Charging that Sony Pictures Entertainment’s efforts to mount a rival James Bond film franchise are due to “a disgruntled former executive of United Artists Pictures,” MGM filed a $25 million lawsuit in federal court Monday against Sony and John Calley, the former UA president who is now Sony’s motion picture head.
“This case is about the specious efforts of a global media empire and a disgruntled former executive (Calley) of United Artists Pictures Inc. to lay claim to the most successful and enduring motion picture franchise in history,” MGM’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.
Joining MGM in the suit to stop Sony’s 007 production plans is Danjaq Ltd., the company originally formed by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman in 1962 to produce Bond films. Eon, the successor company to Danjaq, is run by Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and Michael Wilson, and is now partnered with MGM/UA.
The suit charges Sony with attempting to abscond with Bond character and film property rights representing three decades of creative and financial investment by Danjaq and MGM/UA.
“They’ve created a cloud over our 34-year-old James Bond franchise,” said attorney Pierce O’Donnell, of the firm O’Donnell & Shaeffer, which Leo has hired to spearhead its legal battles with Sony.
MGM’s initial goal is to halt Sony’s Bond production efforts, O’Donnell said. Assessment of financial damages comes next. “If in the process we find that we’ve been damaged, we’re going to take them to a jury trial,” he said.
The suit also names Kevin McClory, an early collaborator on a film project with Bond author Ian Fleming, who has maintained rights to Fleming’s novel “Thunderball” and who produced two Bond pics based on the book.
Neither Sony nor Calley commented on the suit. McClory was also unavailable for comment.
O’Donnell told Daily Variety that the $25 million in damages are charged in connection with MGM’s recent initial public stock offering. “They calculated the timing to inflict maximum injury to MGM/UA,” said O’Donnell.
O’Donnell stopped short of saying Sony’s Oct. 13 announcement of its rival Bond project did in fact cause the IPO’s less-than-robust acceptance on Wall Street last week, but did not rule it out.
“We are studying that,” he said. “We may decide it’s more than $25 million.”
The value of promotional tie-ins and other marketing deals connected with the Bond property could be compromised by Sony’s moves, according to MGM’s legal team, which added that marketing partners have already committed more than $100 million to the campaign for the upcoming “Tomorrow Never Dies,” said MGM senior exec VP and general counsel David Johnson.
The MGM suit attacks McClory’s — and Sony’s — claims of ownership of Bond properties stemming from the Fleming novel “Thunderball,” which McClory produced for the screen in 1965, and remade in 1983 under the title “Never Say Never Again.”
“Although Fleming granted McClory his interest in the copyright in certain preliminary script materials, Fleming did not, and could not, grant McClory the right to use the character James Bond and his pseudonym ‘007’ in non-‘Thunderball’ films,” according to MGM’s suit.
MGM also claims that a 28-year U.S. copyright term on Fleming’s work had expired and that a renewal of those rights Oct. 30 brought all of Fleming’s U.S. copyrights — including “Thunderball” — under the MGM/UA-Danjaq banner.
“They are out of the James Bond business,” said O’Donnell of Sony and McClory. “I don’t think they can make a martini that’s shaken, not stirred.”
But MGM is leveling its most personal charges — theft of trade secrets — against Calley, who as former UA production prexy was intimately involved in the reinvigoration of the Bond franchise with the successful 1995 film “Goldeneye.”
“During his tenure at United Artists Pictures, Calley acquired highly valuable proprietary information about the optimal ways to develop and exploit the franchise and bring it into the 21st century,” MGM said in its complaint.
Sony and Columbia induced Calley, the suit alleges, “to misappropriate this highly confidential information, which they are now using to, and intend to continue to use, to compete unfairly with the James Bond motion picture franchise which Danjaq and MGM have carefully developed and nurtured through decades by their own skill and effort.”
Meanwhile, screenwriters are saying that Sony is working to find scribes to pen the first Bond epic under the Sony banner. Agencies are approaching writers on their rosters to fill the open writing assignment.
One writer who has not been approached is Bruce Feirstein, co-scripter of “Goldeneye” and writer of MGM’s upcoming “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
“I like John Calley,” Feirstein said, “But my loyalties are with (MGM chairman) Frank Mancuso, and Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.”