Sony splits Bond market

Calley sez McClory pact gives studio license to deal

It’s spy vs. spy as Sony Pictures Entertainment chief operating officer John Calley announced Monday that SPE’s Columbia Pictures will activate a James Bond motion picture franchise, based on story rights owned by Kevin McClory.

McClory produced the 1965 Bond pic “Thunderball,” based on a story by him, Jack Whittingham and Bond creator Ian Fleming; McClory also produced a 1983 remake of the film, “Never Say Never Again,” for Warner Bros.

Calling Sony’s move “delusional,” Calley’s former boss, MGM chairman Frank Mancuso, has hired high-powered legal gun Pierce O’Donnell to challenge Sony’s right to Bond.

During his tenure as UA prexy, Calley himself resurrected the studio’s 007 franchise (in association with Eon Pictures) two years ago with “Goldeneye.”

“There have been a number of great Bonds over the years,” Calley told Daily Variety, denying that his move represents a personal challenge to his alma mater. “We are satisfied that McClory has the right to make James Bond.”

“Any claim that (McClory) can create a James Bond franchise is delusional,” Mancuso declared in a terse statement. “We hope that Sony has not been duped by Mr. McClory’s deception. Today, more than ever, we will vigorously pursue all means to protect this valued franchise that United Artists and the Broccoli family have nurtured for more than three decades.”

Treacherous timing

Calley’s move could not have come at a more sensitive time for MGM. The company, owned by Australia’s Seven Network and Kirk Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corp., is preparing to launch a $250 million public offering that is timed to coincide with the Dec. 18 release of the 18th Bond pic, “Tomorrow Never Dies.”

As a lure for investors, the studio is highlighting Bond as MGM’s flagship asset; “Goldeneye,” starring Pierce Brosnan, grossed more than $350 million worldwide, the biggest money-maker for the company during Mancuso’s five-year regime. The films are generally released every two years.

Calley said there is no script as yet, no star or director attached, but has set 1999 as the year for Sony’s first Bond pic to be released, with McClory as producer.

McClory, 71, was producer Mike Todd’s assistant and unit director on “Around the World in 80 Days,” as well as for John Huston on several pics.

Gareth Wigan, co-vice chairman of Columbia TriStar, was the studio’s pointman in the deal, contacting McClory a year ago after reading an interview with McClory in Daily Variety (Oct. 15, 1996).

‘Ball’ bearing?

In that interview, McClory said he was planning a Bond picture called “Warhead 2000 AD,” exercising rights to Bond gained from an early collaboration with Fleming and Whittingham that resulted in “Thunderball,” the fourth Bond picture filmed in association with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s Danjaq Prods. (precursor to Eon).

McClory’s rights were exercised once again with “Never Say Never Again,” starring Sean Connery and produced by Jack Schwartzman at WB, where Calley presided as head of production.

“The experience at Warner Bros. was illuminating,” said Calley. “It turned out to be good business.” Indeed, WB’s Bond pic was one of the year’s top grossers.

Shooting for franchises

Calley stated, “The new James Bond films emphasize our commitment to create motion picture franchises that serve as tentpoles for our release schedule and create business opportunities throughout the Sony family.”

McClory would not comment on how much the deal was worth or how many pictures would be made. While “Warhead 2000 AD” is unlikely to be the title of the new picture, he denied that any new picture would be essentially a remake of “Thunderball.”

“The root of it is that the screenplay for ‘Thunderball’ was completed in 1960,” McClory told Daily Variety. “Danjaq and UA were not involved in the Bonds until sometime after that. Jack Whittingham and I were innovators, not interlopers.”

McClory said he is undaunted by the prospect of facing MGM’s legal gun, O’Donnell, in a showdown over the rights to Bond: “He’s a fellow Irishman, so that will be interesting.”