Celebrating 35 years of Eon-MGM dysfunction

Barbara Broccoli

Barbara Broccoli

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the uneasy alliance between Eon Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After all this time, the relationship doesn’t appear to be getting any easier.

In 1981, MGM acquired United Artists after insurance conglomerate Transamerica Corp. threw up its hands, opting to get rid of UA and exit the movie business. UA had just dropped a big flop, Heaven’s Gate. Transamerica, which acquired UA in 1967, had enough.

Eon (and its parent company Danjaq) had a reasonably warm relationship with UA.

United Artists simply released the first nine Bond films made by Eon. The studio (which coughed up the money to actually make the movies) occasionally influenced the films. Most famously, it was UA that insisted on bringing Sean Connery back to play 007 in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. But for the most part, Eon had a pretty long leash.

The two sides grew closer after UA bought out Harry Saltzman’s stake in the 007 franchise in 1975 when the Danjaq-Eon co-founder ran into financial trouble. Still, UA executives thought a lot about Eon chief Albert R. Broccoli, including maintaining an office for him at UA headquarters in New York.

When MGM bought UA, things changed. The 2015 book Some Kind of Hero by Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury goes into some detail about this. Budgets tightened, as did studio oversight. There was a Danjaq-Eon lawsuit when MGM ownership changed at one point, a catalyst in the 1989-1995 hiatus in 007 film production.

Even after the lawsuit was settled, there was tension. Things were never as warm between Eon and MGM as when Broccoli and Saltzman cut their first deal with UA in 1961.

It didn’t help that MGM was long past its prime even in 1981, when it first got into the Bond business. By that point, MGM simply didn’t have the resources as other major studios.

By the mid-2000s, MGM was barely a studio. Sony Pictures actually released the last four James Bond movies, starting with 2006’s Casino Royale. Sony’s Columbia Pictures logo appeared with MGM’s Leo the Lion logo at the start of 007 films.

After a 2010 bankruptcy, MGM was mostly a television company, making series for cable channels. It financed a few movies annually, but released none of them. MGM cut deals with other studios to co-finance them, with the partner studios actually releasing them.

While in bankruptcy, MGM produced a business plan saying it would ramp up 007 film production to every other year. That may have helped get bankruptcy court approval. But Barbara Broccoli, current co-boss of Eon, made clear in 2012 she had no plans to make Bond films that quickly.

MGM chief Gary Barber

MGM chief Gary Barber

Gary Barber, who became MGM chief during the bankruptcy, backed off. These days he doesn’t even mention that bankruptcy court business plan. Earlier this year, he said 007 films would come out on a “three-to-four-year cycle.”

Occasionally, on investor conference calls, Barber refers to “our partners at Danjaq.” Barbara Broccoli, meanwhile, doesn’t talk about MGM much.

Barber is trying to demonstrate that MGM is a viable company beyond James Bond. In part, that’s because MGM wants to sell stock to the public in three to five years.

This weekend, however, MGM got a reality check. Its Ben-Hur remake (released by Paramount) flopped badly. MGM only makes a few movies a year, so any flop is more painful compared with major studios.

For now, Eon/Danjaq and MGM are more or less in the same place they were 35 years ago.

MGM needs Eon to make James Bond films, still the studio’s biggest asset. Meanwhile, Barbara Broccoli wants to make dramas that have nothing to do with James Bond.

At the same time, Eon/Danjaq can’t make James Bond films without doing business with MGM, as much as Eon/Danjaq might like to do so.

It’s a cliche, but true. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

MGM watch: Ben-Hur remake flops in setback for 007 studio

MGM logo

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s remake of Ben-Hur flopped at the U.S.-Canada box office with a paltry estimated $11.4 million for the Aug. 19-21 weekend, according to Variety.

The movie finished No. 5 this weekend, according to a tweet by Exhibitors Relations, which tracks box office results. The flop occurred in a weekend that wasn’t robust for theaters. Suicide Squad, in its third weekend, was No. 1 at $20.7 million.

Ben-Hur was actually released by Paramount. After exiting bankruptcy in 2010, MGM isn’t big enough to distribute its own films. So MGM cuts deals with other studios to share production costs, with the partner studio getting movies to theaters.

Ben-Hur, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, has been made as a film three times previously. The 1959 version, starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler, won 11 Academy Awards.

Here’s why this blog noting all this: MGM is the home studio for the James Bond film series, with MGM and Danjaq LLC (the parent company of Eon Productions) controlling the franchise.

In March, MGM chief Gary Barber said 007 films will come out on a “three-to-four year cycle. MGM doesn’t yet have a partner studio for Bond 25 after Sony Pictures’ most recent contract expired with SPECTRE. The next Bond film also doesn’t have a confirmed leading actor or, as far as anyone knows, a script.

When MGM was in bankruptcy, it produced a business plan saying it would get 007 films out on an every-other-year schedule. However, Barbara Broccoli, co-boss of Eon Productions, has made clear she’s not interested in making Bond films that often.

MGM in recent months has emphasized its slate of non-Bond projects, mostly in television. The studio only releases a handful of movies each year, so any flop hurts MGM more than competitors with larger film slates.

Ben-Hur’s flop also demonstrates that MGM’s supply of bankable movie projects outside of 007 remains limited. Since 2010, MGM’s other main movie property was the now-concluded Hobbit series.

MGM’s next film is a fall release of another remake, The Magnificent Seven.

About the SPECTRE gunbarrel logo

RIP classic 007 gunbarrel (1962-2002)

Original gunbarrel as seen from Dr. No through Goldfinger.

Back in 2012, this blog ran a post that raised the question whether the gunbarrel logo would ever begin a James Bond movie again.

In 2015, the answer, finally was yes with SPECTRE.

At the time, this blog didn’t comment much. After all, it doesn’t seem like good form to complain about getting something you wanted.

Since then, we’ve been reminded there were a few oddities about SPECTRE’s gunbarrel. For example, the Being James Bond website, IN THIS VIDEO, noted that Daniel Craig’s 007 wildly swings his right arm so that you can see Bond openly is carrying a gun. Not exactly an inconspicuous wielding of a firearm by a secret agent.

The website also noted that the three-dimensional gunbarrel effect that began with GoldenEye wasn’t used in SPECTRE.

Something else to consider: The SPECTRE gunbarrel uses a different musical arrangement from previous Bond movies. There’s a soft arrangement of The James Bond Theme that plays under the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures/Sony logos.

Back in the “old days,” there was no music over studio logos. Music didn’t begin until the white dots began moving across the screen.

With SPECTRE, the music with the studio logs is followed by the start of gunbarrel music per se. But there’s a delay between the start of the white dots going across the screen and the time the last dot opens up to reveal Bond on the right side of the screen.

On the Being James Bond video, there’s speculation that the filmmakers really didn’t want to put the gunbarrel at the start of the film.

We guess Being James Bond is correct. With Skyfall, there was a song and dance about how a gunbarrel at the beginning just wouldn’t, couldn’t, etc. work. IN A 2012 INTERVIEW, Eon Productions co-boss Barbara Broccoli clearly was NOT promising the gunbarrel would be at the start of the next movie. “It will vary from film to film,” she said at the time.

As an aside, it should be noted that Daniel Craig is the only Bond to get to film a different gunbarrel for each 007 film he did.

Prior to Craig:

–Stuntman Bob Simmons’ gunbarrel was used for the first three Bond films.

–The same Sean Connery gunbarrel was used for three movies (Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever).

–George Lazenby only did one, naturally. (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)

–Roger Moore did two (one for Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, the other for his other five 007 films)

–Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan only had one on-screen gunbarrel in their films (although Brosnan got another for a trailer only).

Regardless, the SPECTRE gunbarrel will have to do. It doesn’t appear we’ll be seeing another version anytime soon.

Eon’s new normal, the sequel

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Almost three years ago, this blog had a post titled Eon’s new normal which said, “The new normal: A Bond film maybe every third year (Bond 24, the next movie is scheduled for the fall of 2015), with various other projects in-between.”

In March of this year, Gary Barber, the CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in effect confirmed that was the case concerning Eon, the company that makes 007 films and is a partner with MGM in the Bond franchise.

The 007 films have “been on a cycle of every three to hour years and I anticipate it will be on that same three-to-four year cycle,” Barber said on a conference call with investors and analysts. (MGM reported second-quarter 2016 results on Wednesday but had no 007 news.)

Essentially, Eon can’t make Bond films without MGM and vice versa. This goes back to the early 1980s when MGM acquired United Artists. UA, in turn, had acquired Harry Saltzman’s share of the 007 franchise in the mid-1970s.

Since our 2013 post, it has become evident that Eon, and its co-boss Barbara Broccoli, do not want to be rushed into making James Bond films. Eon’s current production is Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, a drama about American actress Gloria Grahame.

In the “old days,” Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, the Eon co-founders, pursued non-Bond projects while cranking out classic 007 films on a regular schedule.

In the second decade of the 21st century, not so much. There was a four-year gap between Die Another Day and Casino Royale (2002-2006). Quantum of Solace came just two years later. But another four-year gap followed, mostly because of an MGM bankruptcy (2008-2012) between Quantum of and Skyfall.

Skyfall was a huge hit, and the first (and so far only) Bond to crack the $1 billion club. An executive of Sony (which released the movie for MGM) said the next film would be out in two years. However, Broccoli and star Daniel Craig told Collider.com in 2012, in effect, that exec didn’t know what he was talking about.

Broccoli won out. SPECTRE, the most recent 007 film, came out three years later, in 2015.

Some fans, to this day, insist that three-year gap was because Eon was waiting on Sam Mendes to direct another film. But it’s very clear that Barbara Broccoli does not want to resume an every-other-year schedule, including comments she made in a 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

On internet message boards, 007 fans debate whether Daniel Craig will come back or not for another Bond film. The real debate is whether Bond movies will come out three times a decade, or just twice.

A related question: Is the 007 fan base growing or static? Skyfall, in a way, was helped by its four-year gap. Fans were anxious to finally see another James Bond film. Is that the right approach for the future?

Regardless, as we said three years ago, there’s a new normal for Eon. The details are still being hammered out.

 

Two 007 facts amid the speculation

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

What follows are two 007-related facts. They don’t necessarily connect to one another.

On the other hand, you see so much on social media, we thought we’d mention them, for what they’re worth.

–It’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s choice, not Eon Productions’, what studio will distribute Bond 25.

That’s not this blog talking. It’s Michael G. Wilson, Eon’s co-boss. He gave an interview late last year portions of which are on YouTube.

“It’s not primarily our decision,” Wilson said. “MGM will…it’s their responsibility.” Wilson said, at the time. He also said that Eon had met with studios (he didn’t specify which ones) which were interested in releasing Bond 25 for MGM.

Sony Pictures has released the last four 007 films but its most recent two-picture deal expired with SPECTRE.

–Barbara Broccoli’s current non-Bond film has a relatively short filming schedule. 

According to the Screen Daily website, the Eon co-boss’ drama, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is scheduled to wrap filming on Aug. 8. Principal photography began in late June and is based at stages that are part of an expansion at Pinewood Studios.

A producer’s job, of course, doesn’t end with filming. A producer oversees various post-production tasks — editing, sound work, music, etc.

Meanwhile, Screen Daily also refers to the movie as a “passion project” of Broccoli’s. The movie is based upon the memoirs of British actor Peter Turner, who had a relationship with American actress Gloria Grahame. Broccoli acquired the film rights more than 20 years ago, according to Screen Daily.

At the same time, Eon has various other pending non-007 projects. So, there’s no telling how many will take up Broccoli’s time before she turns her attention to Bond 25.

 

A few 007-related questions for this summer

Barbara Broccoli

Barbara Broccoli

Here are some questions 007 fans perhaps should follow for the rest of the summer.

Let’s begin with this: Barbara Broccoli’s newest non-007 film, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, has started filming at Pinewood Studios. That was disclosed in a Pinewood press release.

Why is that something to watch? It’s a test of the ability of the Eon Productions co-boss to multi-task.

In this case, can Broccoli simultaneously produce the drama and gear up Bond 25?

Why do you say that? Eon co-founder Harry Saltzman was able to produce the Harry Palmer film series and The Battle of Britain without affecting the 007 film schedule.

Albert R. Broccoli, Barbara Broccoli’s father and the other Eon co-founder, produced Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in between Bond films.

Both Broccoli and Saltzman were involved with Call Me Bwana inbetween Dr. No and From From Russia With Love.

In the 21st century, Kevin Feige runs Marvel Studios, which produces two movies a year, with Feige getting the credit as producer.

So what should we watch for? If there are significant Bond 25 developments (writers hired, a director hired, etc.) while production of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is underway, then it would seem the Eon co-boss can handle multi-tasking just fine.

To be fair, Eon may be somewhat limited by the fact there’s no distributor yet for Bond 25. 007’s home studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, isn’t big enough to release its own films.

But there are things Eon can do — especially lining up writers and a director — before MGM selects a distribution partner. Sony Pictures has released the last four 007 films but its contract expired with SPECTRE.

And if there isn’t major Bond 25 news during that time? Maybe, just maybe, there won’t be any major Bond 25 news until the last part of 2016, or perhaps early 2017.

 

Michael Cimino and the art vs. commerce conflict

Heaven's Gate poster

Heaven’s Gate poster

Director Michael Cimino died over the weekend at the age of 77, as noted in obituaries by various outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. In death, as in life, Cimino was a reminder of the age old movie conflict of art vs. commerce.

Cimino’s third movie, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, lost a lot of money for United Artists. The director, coming off an Oscar for The Deer Hunter, had a lot of clout. He used it, with Heaven’s Gate running over budget and over schedule as the perfectionist director pursued his vision of a Western that addressed broader social issues.

The project lost so much that UA’s parent firm, Transamerica Corp., threw in the towel and sold off the studio. The buyer was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, itself a financially struggling entity. That had a big impact on the James Bond franchise, beginning an era of tension between MGM and Eon Productions.

With Cimino’s passing, memories broke into two camps.

The first was that of unjustly punished artist, whose career never recovered. (This article in The Guardian is an example.)

Second, that an of an out-of-control director who helped wreck a studio, a view popularized by Final Cut, the 1985 book by the late Steven Bach, one of the UA executives unable to bring Cimino’s spending under control.

What this debate overlooks is Cimino and Heaven’s Gate were just one of a long line of directors whose projects got caught up in art vs. commerce. It wasn’t even the first time for United Artists.

In 1965, UA, then headed by Arthur Krim and his lieutenants (the same bunch smart enough to do a deal to get 007 films made), were in the same boat as their eventual successors at UA were with Cimino.

In ’65, UA was backing another perfectionist director, George Stevens. The main difference between Stevens and Cimino is that the former had a long track record, including such films as Gunga Din, Giant and The Diary of Anne Frank.

No matter. Stevens was far over budget and over schedule on The Greatest Story Ever Told, the director’s film about Jesus Christ. Ex-UA executive David Picker goes into detail in his 2013 memoir Musts, Maybe and Nevers how studio management couldn’t bring Stevens under control.

Greatest Story bombed big time for UA, coming out as audience interest in Biblical movies faded. The Krim management group, however had a life line: Thunderball (released at the peak of 1960s Bondmania) and movies featuring The Beatles (which had low budgets and high profits).

While UA made it through the crisis, the same couldn’t be said of Stevens. He’d only make one more film, 1970’s The Only Game in Town.

20th Century Fox faced a similar crisis a couple of years earlier with Cleopatra. It actually was popular at the box office, but its mammoth budget meant a lot of red ink.

Fox leaned on its television division, headed by William Self, to recover from the financial crisis. The TV unit was able to sell small-screen versions of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 12 O’Clock High and Peyton Place in time for the 1964-65 season.

Meanwhile, like Stevens, Cleopatra director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s career also suffered after his big flop. Going further back, the likes of D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim, among others, ran into the art vs. commerce buzzsaw.

In short, Cimino wasn’t unique. He was, however, a colorful example of a conflict that continues to shape the film industry.

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