Sony shakes the dice with ‘Casino Royale’
In the upcoming “Casino Royale,” the British secret service sends in its best card shark -- James Bond -- to clean out a private banker to the world’s terrorists in Texas hold ‘em.
Sony Pictures Entertainment is in a high-stakes poker game of its own with the movie. Having pushed about $250 million of its chips onto the table, the studio will release its first Bond film next Friday in the biggest bet yet in the franchise’s 44-year history.
Sony is on the hook for 75% of the film’s $150-million production cost, a $120-million worldwide marketing campaign and other related expenses. It also had not bankrolled a movie in which it had to acquiesce to producers who enjoy the kind of unprecedented creative control that Bond guardians Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson had. Every major cast member, line of dialogue and ad had to meet their approval.
In “Casino Royale,” Broccoli and Wilson, working with Sony, have exercised their license to kill off the polished, more predictable Bond familiar to fans since 1962’s “Dr. No.”
Instead, the new 007 is an unproven, grittier leading man -- Daniel Craig -- who is not only blond, but in one scene goes so far as to say that he doesn’t even care if his martini is shaken or stirred.
Although the movie boasts the action and double-digit body counts that typify past Bond films, its plot relies more on the agent’s conflicted character and an emotional love story than on his signature gadgets, elaborate stunts and catchy one-liners.
“The whole goal was to go beyond what is just a great James Bond movie,” Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal said. “The goal was to make it a great stand-alone movie with a compelling story, realistic relationships and dialogue.”
To date, Bond films have collectively reaped $3.7 billion in worldwide box-office receipts. No single title has broken the $500-million mark that such big franchise films as Sony’s “Spider-Man” have.
Sony, Broccoli and Wilson agreed Bond was ready for another makeover after 20 films the Broccoli family produced that featured five suave secret agents, including the iconic Sean Connery who to Bond aficionados always had defined the role. The radical departures are aimed at broadening the audience appeal beyond the older males that are the agent’s core fans, hoping to break the bank on previous Bond grosses.
Still, “Casino Royale” has to be a blockbuster for Sony. The studio must split any winnings with MGM, which financed 25% of the movie, and with the producers, who are guaranteed a huge chunk of the profit. Sony also won’t be able to piggyback on the movie by selling older Bond movies on DVD because MGM replaced Sony with rival 20th Century Fox as distributor of its library titles.
One way that Sony can boost Bond’s returns is by finally cracking its corporate parent’s home country of Japan, one of the few nations where the secret agent isn’t a big star.
The electronics giant also is using Bond to promote its cellphones, laptops and high-definition TVs by jamming them into scenes throughout “Casino Royale” in one of the most extensive movie product placements ever. Sony Chairman Howard Stringer told Fortune magazine that Bond “will carry so many Sony products that he won’t be able to stand up.”
Sony inherited the right to co-finance two new Bond movies when it led a $4.9-billion buyout of MGM in 2005 with four private-equity firms and Comcast Corp. Shortly after the deal, Broccoli and Wilson told Pascal that they wanted to make “a different, grittier more realistic Bond movie” in the spirit of the earlier “From Russia With Love.”
The studio chief said she was initially shocked, then thrilled at the chance to reinvent a Bond who wasn’t one-dimensional and cartoonish like he was in so many of the later installments.
“We said, ‘Huh?,’ ” Pascal recalled. “Then we backed their play totally ... you always get the best movie when plot and character are indistinguishable.” Pascal agreed that the movies had become “very formulaic.”
Although 2002’s “Die Another Day” was the highest grossing Bond title with $430.5 million in worldwide ticket sales, Wilson and Broccoli believed Bond had become too cliched. The over-the-top elements such as Bond’s invisible car, the villain’s palatial headquarters made entirely of ice and digitally altered stunts convinced them to start anew.
“We felt the last film was too fantastical so we decided to go back to the basics and update,” Wilson said.
Director Martin Campbell, who made 1995’s “GoldenEye,” said he had no interest in making another Bond movie because “it would just be another variation of the same thing.”
Then Broccoli and Wilson sent him the late author Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” that focuses on the character’s beginnings as a young spy. MGM and the producers won the movie rights in 1999 after a long legal battle, ironically with Sony.
Previously, “Casino Royale” had been made only as a spoof in 1967 by Columbia Pictures, now owned by Sony, much to the disappointment of the late Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, Barbara’s father and Wilson’s stepfather.
“For years my father wanted to make ‘Casino Royale’ -- it’s the Holy Grail,” Broccoli said. “We wanted to make a tougher film, the way it should have been made years ago.”
Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade transposed the 1953 Cold War thriller to a topical post-9/11 setting, making Bond’s mission stopping terrorists and their financier, Le Chiffre.
Campbell brought in Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning writer and director of “Crash,” mostly to juice up the relationship between Bond and his love interest with sexual tension and humor.
The producers also wanted “Casino Royale” to introduce audiences to a younger, edgier Bond, which meant getting rid of Pierce Brosnan, 53, who starred in four movies.
About 200 actors were considered, then narrowed to 10 who met with the filmmakers. Craig, 38, a respected character actor who appeared in Sony’s “Layer Cake” and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” won over the producers and Sony executives in his screen test.
“He was always the one to beat,” Pascal said.
Still, the casting of Craig was controversial. Irate fans set up websites such as danielcraigisnotbond.com. When Craig was introduced as the new Bond to the world press last year, one headline read: “The Name’s Bland, James Bland.”
Sony hoped Bond’s lover, Vesper, would be cast with a female star such as Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron.
But the producers did not want to overshadow Craig, so they chose French actress Eva Green, who made her debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 low-budget drama, “The Dreamers.”
The producers said that although Pascal and her team didn’t always see eye to eye with them, the collaboration was largely positive and productive.
For Wilson and Broccoli, it was a relief from some of their past experiences with a long line of executives as Bond owner MGM continually changed hands.
Indeed, when they first met with Pascal, Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton and Stringer over dinner in London, Broccoli and Wilson spent the first two hours regaling them with horror stories about some of their past Bond collaborations.
“Everybody loves Bond and thinks they know how to do it better,” Wilson said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d have to say these guys at Sony were in the 9’s. We did not have much of a conflict at all and after our discussions, they mostly came to see things our way.”
Broccoli singled out Pascal for praise. “She’s not the typical studio executive,” Broccoli said. “She had very strong views, but she would listen and come back and say, ‘You’re right.’ ”
Sony had little choice.
Broccoli and Wilson enjoy one of the most unique, hands-off studio arrangements in Hollywood and are highly protective of the Bond family legacy.
“They agree on the budget, the major casting and the script and we make the picture,” Wilson said. “It’s our film.”
Although such control might seem off-putting to most studio executives, Sony’s said they welcomed the producers’ years of experience and expertise.
“They are the Bond experts and we had a lot to learn from them,” Pascal said. “It would have been silly to have ego wars with them.”
Jeff Blake, Sony’s worldwide marketing and distribution chief, worked with Broccoli and Wilson on every movie poster, trailer, TV ad and such new Internet promotions that included a Bond Myspace profile and an online poker game.
The producers were insistent that Craig was front and center in ads. Blake thinks it paid off.
“You’d be crazy not to listen to them,” Blake said. “Nobody knows the franchise better than they do.”
Nonetheless, Sony’s relationship with the producers and their Bond franchise may be short-lived. MGM, of which Sony owns 20%, plans to regain control after the next Bond movie, already slotted for Nov. 7, 2009.
“It’s upsetting,” Pascal said. “I feel an investment in this movie and I’d like to have been making these movies forever.”
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Here are the 20 films associated with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s family:
*--* Film (year) Worldwide gross (In millions) Dr. No (1962) $60.0 From Russia With 79.0 Love (1963) Goldfinger (1964) 125.0 Thunderball (1965) 142.0 You Only Live 112.1 Twice (1967) On Her Majesty’s 65.0 Secret Service (1969) Diamonds Are 116.0 Forever (1971) Live and Let Die (1973) 126.4 The Man With 98.0 the Golden Gun (1974) The Spy Who 186.0 Loved Me (1977) Moonraker (1979) 203.0 For Your Eyes 197.8 Only (1981) Octopussy (1983) 184.0 A View to a Kill (1985) 152.3 The Living 191.2 Daylights (1987) Licence to Kill (1989) 156.7 GoldenEye (1995) 353.7 Tomorrow Never 346.5 Dies (1997) The World Is 361.9 Not Enough (1999) Die Another Day (2002) 430.5 (In millions)
Source: Exhibitor Relations