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James Bond franchise stalled

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Problems. Many problems.

The obstacles littered in front of a new James Bond movie may be more devilish than anything one of the film franchises' many villains could have dreamed up. In addition to financing woes and increasingly crowded talent schedules, there's this niggling fact: The script isn't ready.

Last week a fresh speed-bump was laid on the road to the 23rd film in the Bond franchise when "Quantum of Solace" and "Casino Royale" star Daniel Craig formally committed to "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." David Fincher's remake of the Swedish-language best-seller won't begin shooting until later this year, meaning that Craig wouldn't be free until later in 2011 at the earliest. Even then, he'd need to navigate around promoting Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens," which he's currently shooting (and which could also spawn a sequel, on which the actor has an option).

Craig's moves away from Bond, meanwhile, come as MGM sits in a state of financial limbo. The company has accrued nearly $4 billion in debt and has received a sixth debt forbearance on interest payments until Sept. 15 and is unable, in the meantime, to fund new movies. Legal agreements apparently prevent the Bond film from being extricated from the studio by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, the tight-lipped pair who control the franchise through their EON Productions company.

But while MGM's financial woes have been a focus of much of the news coverage — which alternately have had the movie "canceled" and "suspended" — sources say that those difficulties have not been the only hold-up. The secrecy valued by EON scares off most public comment on the film's status, but sources familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity say that discussions among producers and the creative team hampered the process.

Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes worked on the script last spring, the sources said, polishing the contributions of "Frost/Nixon" screenwriter Peter Morgan. Morgan, in turn, had rewritten parts of an earlier screenplay by Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.

EON has typically developed a script to a point of their satisfaction before sending it to the studio that will finance and distribute the given film (a pairing of MGM and Sony Pictures for the past two films). That has yet to happen with the new Bond, which is to be financed and distributed by MGM.

The creative issues around the new Bond are notable because it means that even if MGM's financial wrinkles were ironed out — in the form of a potential Time Warner acquisition of MGM, a corporate link-up with Spyglass or Summit Entertainment or, perhaps, the arrival of a white-knight outside financier for Bond — it would mean the movie would still not be ready to go. And by the time it was, it could run into actor scheduling issues, extending an already long layoff.

Switching Bond actors is not believed to be on the table — though as the delay wears on, it's not lost on some observers that Craig will go deeper into his 40s before a new film is shot. (He turned 42 in March.)

The exact script issues on the new Bond remain shrouded in mystery, but the difficulties aren't entirely surprising given the abundance of top creators and a franchise with ever-more complex mythology. Moreover, the new Bond film has always been framed as the third in the trilogy that began with "Casino Royale." And with the need to wrap up many dangling plot lines — in this case, Bond's quest for resolution after the death of romantic interest Vesper Lynd, among others — the third movie in a trilogy is typically hardest to lock down.

MGM declined to comment. A call to EON's office in London was not returned, and the Santa Monica office of EON holding company Danjaq also yielded no comment.

The stakes are high for numerous players with Bond, which was given a jolt with "Casino" and "Solace," which earned more than $1.1 billion around the globe. And it heartened fans, who found in Craig's Bond a darker, subtler take that moved away from some of the spy-movie cliches and over-the-top special effects associated with earlier versions.

Even with MGM's difficulties looming, it wasn't supposed to turn out like this. When Mendes and Morgan came on to the film early in the year, MGM officials were quietly hoping the movie would be in production in the summer, for a release in 2011.

Now the parties have scattered, including the man who was supposed to lead it out of the wilderness: While his camp has not ruled out a return to Bond, Mendes has begun preparing a new movie, the Ian McEwan adaptation "On Chesil Beach," which could begin shooting this fall.

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