Rosa Klebb. Auric Goldfinger. Ernst Stavro Blofeld. And now, the ultimate Bond villain—John Calley.
At least that’s how executives at MGM seem to be feeling these days. Although their latest 007 flick, Tomorrow Never Dies, has been performing impressively at the box office (grossing $140 million worldwide in its first 10 days), a nasty legal battle is brewing between MGM, Bond’s longtime studio, and Calley, the president of Sony Pictures. MGM must be wishing for a license to kill—or at least a way to halt Calley’s plans to create his own competing Bond movies at Sony.
The brawl went public last October, when Sony announced that it had acquired the rights to make Bond films, but the origins of the clash actually go back decades. And while Calley denies he’s waging a vendetta, the industry is rife with speculation that there’s a grudge behind the double 007s.
Calley, not incidentally, used to run United Artists, the MGM division responsible for the Bond films, and in fact was credited with saving the troubled studio by reviving the Bond franchise with 1995’s GoldenEye, which grossed more than $350 million worldwide. In 1996, shortly after MGM was resold to its former owner, Las Vegas wheeler-dealer Kirk Kerkorian, Calley left the studio for Sony, reportedly livid with the way MGM chairman Frank Mancuso had kept him out of the loop during the studio’s auction. (Calley was also said to be unhappy with his financial compensation at MGM—which was reportedly in the low seven figures.)
The implication, at least from MGM’s point of view, is that Calley is threatening to launch his own Bond movies in order to stick it to former boss Mancuso (indeed, MGM’s lawyers describe Calley as a ”disgruntled former executive” in their suit against Sony). Certainly, Calley’s timing seems more than coincidental: He unveiled Sony’s Bond-ing just as MGM was announcing an initial public stock offering and preparing its publicity push for Tomorrow Never Dies. He ”couldn’t have picked a time more calculated to inflict injury on the company,” says attorney Pierce O’Donnell, who’s representing MGM. (Sony has no comment on MGM’s lawsuit other than ”we don’t intend to litigate it in the press,” but last October Calley told The Los Angeles Times that ”there is nothing personal about this. I have the utmost respect for Frank Mancuso and Kirk Kerkorian.”)
Whether or not Calley will be legally allowed to make a Bond film may not be decided by the courts for many months—but history may be on his side. Back in 1983, Warner Bros. exercised producer Kevin McClory’s rights to film the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again, in which Sean Connery reprised his role as 007 for the first time in 12 years—at the same time Roger Moore was starring in UA’s Octopussy. (One Warner exec involved in the early development of Never—yep, John Calley.) Calley has now licensed the Thunderball rights from McClory, the 71-year-old Irish producer who won the film rights in 1963, when he successfully sued Bond creator Ian Fleming over the property. (Beginning in 1959, McClory and Fleming had collaborated on an unproduced film treatment, which Fleming later turned into the novel Thunderball.)