meanwhile, MGM — which controls half the Bond film franchise — is incurring $1 million in interest a month for loans to finance the $250 million No Time to Die, THR said.

No Time to Die has had a series of release dates. It had been set to come out in April but was delayed until November because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it’s set to come out in April 2021 but that’s uncertain as the pandemic continues.

Finally, Danjaq LLC — which controls the other half of the Bond franchise — and its Eon Productions unit wasn’t initially told by MGM about the talks. Danjaq/Eon boss Barbara Broccoli opposed the idea, THR said.

Here’s an excerpt from the THR story:

Broccoli is seen as a staunch traditionalist who is very much in support of the theatrical experience. Furthermore, Bond is a franchise connected to luxury and scarcity, and by going to a streamer there could be a brand hit in her eyes, according to one insider. “It’s a dip into a pool you won’t be able to get out of,” says the source.

Bond 25 questions: The streaming edition

No Time to Die poster

What once seemed unthinkable — a new James Bond movie debuting on a streaming service — may be a possibity. Or is it? Naturally, the blog has questions.

How did this come up anyway?

On Thursday, Drew McWeeny, who writes about film, posted a tweet that raised the possibility. He has a reputation for knowing a lot of people in the industry.

McWeeny also publishes a newsletter where he elaborated. Here is an excerpt:

In the last ten days or so, at least six people have reached out to talk to me about what they’re hearing, and it sounds like those two streamers are currently the most actively engaged in conversations with MGM and, I presume, EON and Universal to pick up No Time To Die. I have no idea if other conversations have occurred or not, but I can’t imagine they’re the only two interested parties.

McWeeny also wrote that one figure he’s heard is for more than $600 million. But he also wrote he didn’t know if that was just one film or more.

Separately, the MI6 James Bond website and Bloomberg ran stories on Friday concerning No Time to Die going to streaming first.

MI6 said it “understands that those offers started at $200m are now heading towards $250m – just for the North America streaming rights.”

Bloomberg said Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has held talks with Apple Inc. and Netflix. The news service cited “people familiar with the situation.” MGM told Bloomberg the film is not for sale. The Bloomberg story doesn’t provide a specific price.

UPDATE (Oct. 24): Variety weighed in with its own story. The entertainment outlet said MGM was looking for a deal in the $600 million range, “a price tag that was deemed too rich” for some of the streaming services. Which ones weren’t specified.

UPDATE II (Oct 24): Dealine: Hollywood (a sister site to Variety) posts a story emphasizing MGM’s denial.

A troll on Facebook (joined in July, only three followers) emphasized to me how Deadline’s Mike Fleming has a special, close relationship to Danjaq/Eon. That’s another way of saying Fleming is an extension of the Danjaq PR machine. Whatever. Personally, I prefer a knowledgeable, independent voice on these things.

What happens now?

The Bond situation is very complicated. MGM and Danjaq LLC jointly control the James Bond film rights. No Time to Die is to be distributed by United Artists Releasing (co-owned by MGM and Annapurna Pictures) in the U.S. and Universal internationally.

That’s a number of parties that may have to be dealt with for any streaming deal.

What’s driving this?

No Time to Die was to have come out in April but was delayed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). So it was rescheduled for November. But COVID-19 hasn’t gone away and cases are rising again in the U.S. and Europe. So now, the 25th James Bond film is supposed to be out in April 2021.

What’s more, MGM is a weak studio in an industry already facing changes before COVID-19. The company is owned by hedge funds who likely are anxious to sell the studio.

A streaming deal would deliver cash now while MGM can still be prepare to sell itself later.

But what about that MGM denial to Bloomberg?

That denial may have a short shelf life. Put another way, the denial is true today. The question is how long will it be true?

Barbara Broccoli now No. 2 in 007 film tenure

Barbara Broccoli, boss of Eon Productions

The milestone took place a few years ago, but it should be noted that Barbara Broccoli is now No. 2 in 007 film tenure at 38 years.

Broccoli, 60, has worked in the franchise full-time since 1982. She graduated from college that year and soon was working on Octopussy, which began filming that summer. She received an on-screen credit of executive assistant.

Earlier, she worked part-time as a teenager, writing captions for publicity stills on The Spy Who Loved Me.

At 38 years, she trails only her half-brother, Michael G. Wilson, 78, who joined Eon Productions in 1972. Wilson and Broccoli have shared the producer title on Bond films since 1995’s GoldenEye.

Albert R. Broccoli, co-founder of Eon and its parent company Danjaq, had a tenure of 35 years, from 1961 until his death in 1996.

UPDATE (July 11): To be clear, this post only concerns total tenure time on a full-time basis. Albert R. Broccoli was either co-decision maker (when Harry Saltzman was his partner) or primary decision-maker (after Saltzman departed) for almost all of his 35 years. He only yielded toward the end of that time because of health issues.

Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have spent more years involved in the franchise. But it took them some years to achieve the same decision-maker status.