Bond ambition: 007 gets face lift

Gritty 'Casino Royale' hopes to cash in with younger auds as producers adjust to new studio

“His teeth are fine, his driving is fine, he doesn’t have heat rash and he’s not afraid of the water.”

That’s producer Barbara Broccoli’s assessment of the new James Bond. If she sounds prickly, you can’t blame her. Tabloid reports that 007 thesp Daniel Craig has been taking a beating on the set of “Casino Royale,” the Martin Campbell-helmed Bond pic due out in November from MGM/Sony, have rained down on the production almost from the first day of shooting.

Dealing with around-the-clock Bond gossip — of which Broccoli says, “We’re aware of it, but it doesn’t mean anything to us” — is just one challenge facing Broccoli and her producing partner Michael G. Wilson. It’s also a challenge for Sony, which inherited Bond from MGM last year in the hopes that the 007 franchise can become a cornerstone of its release slate on par with “Spider-Man.”

James Bond is famously one of the most idiosyncratic properties around. What other franchise has producers who own a controlling stake, or has a 20-film legacy that must be simultaneously preserved and updated?

And Bond is at a critical juncture in its history. Despite all the goodwill toward Pierce Brosnan, who starred in the last four Bond pics, Craig — the first “blond Bond” — was selected for “Casino Royale” to give the film a grittier, 21st century feel. (There is much hearsay as to why Brosnan wasn’t rehired; some say the problem was his $25 million and 5% gross asking price. No one but the producers have ever gotten gross points on Bond pics.)

The $100 million-plus “Casino Royale,” which is the story of Bond’s first mission, is not being touted as a special effects or “gadgets” pic — something that some consider the very essence of Bond.

“There will still be effects, but they won’t be obvious to the audience,” Wilson says. “We have great action sequences, a lot of things blowing up … but not space effects or things disappearing or invisible cars.”

All this is being tackled by Broccoli and Wilson — known as being extremely detail-oriented and hands-on producers — and by Columbia Pictures topper Amy Pascal.

All are working together for the first time. Leaning on Campbell and screenwriter Paul Haggis, the trio is trying to contemporize the franchise and grow its audience in a younger direction.

The move is pre-emptive considering that Bond isn’t exactly suffering. The last few pics have each made between $350 million and $450 million worldwide, not to mention lucrative homevideo returns. But Bond has faced fresh-faced competition from films such as “The Bourne Identity” and “XXX.”

In the videogame world, Bond has become one of the best known and most lucrative franchises in the biz ever since Nintendo’s hit game “GoldenEye” in 1997. Industry giant Electronic Arts took the franchise in 1999 and has been releasing approximately one “Bond” game per year ever since. In 2003, EA signed a seven-year extension of its deal with MGM that’s believed to be worth around $50 million. Not all the titles have been as successful as the first, but Sony and MGM certainly can’t be upset that EA’s efforts have kept Bond alive in the minds of a new generation of gamers and potential moviegoers.

As to the newly forged partnership with Sony, Broccoli says the team has come to “happy agreements” on all Bond matters, and that “all casting and director decisions were made with Amy…. The script and everything.”

Sources familiar with the producers’ arrangement at MGM say so long as Broccoli and Wilson stayed within the budget the studio had approved, they had the right to make all creative decisions, including casting and script, but that they never invoked that clause, instead opting to include the studio in the filmmaking process.

Presumably, the situation is the same at Sony, but neither the studio nor the producers would comment, saying only that the working relationship between the two parties has been collaborative.

The Bond producers’ deal dates back to 1961, when it was forged between Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and United Artists. Back then, UA operated mainly as a marketing and distributing company, providing the producers with an enormous amount of autonomy.

As for the producers’ financial arrangement, people with knowledge of the deal say they do not put up money for P&A, but receive gross points as well as an upfront fee. Most contract deals and legal work are done through Eon Productions (the U.K.-based production shingle that owns the Bond production rights), costs that are put on the film’s budget and then reimbursed.

Wilson characterizes the Sony partnership as “collegial.” “We’re all headed in the same direction. The idea that someone throws down the gauntlet— it never comes to that.”

Yet Broccoli does admit that, “We’re all very strong-minded individuals,” and people close to the film say there have been lively negotiations. Sources say Broccoli was the most passionate about hiring Craig (Sony initially pushed for Clive Owen), although Pascal now waxes adoringly over the blue-eyed “Layer Cake” star and is said to be looking to cast him in another Sony pic.

And while the studio pushed for A-list leading ladies, such as Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, who turned the role down (not surprisingly, considering the no gross points rule), the producers insisted on less- expensive, lesser-known thesps who wouldn’t overshadow Bond. A compromise was reached in Eva Green, a thesp with international cred (she’s French) who starred in the steamy NC-17 Bertolucci pic “The Dreamers.”

International box office is hardly an afterthought when it comes to Bond pics, which tend to do almost twice as well overseas as in the U.S. Even Campbell has foreign cred — he’s a Kiwi.

Somewhat ironically, considering that Bond is perhaps the most macho franchise of all time, Broccoli points out that women are calling a lot of the shots.

“I’m glad to be working with a woman executive,” she says of Pascal. “It’s nice for me.”

Most recently, the Bond producers worked with former MGM chairman Alex Yemenidjian and vice chairman Chris McGurk.

As on all Bond pics, the production schedule for “Casino Royale” is brisk. Shooting began Jan. 30 in Prague and will wrap this summer in order to have the pic in theaters Nov. 17. Things were unusually close to the wire on this pic, and Green was cast two weeks into shooting.

The short schedule puts added pressure on Sony marketers, who were in the Bahamas (where the pic is now shooting) as early as last week gathering material for a “Casino Royale” teaser trailer.

Not that raising awareness is a big dilemma when it comes to Bond. “You have an incredible advantage with the franchise because you know what it is,” Pascal says.

Wilson says the short schedule is cost-efficient. “It saves money,” he says. “There’s less time to fiddle in post-production. If you know what you’re doing, you know what’s right, having a short post is great.”

People who have worked on previous Bond films say production is also beholden to licensing deals, some of which operate according to a time frame due to product launch dates, though the Bond producers downplay this notion. For “Casino Royale” cross-promotional deals were made with Ford (the Bond car is an Aston Martin DBS prototype), Taittinger champagne and Sony Electronics, among others.

As for the ruckus over Craig, Broccoli says she’s used to being scrutinized by the press and sensitive fans.

“There’s always a heightened interest in Bond, and every time we recast the role there’s even more. (When Brosnan took over the role from Timothy Dalton, there was similar outrage.)

“It’s just in keeping with what we’ve been experiencing.”

(Ben Fritz contributed to this report.)