Fate of James Bond hangs in the balance

Barbara Broccoli doesn't want to work with "assholes"

The "James Bond 007: Blood Stone" video game event in London this month had all the class and splash one would expect from the world's most elegant spy.

Guests sipped champagne in the historic former church venue One Marylebone and inspected pieces of Bond memorabilia including Oddjob's hat from "Goldfinger" and Jaws' famous teeth. The event even featured a video game Bond girl in a stunning black evening dress, the Brit songstress Joss Stone who belts out the game's theme song.

However impressive the Activision launch, big questions about the historic franchise loomed. Longtime Bond producer Michael G. Wilson touched on these unspoken questions from the podium.

"I wish we were launching a movie," he quipped, bringing laughter from the audience.

It was a rare public comment and an even rarer moment of mirth in the drawn-out James Bond-MGM saga, which has left the faithful feeling shaken. In April, Wilson and his half sister and fellow Bond producer, Barbara Broccoli, announced that development of the next 007 feature, known as "Bond 23," was suspended "indefinitely."

The baddie who finally managed to knock Bond out of commission? Financial woes at MGM, which owns rights to Bond but is saddled with a crushing $4 billion in debt. Although no one doubts that Bond will be back, questions remain about where the next pic will find its financing and whether the open-ended delay will slow the momentum the franchise had rediscovered on the rugged shoulders of Daniel Craig.

The topic fascinates the legions of Bond fans as well as industry insiders.

"It's a business problem that will be solved, and then Bond will be back," said director Phillip Noyce, whose Bond-esque thriller "Salt" took in $36 million domestically during the weekend. "There's still a lot of hunger out there for the Bond story."

But Bond appears to be left out in the cold as MGM debtholders extended a deadline to get the studio's financial house in order to Sept. 15. Broccoli and Wilson declined comment but are said to be deeply concerned about the effect of an indefinite delay.

"They're completely panicked that if they go five, six years without a Bond movie, it'll be over," a former MGM insider said. "They don't want to kill the golden goose."

According to the source, Broccoli is hoping for a sale to Time Warner. But TW's $1.5 billion bid for the studio in May, though the highest fielded, is well below what MGM expected. And potential companies still in the hunt -- Spyglass Entertainment, Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate -- apparently are not on the scale that would satisfy the Bond producers.

"Bond's the entire yearly production budget for Lionsgate, and you've got Carl Icahn saying they're spending too much money," the former MGM insider said. "These (prospective MGM buyers) freak them out. (But) all they can do is work behind the scenes to get what they want."

Broccoli and Wilson also continue to push for Sony Pictures Entertainment to be involved. That company was behind the production, marketing and distribution of 2008's "Quantum of Solace."

"They want to continue with Sony since Sony spends," the source said.

Naturally, Broccoli and Wilson have long been protective of the family legacy. Broccoli set the tone during her first meeting with Sony's top brass at a London club before they moved forward with "Quantum." At a dinner also attended by Howard Stringer and Michael Lynton, Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal asked Broccoli to describe traits she liked and disliked in studio executives.

"Barbara said, 'We generally like studio executives, but we don't like assholes like John Calley,' " the source said. "Howard Stringer finally cut her off. It was the most awkward moment. ... (But) it was her way of firing a shot across the bow."

Bond himself would have been impressed.

Although a delay might be worrisome, the nearly 50-year-old movie franchise not only has kept its mojo through a steady stream of reinventions but also has rebounded despite similar previous pauses. Bruce Feirstein, a frequent 007 screenwriter who recently completed the complex video story behind "Blood Stone," recalls that there was a six-year wait before switching Bonds from Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan for 1995's "GoldenEye," a film whose screenplay he worked on. The film went on to gross $352 million worldwide.

"The franchise never lost its luster during that period," Feirstein noted.

"GoldenEye" casting director Pam Dixon recalled excitedly telling director Martin Campbell that her young son didn't know who Bond was. To her, that meant a chance to give the franchise a real reboot. "The long break was a plus in that instance," she says.

"Bond 23" was moving forward on the heels of more than $1 billion in worldwide grosses from "Casino Royale" (2006) and "Quantum of Solace." Craig's addition to the team was a stroke of genius that came after Broccoli viewed Matthew Vaughn's "Layer Cake." MGM had asked her to watch the film because Vaughn was under consideration to direct, but Broccoli noticed another talent.

"Barbara said, 'I really like this guy, Daniel Craig,' " the source said. "We were horrified. We liked Eric Bana, Hugh Jackman. To her credit, she thought (Craig) was a great actor, had this magnetism. We wanted to do one more with Pierce (Brosnan). ... (The producers) are generally cautious, but they are capable of doing bold strokes."

Craig was ready to roll into action again with "Bond 23," and Sam Mendes was in discussions to helm the project, which was due out next year.

Craig has been the good soldier during the delay, standing behind his April statement in which he said he was looking "forward to production resuming as quickly as possible."

As 007 sits on the sidelines, Bond hardly is the only game in town. The spy marketplace is filled with competing secret agents crowding multiplexes, and those are in competition with the slew of comic book characters seeking a big slice of Bond's audience.

Tellingly, Dixon and Campbell teamed on the upcoming DC Comics creation "Green Lantern."

"Right now, comic book franchises are so popular," Dixon says. "Who knows where we are going to be when we see the next Bond? These are very uncertain times."

Said Feirstein: "I'm not worried about 007. There's a line at the end of every movie which we used in the video game: It's that James Bond will return. ... It's been true for 50 years. A hiccup like what's going on at MGM is not going to change that."