Shaking MGM’s Bond Cocktail

One of the odder legal tussles in recent memory–and I know that’s saying a lot–ended with a whimper yesterday when Sony Pictures abandoned its quest to hijack the James Bond franchise from MGM (which without Bond could hardly be called a movie studio). A couple of years ago, Sony announced that it had bought the rights to make Bond films from Kevin McClory, a rather eccentric Irishman who had produced both Thunderball and the Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again. This coincided roughly with the arrival at Sony of John Calley, who, as an executive at MGM’s UA division, had resurrected Bond’s cachet with the Pierce Brosnan film GoldenEye. Understandably, MGM was miffed, and the studio sued, insisting that it owned exclusive rights to the Bond character.

Any lawsuit involving Bond would be intriguing, but this one had a nice touch of personal venom to keep things lively: MGM insisted that the Sony gambit was a deliberate attack by Calley on his old bosses. The MGM lawsuit actually termed Calley a “disgruntled former executive” who “decided to exploit … valuable confidential information” in order to steal Bond. It also, in language worthy of a bodice-ripper, accused Calley of a “wanton and calculated” scheme to time his announcement of the McClory deal to coincide with MGM’s IPO (in November of 1997). MGM went public to a resounding lack of interest, and since then the lack of interest has turned into outright revulsion on the part of investors. But that probably had less to do with any announcement by Calley than with the fact that MGM doesn’t really have any hope of creating economic value.

As I’ve pointed out here before , the problem for MGM is that it’s a movie studio that doesn’t own a soundstage or a movie lot and hasn’t turned a profit since 1988. Hell, until a few months ago, when it shelled out a couple of hundred million dollars, it didn’t even own the library of its own films. Without Bond, in fact, the studio has no real assets. That helps explain why MGM got a little annoyed at the thought of Sony’s churning out a whole host of competing films.

As for why Sony thought it could get away with what looked like a pretty straightforward case of the theft of intellectual property, well, the studio didn’t have much to lose. Yesterday’s decision ordered Sony to pay MGM $5 million to settle the suit, but what’s $5 million or $10 million for Sony compared with what it might have gained with a victory? And McClory had been able to make Never Say Never Again without the approval of MGM (although that was only because he made it abroad and because he won a court victory on a technicality).

McClory insists that he owns the rights to Bond because he collaborated with Ian Fleming on the screenplay for Thunderball before any of the Bond novels actually got written, although Thunderball ended up being the fourth Bond film. Given that Fleming is the author of all the Bond books, that seems a bit flimsy. But it had to be worth a shot.

In any case, there is something odd about the idea of owning a character, especially when you consider that the James Bond played by Pierce Brosnan is not the same Bond as the one played by Sean Connery. (I mean that literally, in the sense that Brosnan’s Bond was never married, his parents didn’t die when he was ten, and he lives in a post-Cold War world.) In this new cinematic world, where 007 no longer drives an Aston-Martin, and where his dead wife apparently never existed, it’s clear that Bond is not a character in the traditional sense so much as he is a sensibility, a style, and, of course, a name. What would have been really interesting is if Sony had announced that it was making a film starring Sean Connery as a burnt-out old spy who liked his martinis shaken, not stirred, carried a Beretta pistol, and who had changed his name to something like “Stock. James Stock.” I’d go see it.

Photograph of Sean Connery as James Bond on the Table of Contents from the Everett Collection.