EXCLUSIVE: Paramount Making Strong Moves to Snag 'Bond 23'

12:34 PM PST 01/13/2011 by Kim Masters
MGM

Now that MGM has announced a start date for the next James Bond film and set its release for November 2012, the remaining question is which studio will distribute the latest installment of the most venerated, if not most lucrative, of franchises?

At this point, the lead player would appear to be Paramount Pictures, which -- thanks to a close relationship between the studio's top brass and new MGM co-chairmen Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum -- has informally gotten a first crack at the negotiation.

The other contender is Sony Pictures, which successfully released the last two Bond films and is said to be on good terms with the Broccoli family, owner of the Bond rights. Despite that, a knowledgeable source says the Broccolis have approved Paramount as a prospective distributor and that preliminary talks have begun.

Whether Paramount seals the deal -- which is likely to be sorted out in the next couple of weeks -- will depend on what is sure to be a hard-ball negotiation. Given that Barber and Paramount's Rob Moore enjoy tough bargaining, this exchange should be worthy of study at business schools.

Obviously Bond is a jewel in the MGM crown and Birnbaum and Barber will seek to wring more out of this opportunity than just the distribution of one film. Sources speculate that MGM will seek a potentially precedent-shattering distribution fee for Bond and other future films, which could cause Paramount to balk. The most favorable distribution fees run about 8%; that is the rate, for example, that Paramount collects for releasing films from DreamWorks Animation.

One veteran executive believes MGM will seek a fee as low as 6% for Bond and shoot for the existing gold standard for other future films. Paramount will insist on holding the line at 8% for the Bond film and, given all the variables in the negotiation, it will make sure it can at least claim to have succeeded if the parties strike a deal.

MGM also is said to be interested in opportunities to partner on some films that Paramount has in development.

A source with knowledge of Paramount's thinking says the studio's position is that the Bond franchise is very attractive but not "life-changing." Obviously that is the posture that any studio would take heading into a negotiation but in this case it is also true. The last two Bond films starring Daniel Craig as Agent 007 (2006's Casino Royale and 2008's Quantum of Solace) each have grossed about $600 million worldwide, but given the cost and profit participations to the Broccoli family and others, the movies do not throw off profit on the order of a Transformers or Iron Man. On the other hand, Marvel now belongs to Disney so Paramount could use a new, guaranteed tentpole.

Sony, which has been through a tough holiday season with the failure of the expensive James L. Brooks film, How Do You Know, also could use another tentpole--though it's unclear whether the studio would be interested in distributing other MGM product. The Broccoli family is assumed by many observers to be well disposed toward Sony and co-chairman Amy Pascal, who oversaw the successful reboot of the Bond franchise with Craig.

Sources say Sony was open-handed, spending $200 million on the latest film and nearly as much to market it worldwide.

"Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton are great people to deal with," says a former studio insider. "The people on Melrose are a little more challenging."

That's an allusion, of course, to Paramount and its penny-pinching ways. But sources with knowledge of the situation say the Broccoli family has been "very impressed" with Paramount's ability to sell big movies worldwide. (The studio grossed $836 million with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and $622 million with Iron Man 2.) And certainly Paramount has had success in opening a diverse array of films, from Jackass 3D to the current hit True Grit.

Paramount executives Brad Grey and Moore are close to Birnbaum and Barber -- especially since they teamed on the latest iteration of Star Trek. Birnbaum and Barber stepped forward help Paramount finance the film, which was widely regarded as a risky proposition at the time but went on to gross $385 million worldwide.

The next Bond film -- tentatively called Bond 23, to be directed by Sam Mendes and starring Craig -- will likely cost less than $150 million. It is not clear whether MGM will finance all or part of the film, though one source with ties to Paramount believes MGM would like to finance the film and cover marketing costs. Obviously that could be one of many points of negotiation.

It's also worth noting that Paramount and MGM are both part of the joint venture that operates the Epix pay television channel.

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