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THR Cover: How the Bond Franchise Almost Died

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2012 Issue 40: 'Skyfall
THR's Cover: "Skyfall"

After MGM's collapse threatened to derail 007 for good, "Skyfall's" $17 million star Daniel Craig lined up director Sam Mendes and villain Javier Bardem -- over drinks — and delivered the biggest Bond yet.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On April 19, 2010, James Bond effectively died. After almost a year and a half of trying to get a new 007 film made while its parent studio, MGM, was spiraling toward bankruptcy, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson finally pulled the plug.

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That's when the London-based half-siblings issued a statement: "Due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the future of MGM and the failure to close a sale of the studio, we have suspended development of Bond 23 indefinitely. We do not know when development will resume."

Today, the 23rd James Bond film, Skyfall, has opened to record numbers at the European box office and is drawing rave reviews from critics. It earned $287 million in its first 10 days, boding well for the picture's Nov. 9 debut in the U.S. Its success will add significantly not only to the franchise's value (which some estimate as high as $1.2 billion), but also to that of MGM, which co-owns Bond with Broccoli and Wilson and is expected to launch an initial public offering in 2013.

That is great news for MGM and Sony, which jointly financed the roughly $210 million film (less than $200 million after tax breaks) and for Daniel Craig, 44, who earned $17 million for his third outing as Ian Fleming's spy.

All this seemed a distant dream, however, back in 2010.

"We were gutted," says Broccoli, who took over the series from her late father, Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli. "But the physical studio, Pinewood, was on hold, and so were people all around the world, and we had no choice. It was a horrible thing to do, and we'd already been through all this before." She had vivid memories of the years Bond spent in the wilderness, between Timothy Dalton's final 007 venture, 1989's Licence to Kill, and Pierce Brosnan's first, 1995's GoldenEye: "We thought, 'Here we go again.' "

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Skyfall first really kicked into life in 2009, when American Beauty's Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes, ran into Craig at a birthday party for their mutual friend Hugh Jackman in New York City.

"It was in the evening, and Sam turned up late," Craig recalls of the man who previously had directed him in 2002's Road to Perdition. "I hadn't seen him for a long time and he apologized for saying to Entertainment Weekly that I wouldn't be a good Bond! He was also complimentary about Casino Royale. And, very selfishly, I started picking his brains."

As their conversation escalated, Craig discussed how he wanted to restore a sense of humor to Bond, one that he had initially felt uncomfortable with and was mostly absent from 2006's Casino Royale and 2008's Quantum of Solace. The actor confided his desire for the new film to be very much a contemporary thriller. In turn, "Sam's ideas started coming out, and I'd had a few too many drinks and I completely overstepped the line and said, 'Why don't you do it?' And Sam said, 'Why not?' "

The next day, Craig sheepishly called Broccoli and Wilson to mention the conversation, and discovered they were thrilled. The producers had been wrestling with a treatment written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and regular Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, but they were dissatisfied with the storyline and hadn't even approached a director. Martin Campbell, who'd already rebooted Bond twice -- with Casino Royale and GoldenEye -- had made it clear he wanted to move on to other challenges, while Marc Forster's Quantum had been met with widespread critical indifference, even though it earned $586 million around the world.

So, two weeks after the Craig call, Broccoli, 52, and Wilson, 69, flew to New York and had lunch with Mendes at Cookshop restaurant in Chelsea, close to his then-home.

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"I was very honest about Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and where I thought it might be possible to take this movie, in the most general of terms," Mendes recalls. "Michael did say at one point, 'Why would an auteur or somebody who has a career in serious pictures want to do a Bond movie?' I said, 'Bond is a serious movie.' And I stuck to that throughout."

He continues: "I wanted to know, would they consider killing M and bringing back Q and Moneypenny? And did they want -- as I did -- a more flamboyant, old-style villain, the sort that emerged in the Sean Connery movies? And the answer to all those things was yes. And that was in many ways our starting point for working out what the story would be."

From fall 2009 into 2010, Mendes, 47 -- whose last movie was the 2009 low-budget dramedy Away We Go -- refined the script with Purvis and Wade, and also persuaded nine-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) to join the team.

Everything seemed headed toward a late 2010 start -- and then the continuing financial issues that had plagued MGM reached their nadir.

"They couldn't guarantee anything," Broccoli laments. "The company was going into bankruptcy, and they didn't know how it was going to emerge. But we needed to know we would have financing and distribution -- and there was no deal with Sony in place at the time." (Sony had distributed the previous two Bond films.)

Mendes admits he seriously considered pulling out. In London, following his split with wife Kate Winslet, he was developing an adaptation of Ian McEwan's 1960s-based drama On Chesil Beach but had problems casting it. Other offers came his way -- he even had brief talks about helming The Hunger Games -- and yet he resisted.

"I was tempted to go," he acknowledges. "I said to Barbara, 'Can you give me some assurance this is going to happen?' She said, 'To be honest, I can't.' But I had a feeling it would be sorted out, so I took the risk of turning down other work and just waiting." Later, Mendes says he came to regard the forced break as a gift: "While we sat around waiting, we quietly carried on with the script, and as a consequence we ended up with a much better draft."

The director then took the Purvis and Wade draft to longtime friend and screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator). "He and I spent about six weeks together just talking," Mendes says. "He came to me in London, and even joined me when I went to visit my kids in Paris [where Winslet was shooting Carnage]. He wanted answers to every single question: what the shape of the film would be, what we would retain, what we would abandon."

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Logan praises the script he received as a "great machine" and saw his job "not so much about cataloguing changes as bringing a certain sensibility to the material" -- helped by his familiarity with Fleming's novels. "I'm a great fan of the books and coincidentally had listened to all of them," he notes. (He reportedly has since been hired to work on scripts for Bond 24 and Bond 25, which may, for the first time, carry a story across two movies.)

The writer and director discussed favorite films that might color various sequences, including Charles Laughton's haunting 1955 drama The Night of the Hunter. "Sam and I talked a lot about why a Bond movie is a Bond movie and not a Bourne or a John le Carre," Logan says. "It has to do with that intense seriousness and a pain that hurts and also this sense of panache and elegance."

Before the Skyfall machinery could fully be engaged, MGM's financial uncertainty had to be resolved. Broccoli and Wilson shuttled endlessly across the Atlantic.

"We had different meetings with everyone from [MGM CEO] Harry Sloan [before he was pushed out in August 2009] to Stephen Cooper, who was brought in [as MGM vice chairman] by all the equity guys to reorganize the company. We had meetings in Los Angeles, in New York, all over the place. We were meeting a lot of people, because it was a revolving door, and to try and get a handle on the situation was chaotic. It didn't look like it was going to be resolved for some time and we didn't want to be a pawn in all this. The whole situation looked very opaque."

Saddled with debt, MGM desperately sought a buyer but failed to find one willing to meet its $2 billion minimum asking price. Without that, the studio simply didn't have the cash to fund Bond.

Broccoli, Wilson and their Los Angeles-based colleague David Pope arranged a transatlantic telephone call on April 7, 2010, to discuss whether they could realistically go ahead, bearing in mind that Mendes' option had to be exercised by May 31 or they would lose him.

"Between April 7 and April 15, we had discussions with both Sony and Warners [potential MGM buyers] and realized nothing was going to happen with MGM before the summer," says Pope, a co-producer on Skyfall and CEO of Danjaq Llc., which controls many of the rights to Bond. "We were trying to work out, would MGM be stable enough for us to engage [Mendes]? It became clear that things would be up in the air for a while."

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On April 17, Broccoli, Wilson and Pope had one final conversation on the subject in which "we made the decision to postpone the film -- and on April 19 we announced the delay," says Pope.

"You feel devastated," notes Wilson. "A lot of people had come to us and said, 'Should we take this other thing?' And people would hang back and not commit to those things -- and that's a terrible thing to do. At a certain point, we just had to cut the cord."

Broccoli adds: "We had suffered through a six-year hiatus and were looking at the possibility of the same thing again. We had the 747 loaded up and ready to go down the runway, and we were being told MGM was going into bankruptcy. It was a very perilous situation."

When the studio emerged from bankruptcy at the very end of 2010, however, everything changed. Its new owners brought in former Spyglass chiefs Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum as co-chairmen (Birnbaum has since departed) and, more important, they obtained a $500 million revolving credit line through JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank.