New 007 progress shaken, but stirring interest

James Bond regularly saves the world from catastrophe, but his mission now involves the fate of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Inc.

The suave British secret agent is in the midst of being shaken, if not stirred, as pre-production on the 18th installment of the franchise inches forward without a start date, without firm locations, without completed sets and with the script in rewrite.

Under MGM chairman Frank Mancuso and United Artists president John Calley, MGM/UA reaped $350.7 million in worldwide grosses from 1995’s “Goldeneye,” with Pierce Brosnan starring as the series’ fifth incarnation of Ian Fleming’s sexy spy.

The most profitable Bond pic ever also was the studio’s most rewarding release under Mancuso, netting upward of $120 million after exploiting theatrical, TV and video around the globe.

Resuscitating Bond has been a top priority at MGM the past six years. Getting “Bond 18” off the ground is especially fraught with urgency now, as studio management strives to prove itself under the new ownership of Kirk Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corp. and Australia’s Seven Network.

With less than $350 million in capital on hand, Mancuso has said the studio will be relying heavily on cash flow to sustain operations. But a production drought during the studio’s sale last spring left MGM/UA with little in the way of big releases to provide that revenue.

That’s where the plot calls for 007 to come to the rescue.

After the death of Bond producer Albert (Cubby) Broccoli in June and the recent departure of UA’s Calley to Sony, the urgent question is whether the franchise’s revival was a fluke or a repeatable phenomenon.

Neither United Artists production exec Jeff Kleeman nor Eon Prods., now headed by Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and his stepson Michael Wilson, would comment. Sources close to the project however, insist that “Bond 18” is on track to begin in the first quarter of 1997, as previously announced.

The world’s most successful film franchise was set in motion with “Dr. No,” the 1962 pic that was the first feature adaptation of Fleming’s James Bond novels.

The films that followed were produced with unusual autonomy by former casket salesman and Hollywood agent Broccoli (with onetime vaudeville impresario Harry Saltzman until they parted company in 1974) through Eon Prods. United Artists owned distribution rights.

The early Bond pics cost relatively little (less than $1 million for “Dr. No”). Even after budgets climbed, a tightly knit crew was able to wring efficiencies from working consistently on one picture to the next. At the height of the series’ popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Broccoli’s team warmed the hearts of Bond fans, UA execs and exhibitors alike by setting 007 loose every other year.

“They were one of the most efficient producing teams in history,” Bond historian Steven Jay Rubin said.

Broccoli was a hands-on producer intimately involved with every aspect of the picture, from script stage onward. Studio involvement was kept to a minimum.

Legal snafu arises

But after 1989’s “Licence to Kill” starring Timothy Dalton, an imbroglio broke out between MGM and Danjaq S.A. – Broccoli’s Swiss holding company that controls rights to the series. Legal wrangling over those rights held Bond hostage four years until MGM, then under co-chairman Alan Ladd Jr., put the 17th installment of the series into development.

“Cliffhanger” scribe Michael France was penning “Goldeneye” in May 1993, while two other writers were assigned to work separately on scripts for future sequels. It was routine, said Bond production veterans, for two or three scripts to be in the works in order to crank out a Bond every two years.

“When you get up to 17 in one series,” longtime Danjaq spokesman Charles Juroe said at the time, “you do things differently. You don’t wait until 17 is a success to say, ‘Oh, we’d better do another one.’ This two-year cycle does not give Danjaq the luxury to wait another 10 or 11 months down the line to get started on the next one. They’ve learned to be ahead of the game. When United Artists says they’re ready to do another one, they’re expected to have one ready.”

That principle, along with those scripts previously prepared, appears to have fallen by the wayside. And Bond has encountered several setbacks, such as losing a studio in which to shoot.

Eon was set to lense “Bond 18” at Leavesden, the abandoned Rolls-Royce factory north of London where Eon crews hammered together sound stages for “Goldeneye.” Leavesden was for sale and the production company had an option to buy. But before it could make a move, the 1 million-square-foot-property was sold to Third Millennium, a Malaysian company.

Still, Eon and UA were in talks with Leavesden about “Bond 18,” but were again beaten to the punch, this time by George Lucas, who plunked down a deposit and secured the facility for the next “Star Wars” installment.

Leavesden Development Corp. exec Mark Pinkstone said discussions continued with Eon about using 400,000 square feet still available. When it became clear the Bond shoot would overlap with Leavesden’s plans to redevelop that part of the site as an entertainment complex, Leavesden offered to delay that project if Eon would pay some compensation. Talks broke down at that point.

Making do

Eon now is improvising soundstages at another derelict industrial site not far from Leavesden, dubbed Frogmore Studios. Time also has been secured at the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage, the large space at Pinewood Studios that was booked but never used for “Goldeneye,” due to scheduling problems.

The project recently lost Anthony Hopkins: although no deal had ever been struck, the actor expressed an interest in limning a Bond arch-nemesis when the revival got under way in 1993. His enthusiasm was still strong, sources said, on the basis of the original script handed in this summer by “Goldeneye” co-scribe Bruce Feirstein and greenlit by Calley. But in the past few weeks, Hopkins opted instead for a role in “Zorro.”

That film is lensing in January in Mexico under the direction of Martin Campbell, the “Goldeneye” helmer whose deft execution of the patented Bond formula of action plus humor plus girls was critically well-received. The fact that he has not returned for a second go, however, has had some industryites questioning why Bond’s producers failed to nail him down.

It appears the decision was Campbell’s. “Martin just didn’t want to do two Bond films in a row,” says his agent, Martha Luttrell, at International Creative Management.

Eon and UA agreed to bring Roger Spottiswoode aboard in mid-September. The helmer has a few unsuccessful action pics under his belt, including “Under Fire” and “Air America,” and one successful comedy, “Turner and Hooch.” He was widely praised for directing “And the Band Played On,” the AIDS drama for HBO.

London round table

After a month on the job, the helmer convinced Eon and UA to fly seven Hollywood screenwriters to London for a weekend brainstorming session.

“I would describe it as fun,” said Robert Collector, one of the invited scribes put up at London’s pricey Athenaeum Hotel.

The brainstormers were required to sign waivers, to circumvent Writers Guild of America rules discouraging “table writing” (a group effort common in TV that has resulted in lawsuits over credits when practiced on features). No one was paid, Collector said, and “it was made clear to everyone that no writing was to be done. It was a free weekend in London.”

The weekend paid off for one of the writers. A close friend of Spottiswoode’s, Nicholas Meyer (who penned “The Seven Percent Solution” and directed the second and sixth “Star Trek” pics), was hired to perform rewrite chores. With original scribe Feirstein still slated to do a final polish, Spottiswoode’s brainstorming session did not bring the production any closer to a start date.

Meanwhile, Spottiswoode has been spotted in Vietnam and other exotic locales as he and Eon’s Wilson wing around the world in search of sites for Bond’s exploits. Designers at Frogmore are sketching sets. And Hollywood talent agents report that Bond’s casting directors are making offers to actors with availability in February or March.

Assuming 007 is possessed of his usual luck, “Bond 18” stands a decent chance of keeping the franchise on its year on-year off schedule by making it to the screen for Christmas. But with lean days ahead at the box office, Mancuso and Co. may find themselves wishing that James Bond would arrive sooner than Santa.