With MGM up for auction, the world's greatest film franchise faces an uncertain future

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated August 06, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Right now, at the famous 007 soundstage outside London, filming should be getting started on a new James Bond movie. An Aston Martin should be revving its motor. Tailors should be altering a tuxedo. Daniel Craig’s trainer should be working overtime. But take a stroll through Pinewood Studios’ massive backlot until you reach Broccoli Road, enter the space that nearly every Bond film since The Spy Who Loved Me has called home, and all you’ll see this summer are peg legs and eye patches. Instead of shooting a 007 movie on the 007 stage, crews are setting up for the next Pirates of the Caribbean.

Up until last spring, it looked as if James Bond would indeed return, as eternally promised in the closing credits of every 007 movie since From Russia With Love, this time for a 23rd installment of the most durable action franchise in the history of motion pictures. A screenwriter (Peter Morgan, Oscar-nominated for The Queen and Frost/Nixon) had been tapping out pages, and a director (Sam Mendes, Oscar winner for American Beauty) had been chosen — or at least hired as a ”consultant,” widely presumed to be a prelude to the directing job. And there was an actor ready, willing, and contractually obligated to play the lead role: Craig is signed for at least two more movies. But somewhere in a hollowed-out volcano, a bald guy with a cat on his lap is laughing. After decades of invincibility, it seems as if 007 has finally been defeated, at least for the foreseeable future.

What’s holding up production on the next Bond movie is the sale of 007’s longtime, debt-hobbled studio, MGM, which went up for auction last November and still hasn’t found a buyer. ”Due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the future of MGM and the failure to close a sale of the studio, we have suspended development on Bond 23 indefinitely,” the franchise’s producers declared in a statement on April 19. Then, in July, there was more reason to fear the worst, when London’s Mirror reported a rumor that Bond 23‘s indefinite suspension had been turned into an outright cancellation (Bond’s production office had no comment on this latest story, other than to say that the suspension is still indefinite).

For Bond fans, these reports are as ominous as a laser aimed at the groin. The last time Bond was put on hold was in the early 1990s, after a series of legal battles (and Timothy Dalton) nearly wrecked the series. It took six years to get it up and running again. And in Hollywood today, six years is an eternity. ”No franchise can afford to be away from screens for that long anymore,” says a former MGM exec. ”You lose too much momentum. Even for Bond, it could be deadly.”

The irony here is that Bond has otherwise never looked healthier. The last two movies, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, have together grossed a billion dollars worldwide, while Craig’s grittier, pared-down 007 has reenergized the series for a whole new generation. If Mendes had decided not to direct, there would have been a line of others who’d kill for a shot at the franchise, including Christopher Nolan, who recently told the BBC that he’d ”love to do a Bond film” and that 007’s ”grand-scale action” had been an influence on Inception. But even if MGM were sold tomorrow, it would still be two or three years before Bond could arrive back on screens. And it doesn’t look like MGM will be sold tomorrow, or anytime soon. Time Warner, parent company of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, was among those to make an offer, reportedly for $1.5 billion, but MGM is said to be holding out for something closer to $2.5 billion. Recent reports that Spyglass and Lionsgate had each been exploring the possibility of a merger with MGM so far haven’t come to much (Lionsgate is dealing with issues of its own, with billionaire Carl Icahn trying to take control). Which raises the other spectre, the doomsday scenario: MGM runs out of money and gets broken up and sold for parts to pay off its creditors. If that ends up being the case, Bond could very well spend the better part of the next decade dangling over a pit filled with something far worse than piranhas: bankruptcy lawyers.

Years ago, if you happened to visit Pinewood Studios, you might have spotted a Rolls-Royce parked on Broccoli Road with a ”007” license plate. It belonged to Albert R. ”Cubby” Broccoli, the legendary producer who first brought Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy to movie screens with Dr. No in 1962, launching a franchise that would ultimately gross more than $5 billion worldwide (you don’t get a street named after you at Pinewood for nothing). Broccoli was also the guy who cosigned the original deal with United Artists — which later became a part of MGM — that split ownership of the 007 movies down the middle, giving UA distribution rights until the end of time or the end of Bond, whichever came first.

Broccoli died in 1996, but not before passing the keys to the family business to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and her half brother, Michael G. Wilson. They’re the ones who relaunched the series after that six-year lapse, with Pierce Brosnan in 1995’s GoldenEye, and re-relaunched it with Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale. In a lot of ways, the two half sibs couldn’t be more different. At 50, she’s the baby of the family, born a few years before the release of Dr. No. He’s the 68-year-old son of actor Lewis Wilson, who was Broccoli’s wife’s first husband (and also the first guy ever to play Batman on the screen, in a 1943 serial). Barbara hates being photographed, while Michael loves cameras so much he’s cast himself in cameos in several Bond films (that’s him as a casino floor manager in The World Is Not Enough, and again as a U.S. Air Force general in Die Another Day). ”We disagree on pretty much everything,” Barbara told EW in 2006, during an interview on the set of Casino Royale. ”Politics, religion, whatever. But when it comes to work, we always agree. It’s uncanny how much we agree.”

They are, in their own right, two of the most successful action producers in the world. Almost every movie they’ve made since GoldenEye has grossed more than its predecessor. But unlike their competition — the Jerry Bruckheimers, the Michael Manns — the Broccolis don’t multitask. They make Bond movies and nothing else. ”They produce in a very linear way,” says the ex-MGM exec. ”They don’t have 10 different projects going on at the same time, the way someone like Brian Grazer does. It’s very old-school. They develop the movie, produce the movie, release the movie, go on vacation, come back, develop the movie, produce the movie….”

”We’re really lucky,” Wilson told EW during a stroll around the 007 soundstage back in 2006, in what turned out to be an ironically optimistic conversation. ”When you look at all these pop culture characters — Tarzan and Batman and Superman — they do sometimes disappear for a while. It happens because the distribution rights get moved around or people lose interest or whatever. But we always do one movie every two or three years….”

The Broccoli siblings may always agree with each other about Bond, but they haven’t always seen eye to eye with MGM (like when a studio exec once supposedly suggested fitting Eddie Murphy for the tux). Still, success has mostly insulated the producers from studio meddling, as well as from the turmoil swirling around MGM during its multiple changes of leadership in recent years (Sony was a major stakeholder for a while, which is how that studio ended up distributing the last two Bond films, but currently MGM is mostly owned by a handful of different investment institutions). ”The Broccolis exist in a world and a time frame all their own,” says another former MGM exec. ”Barbara and Michael’s attitude — and they got this from their father — has always been that MGM’s ownership will always be changing. There will always be another new guy sitting in the chair every few years. But Bond — Bond is forever.”

They can’t afford that attitude anymore. The studio the Broccoli family has been married to for the past five decades is now $3.7 billion in debt and rapidly running out of cash. Except for a few stray projects, like Hot Tub Time Machine and a Red Dawn remake, which MGM optimistically insists will be released Nov. 24, it’s all but stopped making movies. Its most valuable asset — after Bond — is the MGM library of classic titles, but that’s been diluted over the decades by all those changes of ownership (MGM doesn’t even own The Wizard of Oz anymore). True, MGM does have the rights to the potentially priceless Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit — and now maybe even Peter Jackson to direct it — but how can production begin while the studio’s future is so unsure? ”This can’t go on for much longer,” says an entertainment-industry financial analyst familiar with the MGM sale. ”The rational, sharpen-your-pencils, best financial approach to all this would be to break up the company. They should sell off everything. I was joking the other day that they should sell the Bond franchise for a billion dollars to some sovereign company in Abu Dhabi and promise to make Bond movies in Abu Dhabi from now on.”

The Broccolis declined to be interviewed for this story. MGM had no official comment either. And all of the 007 insiders who talked to EW requested that their names not be printed. Obviously, the future of MGM and the Bond franchise is a touchy subject right now, especially for people who’ve made their livings from the series. But it’s not hard to imagine what’s going on in the Broccolis’ heads. ”They must be freaking out,” offers one of the insiders. ”What they wanted was a sale of MGM to Sony or Fox or Time Warner. A big studio with giant vaults of cash that would welcome the Bond franchise with open arms. But if MGM goes into bankruptcy, they’re screwed. With bankruptcy comes a long line of people with their hands out and all sorts of potential lawsuits. The Broccolis could get caught up in legal limbo. That would make it very difficult for them to get the Bond franchise off the ground again.”

Daniel Craig must be paying close attention to what’s going on at MGM too. Being cast as 007 has always been an insta-pass to the A list, and the Bond gig certainly put a jetpack on Craig’s career; overnight, he went from being the little-known lead in English indie flicks like Layer Cake and Enduring Love to being a marquee name big enough to have just landed the lead in David Fincher’s upcoming adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. At 42, Craig is still young enough to drive an Aston Martin without looking like a guy having a midlife crisis; he could easily fit another two or three Bond films onto his résumé. But who knows how Craig will feel about Bond if he has to wait years to play him again. And who knows how audiences will feel about Craig when he’s pushing 50. By that time, Bond will be ready for yet another reboot, with yet another new star.

The good news? By then, Jaden Smith may have an opening in his schedule.

Other projects in danger
The Bond films aren’t the only ones sidelined by MGM’s business woes

New Zealand’s Hobbit shire should be buzzing with life. But with Guillermo del Toro having bailed at the end of May and Peter Jackson still not confirming whether he’ll direct, the location sits empty. MGM and its partner, Warner Bros./New Line, are trying to sort out the issues. The Three Stooges was one of those dream projects that could come together only if all the stars aligned perfectly. At one point, with the Farrelly brothers directing, MGM had wrangled Benicio del Toro to play Moe, Jim Carrey to play Curly, and Sean Penn to play Larry. A solid script had brought the talent together, but after Penn dropped out for personal reasons and MGM lost its cash, the moment was gone. RoboCop was about to get a reboot in the hands of Darren Aronofsky, but despite a reportedly great script, the project has now stalled. The hotly anticipated remake of ’80s actioner Red Dawn (starring Chris Hemsworth and Adrianne Palicki) is in the can and supposedly on track for a Nov. 24 release. And The Cabin in the Woods, a low-budget horror film from producer Joss Whedon, is finished and slated for Jan. 14, 2011. If we’re likely to see any MGM movies in the coming year or two, these last two could be the ones.

Who else could play James Bond?

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Clive Owen
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Chiwetel Ejiofor
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Christian Bale
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